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FRICTIONS episode #3: Ravenna and the Po delta - built on water, in search of water, flooded with water

This episode of FRICTIONS explores a case of “maritime disentanglement” and its consequences on sea rising perception in the coastal area between the port city of Ravenna and the Po river delta.  

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In this episode of Frictions we explore a case where social alienation from the sea is affecting a place that once felt inseparable from it. In the littoral zone between the Italian city of Ravenna and the Po Delta, there are now urgent reasons why the relationship between sea and land needs to be recovered.

Rosa Grasso: “The coastal area between Ravenna and the Po delta is a territory that was built on water, but today is struggling with floods. Overlapping infrastructures such as ports, canals and dunes of different ages represent centuries of terrestrial coexistence with the sea, which was interrupted by artificial land reclamation. Nowadays these territories are in search of their forgotten identity, trying to reclaim their relationship with the water.”

Rosa Grasso is an architect and researcher at the University of Bologna. She works on  terraqueous vernaculars and abandoned spaces in the coastal environment of the northern Adriatic.

Rosa Grasso: “On one hand we have Ravenna, with its large, disused commercial port in the urban area which has increasingly extended away from its canals and towards the littoral coast. On the other hand, the provincial territory Basso Ferrarese, and its system of small ports, is fighting against abandonment. This is a landscape that seems to have lost its water-land relationship, and which now is not fully facing the threat of sea level rise. Here, rising sea levels are now perceived as a silent enemy by some local, leaving the future of these coastal lands uncertain.”

The port has a strong impact in determining the image of the city, and perhaps also on people’s sense of place and relationships with their own maritime identity. Roberto Rubboli (former president of the Port Authority) sees the port of Ravenna as a particular landmark.

Roberto Rubboli: “Ravenna has been a growing chemical industrial cluster, with a commercial port created by a state initiative with the company Spir, where Serafino Ferruzzi created a cereals hub – it was the first in the world. He was buying plantations in Argentina and Brazil and he was a ship owner. As he was from Ravenna, he made the city a global cereal deposit. Ravenna is still nowadays one of the main ports for cereal transport and storage.”

Ravenna is a channel port, differently from nearby Venice and Trieste. This means that on the one hand you have structural disadvantages, as you lose between half an hour and one hour to enter the port. But on the other hand, having a 12 km long channel means theoretically you can expand it on the left and on the right. In reality it isn’t like this, as we are running out of free space. In all historical port cities, cities have embraced the port. There was a moment when Genoa was thinking to have a hinterland near Milan. Ravenna doesn’t have this problem. However, this is an Adriatic channel port, with a sandy basement, so is limited to expansion.”

The port of Ravenna has characterised the city throughout its history, its growth and decline delineating the urban and coastal landscape. During the 1950s, due to the new demands of maritime transport and increasing ship sizes, the port  gradually left the city. The urban side of the harbour canal – the threshold between the city and the sea – is now a collection of abandoned dockyards. This has created a detachment between city and sea, evoking a dead industrial past rather than the city’s active maritime life.

Gerardo Lamattina: “In my perception, the particularity of Ravenna is that the sea is in some way very present but also very far away. I feel like I don’t live in a seaside city.

Gerardo Lamattina is a film director based in Ravenna.

Gerardo Lamattina: “If somebody says: “how nice, you live in a seaside city, but I don’t experience it as a maritime city, in the sense that for me the sea is Porto Corsini, Punta Marina, which are not part of the city. So I feel this distance from the sea, a void that is filled by an industrial landscape. So it is as if I am crossing two ideas – the city on one hand, with its beautiful byzantine characteristics and the ancient downtown, and the seaside on the other. The sea in Ravenna is perceived differently because the presence of the port. So my perception is that Ravenna is like two different cities. I love Genoa because the city is completely identified with the port, also for historical reasons. In Ravenna we don’t have that, the port is a separated entity from the city. I think this is a popular perception. I am trying to promote this landscape in my movies, as I find it fascinating, a place full of contrasts, not easy to imagine. I have been working on another movie there. Do you know that in Piallassa there are amazing sunsets? It looks like Africa, with flamingos, etc. And in the background you have all those big factories. Of course for an ecologist it would be blasphemy. I have been recording at the port at sunset, it is beautiful – a place that hasn’t been explored enough filmically.”

In Basso Ferrarese, in the north east of the province, rushes separate bodies of both saline and natural water from the farmed fields. An area suspended between land and water ­– amid the city and the coast, between the river and the sea, canals and lagoons. A swampy geography of small towns, whose declining populations face widespread abandonment and an increasing risk of floods.

Andrea Zamboni: “We have land that was reclaimed from water over the last century, so reclaimed from the swamp and turned into productive agricultural land, with many problems but with a true richness: the great river that borders all the territory, including my municipality, which we now want to revalue and to develop”

Andrea Zamboni is mayor of Riva del Po, a town of 7000 people on the Po’s delta.

Andrea Zamboni: “People always experienced a culture of water in this territory. Our canal infrastructure is a gem. We have managed to reclaim land from water and we try to protect it as much as we can from the potential oddities of water. The previous local government strategy for land and water intended to create bridges between the territories. We want to build a waterway as a development tool with an environmental and touristic character. This can become a tool of exchange and communication with the Adriatic Sea. We also have a network of tiny fishing ports, Goro, Lido degli Estensi and Porto Garibaldi; they can be also be a resource if organized according to a structure. I believe that if we offer several alternatives – not just a highway – the local agricultural context could be further developed.”

The pride taken in these villages lies in their reconstructed morphology, expressed through the domination of what some see as adverse forces of nature. Nowadays, these villages are located only a few centimeters above sea level, but according to Rosa Grasso the risks are being met with inertia.

Rosa Grasso: “An immediate response to the sea level rise is needed but it is difficult for national and local government to take action. Despite the adoption of sea-land slogans, local development strategies ignore the problem. Scientific sea level forecasting has configured the towns on the delta as a future archipelago of historic centers immersed in the water. Meanwhile Ravenna, which is gradually sinking, has to find resilient strategies for its infrastructures. So the risk is serious, and I believe that in this context the role of risk perception is very important. Interviewing different people for my research, I understood that there isn’t any knowledge or awareness about this, even among people that live next to the sea. This is quite surprising. I believe that working on people’s perceptions will help because they can push governments to act, also because there is a problem in temporal terms: a government lasts 5 years, against damage that will be perceived in decades or permanently, so people must be the first to be aware, and this is part of the solution”.

Without risk perception, it is obviously difficult to adopt any measures for managing the adaptation to new climate contexts. We spoke to Gian Maria Sannino, head of the Climate Modeling Lab and Impacts at ENEA.

Gian Maria Sannino: “We need to understand first of all what will be the problem in the future, so we need to know the projections of the sea level and this is where Enea and my group is working on. Just to know what will be the risk. We need to try to understand if we have to retreat from the coast, I mean this is a solution, if we cannot protect the coast, maybe we can move the dangerous infrastructure and building from where they are now towards the land, and this is one solution. Or, The other solution is that we have to do our best to protect the coast, that means just every year putting sand against the work of the sea and this is a very costly solution, or maybe explore what we call now nature-based solution.

The other problem is just a perception, it is really difficult to the people sea level, that global sea level is rising and it is experiencing an acceleration, and when they say and now the acceleration is now 3.5, 3.7 mm per year, people say “OK this is not a problem actually. These millimetres are just an average for our planet. If we see the sea level rise of the Mediterranean sea in the last 100 years, we see that we have already gained 20cm this means that exactly the same storms that hits Venice today, the same storms 100 years ago, had 20 cm less for the high tide in Venice this means a completely different picture, in terms of flooding. The sea level rise is not increasing linearly, but exponentially, so we will see the bad effects clearly at the end of the century.”

Sense of place can shape the experience of risk, and this has the potential to influence adaptation. The last 150 years or so have been an era of intense anthropisation of the delicate coastal environment on this side of the Adriatic. The previously complex and balanced relationships between people and the sea have been forgotten. How can we unravel a condition in which the popular sense of place is stuck in the anthropic vocation of hyper territoriality? How can we repair, maritime disentanglement and go towards a more terraqueous sensibility?

This episode was produced in collaboration with Rosa Grasso. The interviews were conducted between February and March 2021.