Venice, the Italian city and cultural mecca, is experiencing its highest tide in 50 years, with city streets experiencing severe flooding. The mayor says it is the direct result of climate change and environmental planners say it highlights the need for policymakers worldwide to make tough calls about cultural preservation in the face of rising seas.
Linda Shi is an urban environmental planner and assistant professor in architecture, art and planning at Cornell University. She researches how cities adapt to climate change and the planning and governance challenges that come with environmental change. Shi says that Venice might benefit from preservation funding, but few other cultural heritage sites will be as fortunate.
“Public debates over climate adaptation and resilience generally overlook issues around whether and how to preserve cultural heritage – understood as historical sites and the human-ecological relationships that imbue those sites with meaning. Places like Venice highlight the trauma and loss that climate change inflicts on cultural heritage.
“We might one day conceive of retreating from a downtown business district – but would we let Venice go? And if not – how much are we willing to pay to preserve it? And like the conversations around preserving big cities versus smaller cities or rural areas from flooding, we might be willing to pay to preserve places like Venice, but few other cultural heritage sites and systems will benefit from such attention and funding.”
Claudia Lazzaro is a professor of art history and visual studies at Cornell, and researches Italian Renaissance art. She says preserving Venice will require sustained international financing.
“Venice’s flooding is as well-known as its charm and uniqueness. The statistics are overwhelming: 25 to 30 million tourists a year, a grand plan for moveable off-shore barriers met with cost overruns, corruption, and scientific controversy, and still inadequate to protecting the city. Flooding occurs at increasing severity and frequency, now over 60 times a year and at this moment covering 75 percent of the city and approaching the level of the historic flood of 1966.
“Especially vulnerable is the low-lying Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), the site of structures dating from 800 to the end of the eighteenth century, encompassing the history of the Venetian Republic. The damage is cumulative: the mosaic floors of San Marco have not recovered from last fall’s flooding. Salt water seeps into the brick substructure damaging even the mosaics in the church’s vault. The flooding puts at risk paintings and sculpture, books and archives, the foundations of the incomparable palaces along the Grand Canal, and even the site of the Venice Biennale, the bi-annual international art exhibition.
“Whatever the major cause of the flooding — climate change or the sinking city, problems of sewage drainage, rising sea levels, or immense cruise ships, saving Venice requires sustained international action and financing.”