Port cities and water cultures around the world draw increasingly more attention, discussion and reflection, especially in light of global transitions towards more sustainable futures. The importance of these intertwined topics can no longer be ignored, and elicits thoughtful, provocative and passionate opinions from the PortCityFutures research community as well. Today, we present an opinion piece by Maurice Jansen, who reflects on sustainable futures of port cities after a recent visit to Venice.
‘How will we live together?’ was the theme of the 2021 Venice Biennale. That is exactly what I was wondering when walking with my family through the little streets and over dozens of bridges in Venice last summer. I saw construction workers carrying their bricks and mortar over water; I saw transporters unloading frozen food near Rialto Bridge; I saw paramedics parking their emergency vessels at the Ospedale’s water entrance; I saw a policeman turning his boat from Arsenale onto Canal Grande. But I also saw the #SOSVenezia banners hanging over the small canals in Castello. The local community has been calling and campaigning for a more liveable city (Campaign for a Living Venice, 2021). In the PortCityFutures podcast series ‘Frictions’, Francesca Savoldi elaborated on the tensions arising from mass cruise tourism, which have been overwhelming for many locals over the past years. We passed the Arsenale, the navy base and pre-industrial shipyard where ships used to be assembled and repaired at mass scale, unprecedented and only reinvented by Henry Ford’s automotive assembly lines in the 20th century. I couldn’t stop thinking about this contrast between Venice’s ingenuity of the past and the outcry for help in present times, as if people got stuck in this beautiful lagoon questioning how to create a future for themselves. On top of that is the imminent threat of rising sea levels that is endangering the port city. ‘How will we live together?’ is the right question to ask, but not only for the Venetians. The question goes for all of us.
The odds were against them when the first settlers – refugees on the run from war, blind rage and plundering – built their homes on sandy islands and shallow places in the lagoon. It may be for the same reason that these first Venetians kept their eyes on the sea, not on the land. The Venetians today do not just live with water, they almost seem to have inherited water in their blood and veins: every alley is a waterway, every avenue a canal, the squares are like islands in the lagoon, and the dozens of churches are like ships with their campaniles as masts reaching into the sky. The people of Venice challenged and conquered empires. Venice was the gateway to the Byzantine Roman empire, and had an extensive trading network across the East Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, the city traded with overseas powers and was home to the best ship constructors, attracted the best artists and the most resourceful craftsmen. For long, its mixed governance model — combining autocracy with aristocracy and democracy — provided law and order (Gilbert, 1968), until Napoleon destroyed the naval base in 1797. Today’s challenge is how Venice can sustain in the 21st century and withstand the overwhelming pressure of mass tourism.
On the ferry from Venice to Lido, I had a talk with a Venetian, a retired banker who was going to the beach with his wife and daughter. I asked him what he thought of it all. Was he ever tired of all these tourists and these gargantuan cruise ships? He told me that he has lived and worked in Venice all his life, and then showed me a video on his phone of those dark pandemic times in Spring 2020 when the San Marco square was completely empty. That was something he had never seen before. “Over the years, I have seen the local economy change into a mono-economy that is completely dependent on tourism, that’s the problem”, he said.
Personally, I believe that we are witnessing a phenomenon of a much larger scale. The case of Venice is exemplary for the detachment of local communities from global economic developments. The world economy has become a village for multinationals, but locals feel alienated from their neighbourhoods. There is a growing group of people who are fed up with mass consumption and mass tourism that often goes hand in hand with mass pollution and mass energy waste. We tend to believe that the world we live in is a global village and that is a good thing, but the opposite is true for many. Connections on a human scale are weakening, families are living further apart, we do not know or care where our food is coming from, how the simplest household items are manufactured and what to do in our free time other than following social media. We do not have to be resourceful anymore in making a living, because we can pull all our necessities towards us with one click. Helena Norberg-Hodge, who is a pioneer of the local economy movement, argues that the fabric of today’s (post-)industrial society – the product of globalisation, technology and consumer spending – is leading to ever greater specialisation and centralisation (2016, p.244). Fewer companies are controlling larger parts of the economy, and set up their facilities in those metropolitan centres where specialist talent can be assigned to the job. For Venice, the specialisation is tourism and tourists is what Venice gets. Some will say this is a unique value proposition, but others may call it a lock-in effect. It fills the pockets, but hollows out the soul.
How people want to live together is fundamentally a matter of an ecosystems approach towards the place we live in. For a society, to have a good balance between its economy and ecosystem means to choose deepening local connections over global ones. The coastal ecosystem of Venice provides the port city of Venice with unique natural capital and cultural capital (Jansen, 2020), which is the reason why millions are visiting Venice every year. On the contrary, human resourcefulness has faded and social ties have been broken. How can human ingenuity still work for the happiness of people today? Personally, I believe people are most happy when they make something that was not there yesterday. This could be as simple as growing crops in the garden, making an apple cake, a painting or a piece of furniture. When we create something, we become more curious, are more aware of details and sharpen our handicraft skills. The creativity process establishes new connections in the brain. Vocational skills have been undervalued for too long, but create much better opportunities for people to make a living independent from others. Across the world, local self-sustaining communities are (re-)emerging. Millions of people are starting to recognise the need to move back to their roots, to have a sense of place and re-establish connections within social networks, but also with their surroundings, be it coastal plains and lagoons, the hills or forests nearby.
To answer the question of the 2021 Art and Architecture Biennale: the answer comes from within. It is about bringing back the human scale in human-centric professions within our communities. The pandemic has been a disturbing wake-up call, but may have been the call many communities around the world were waiting for: to reconnect to the self, surroundings and homegrown skill sets. It is the ability to live in harmony with water, and with responsibility for the values that water provides, while using the symbiotic relationship Venetians have with their islands and the lagoon. New ways of living together will have to be built on ancient foundations, rather than on what is being forced upon it from the outside.
Maurice Jansen is a senior researcher at Erasmus UPT.
This blog was peer-reviewed by members of the PortCityFutures community, and edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Carola Hein, Hilde Sennema and Vincent Baptist.
Campaign for a Living Venice (2021). Retrieved from: https://campaignforalivingvenice.org/2021/06/04/venice-is-alive-but-asks-for-help-a-new-book-by-calabi-for-rialto/.
Gilbert, F. (1968). ‘The Venetian Constitution in Florentine Political Thought’. Florentine Studies: Politics and Society in Renaissance Florence. Rubinstein, N., ed. Faber and Faber, London. 463-500. Retrieved from: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/students/modules/hi3g9/topics/government/republicanism/dcs-38843.pdf.
Jansen, M. (2020). ‘Port Innovation Ecosystem, a Symbiosis of Capital’. IAME 2020 Sustainable Development of Shipping and Trade, Conference Proceedings. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1765/129617.
Norberg-Hodge, H. (2016). Ancient Futures, 3rd edition (Local Futures).