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Saving Venice

Venice, a cultural gem, grapples with environmental challenges like land subsidence and rising sea levels. The World Monuments Fund has been actively involved in Venice's preservation for over half a century. Modernization and mass tourism also pose threats. However, the Mose Project, a dynamic seawall, offers a glimmer of hope. Venice's experiences provide valuable lessons for other cities facing similar predicaments. A conversation about the issues facing Venice and efforts to save the historic city, with Lisa Ackerman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, World Monuments Fund and Steven Zucker. A Smarthistory ARCHES video. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] I'm sitting in Lisa Ackerman's office in the World Monuments Fund in New York City, but we're here to talk about the city of Venice. - [Lisa] World Monuments Fund was founded by a man named Colonel James Gray. One year after the organization was founded, the floods of 1966 happened, and because he was living in the Veneto region, he just fell in with a group of people who became concerned about the fate of Venice in the wake of these terrible floods. And Venice has been of concern to WMF for its entire 52-year history. - [Steven] And it has done so much. - [Lisa] It was the first time in the media age we saw a worldwide calamity. - [Steven] And one that had affected a cultural treasure that is universally understood to express the brilliance of the late Gothic, of the Renaissance. - [Lisa] Venice was already a great tourism city in the 19th century, and I think in those post war years of growing international tourism, Venice was one of those beacons. So it really tugged at people's heartstrings, to see the kind of devastation in Venice, and also the very dramatic photos of St. Mark's Square looking practically like a lake. And so, it really set whole new standards for dealing with conservation efforts in the wake of disaster. - [Steven] And these were environmental concerns that have not ebbed, where the threat remains. And so we have a number of different phenomena that are exacerbating the situation. We have a subsidence of land. Venice itself has sunk about 10 inches. And at the same time, we have rising sea levels. We also have the natural phenomena of Venice being sort of an end point for the Adriatic, and so when the prevailing winds are coming in from the southeast, for example, and if those winds are sustained, large amounts of water are pushed into the lagoon. - [Lisa] When the city was built in the Middle Ages, and then built upon even more in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, while they understood building technology, and they knew they were building on islands and marshlands, nonetheless, now that hundreds of years have gone by with these buildings, it has an effect, and that's the sinking. The rising sea level that we're experiencing around the world affects Venice as well. But we've also contributed in ways that are not necessarily avoidable, because places modernize, so you go from oar-driven boats to mechanized boats, and that has an impact. In the beginning, it's a kind of gentle impact, because the mechanization is not very forceful. There's the vaporetto, which are the water buses, which have also been around for decades, and relatively gentle on the system, but they create a wake as well, and that's also been written about over time. How many vaporetto can you have on the water without causing damage to the buildings? And then, the reality of the good and the bad of tourism. Everybody should enjoy Venice if they have that chance. The difference today is typical cruise tourism ships carry anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 people each. So, just the scale of tourism is very different. - [Steven] There's no question that people should go to culturally rich places. Venice is a spectacular destination for very good reason. But there is an undeniable shock when you see the enormous wall of a cruise ship against a Medieval building. - [Lisa] One of the things we should do in Venice, and elsewhere, is encourage people to get off the beaten path. - [Steven] To get past San Marco. - [Lisa] Exactly. Just because a guidebook says these are the three best places to visit in the city doesn't mean there aren't equally spectacular places. - [Steven] But there's also other benefits. If people travel farther afield, they will contribute to the local economy in ways that are off the much more trodden routes. - [Lisa] We have the feeling that cruise tourism is bringing a lot of economic benefits to the host city, and often, that benefit is actually very limited. - [Steven] But Venice is grappling with the issues that it confronts. One of the best examples is a project that's called Mose, which is Italian for Moses, and I think the conceit is that it parts the waters like Moses parted the waters. It's a seawall that can rise up 10 feet, and protect the lagoon from storm waters. And it's just being finished now. It's a massive project, and it looks to be very successful. - [Lisa] Through the '80s and 1990s, as these high-water days grew in frequency, there was a recognition that something needed to be done. And there are probably as many people who criticize the Mose Project as praise it. To make this work effectively, you also have to make sure you're not continuing to increase the water volume in the city. You have to make sure that if canals are dredged, there's a good reason to do it. So, the best planning means you're coordinating efforts with a lot of other agencies in the city and regional governments. - [Steven] And this includes shoring up the natural ecosystems, the mudflats, the salt marshes, the natural environment that helps to insulate the city from storms. And I find it interesting that other cities around the world that are fearing flooding, for instance, right here in Manhattan, where Lower Manhattan is at risk, have looked at the Mose Project as one alternative. - [Lisa] Historic cities on the water face similar issues, and when you look at Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and Hurricane Sandy here in New York, the constant issues in Venice, in Ayutthaya in Thailand, so this is a worldwide problem, and the best defense is actually learning how other people are addressing the problems. I was very entertained by an article a few days ago, that said, the things scientists are looking at now are Roman sea walls in the Mediterranean that are 2,000 years old, and are still intact. So, maybe, because Venice is a very old city, its best chance of survival is digging back into what the Medieval community of Venice did to combat the water. (jazzy piano music)