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Creating a more sustainable economy for Venice and the world

Above: the sustainable tourism and culture panel at the Procuratie Vecchie Venice / Home of the Human Safety Net with - from left - Neil MacOmish of Scott Brownrigg, Maria Claudia Pignata of VeniSIA, Heather Fearfield of FUTURE CITIES FORUM and Hélène Molinari, founder of SUMus

How can Venice create a sustainable economic accelerator that provides solutions to the problems of over-tourism and climate change?

The BBC has today reported that the Comune di Venezia or City Council is expected to approve the trial of a five euro daily fee for visitors in an attempt to control tourism and choose 'off-peak' days. The city hosted 13 million tourists in 2019 according to the Italian National Statistics Institute.

Future Cities Forum was told at its event last week in the Procuratie Vecchie, San Marco, Venice, by one attendee that more and more residents are leaving the city with the current tourism problem, saying they cannot access fundamental facilities or health providers. The government states that there are 50,000 residents in Venice, but this particular delegate says some believe the true number to be around 30,000, on the basis on numbers of residents' medical insurance cards. The BBC's report says that citizen associations Ocio and Venissa claim that tourist beds number 49,693.

Students also battle to find accommodation. As Future Cities Forum stated in its last report with IUAV/Venice Sustainability Foundation, there are plans being discussed to build on disused land at the old port to provide much needed housing both for residents and for students in a proposed expansion of their academic offerings.

Although Venice is a small city, with a dwindling population, it has many outlying islands where scientists are studying the effects of climate change on flora and fauna. It is for this reason and the opportunity to attract small start-ups to the city, that there is the belief that Venice is the ideal place to understand how to resolve the economic, social and environmental challenges of the future.

Future Cities Forum's third panel discussion at the Procuratie Vecchie, San Marco, Venice, included contributions from Maria Claudia Pignata, Managing Director, VeniSIA, Helene Molinari, Founder, SUMus and Neil MacOmish, Group Board Director, Scott Brownrigg.

VeniSIA is a sustainability innovation accelerator, based in Venice and devoted to the development of business ideas and technology solutions able to face climate change and other environmental challenges. VeniSIA attracts institutions, companies and individuals who share the belief that it is the perfect background to provide ideas and solutions for those sustainable development challenges that are applicable to Venice fragile and unique environmental ecosystem, and yet scalable, to the benefit of the whole planet. VeniSIA’s ultimate purpose is not to make an accelerator in Venice but to make an accelerator out of Venice.

Maria Claudia Pignata stated:

'There is a current international debate about whether to let Venice sink. But at VeniSIA, we are challenging that notion and trying to work out how to bring Venice back to life in the next years. It is a very small place but with a big port and after the Covid pandemic when there was a great loss of money, we had a vision for Venice, that it could be made into the city of the future.

'We all know that Venice should not sink but survive and we want to encourage international voices from all over the world as a breath of fresh air to contribute to the city's future. The city is small with only an area of five kilometres but we have managed to raise funds from multi-national companies to carry out our work. We have start-ups working on problems associated with industry at the port of Marghera and other start-ups interested in social projects. Every company in VeniSIA brings innovation for growth. Some people have said it is wrong to make a profit, but we think it is good to do business here and make a project.

'It is important to think of Venice as a space, not only physical but a place for ideas. It is a really unique place but we share similar problems on sustainability with communities all over the world. We need to consider the way we live in places, in buildings and area, and try to be a new community, live in new ways.

'We need to remain broad in our work - of course we are working with our local bank in Venice on the issue of over-tourism, but that is just one area. We need to blend the work of our start-ups and find the way to co-operate. There are many things to be done.'

Above: over-flying the Venetian lagoon

Future Cities Forum was also delighted to welcome Hélène Molinari, founder of SUMus, to our discussions in Venice. SUMus is a humanist association and community of volunteers who share the vision of a more sustainable and caring society. It is based in Venice and is engaged in innovative projects to allow people to live in harmony with the planet.

.Hélène Molinari is an engineer by training and at AXA Group, she participated in the creation of the asset management subsidiary AXA Asset Managers. She became Head of Marketing and E-Business and then joined the Management Committee as Director of Brand and Communication worldwide. She joined Laurence Parisot at MEDEF as Deputy Managing Director, and member of the Executive Council. In 2012, she became a founding member of the Woman of Influence Award and in 2013, joined several boards of directors and was also a founding member of Asia Now, an Asian contemporary art fair. She is involved in many associations: "Nos Quartiers ont des talents", "Entreprendre pour Apprendre ", "Tout le monde chante contre le cancer". In May 2020, she founded SUMus and became its president.

'Water, lagoon and marine fauna and flora will be at the heart of bio-inspiration and constitute one of the main pillars of life on which the renewal project will be based', states SUMus, 'Its architectural beauty, its cultural treasures, its craft traditions of excellence, its atypical universities, the products of its lagoon, its car-free lifestyle, as well as all the immediate challenges it faces (rising sea levels linked to climate change, depopulation, mass tourism, economic diversification, etc.) make Venice both a universal place and a highly symbolic city. It is also an incredible sounding board for spreading the guiding principles of a more awakened humanity.'

Helene talked during the discussion about the importance of taking a different approach to the sustainability of the city:

'Humanity is facing incredible challenges with the destruction of buildings and climate change particularly seen in Venice and with not so many people wanting to live in the city. I started to live in Venice some ten years ago and realise that I have a role to find a solution to the city's problems. The current way of living in the city is not the best but we can work towards a better future city. We have an historical centre but also a hundred islands, where we can work to be more connected to nature and the lagoon. We must be open to the beauty of all of this for the future. We already have windows on the future and our open to ideas through the Biennale. If we want to build a city of innovation we will need to let people know how they can contribute. We need to jump on this level of consciousness, live in harmony with nature and change our way of living and thinking.

'Our organisation is an international think tank where we can receive the most innovative thinkers. Nature is not a supermarket where we can take and destroy everything. We are trying to create a family of change-makers, a co-curation, a jump in consciousness. If we want to attract new students to Venice we have to ask why they are going to come and propose to build a sustainable future with them. We need to have consciousness in the middle of everything that we do. We want to encourage new energies, new people. One day we will no longer have mass-tourism because if people travel they will come for something, not just the selfie, but come to contribute or be inspired by this new way of living, this new paradigm.

Above: Rotorua, New Zealand - home to the Iwi - Maori people (Scott Brownrigg)

So how can architects draw up masterplans to help tourist destinations change the way they operate? Neil MacOmish, Board Director at Scott Brownrigg, describes his approach:

'If you can supply an inclusive and engaging narrative of how to create sustainable tourism you can dispel little pockets of tension in communities. The eco-wellness travel industry by 2028 will be worth 347 billion dollars to the world economy and I think that is important to take notice of. Travel of course, especially planes, is a pollutant, but you have to look at both ends and this is where we can make a benefit.

'We need to think about the circular economy, about the potential of new urban farms for instance in Venice. We need to add to a sense of community and those activities that can take things forward. It is about the idea of making. In New Zealand there is a college where Maoris can learn to carve in stone, bone and wood but they are also digital craftsmen and can now make a mountain bike out of timber that is very light. I think that we need to encourage these making or creative programmes in destinations.

Scott Brownrigg's client, the Ngati Whakaue are the Iwi (Maori People) that have occupied the land around Lake Rotorua for the last 750 years. During that time, their craftsmanship and making has been honed and developed and informs an essential part of their culture. Typically, these processes oscillate from the practical to the decorative, from art to science.

The clients' brief was clear but simple to Scott Brownrigg having won the commission to undertake this cultural and tourism led masterplan. There were to be three pillars that all aspects and each component would be judged against – Our People, Our Stories, Our Place.

Scott Brownrigg's research consisted of a substantial amount of historic material describing the heritage of the Iwi, its own background research, work undertaken by Professor Terry Stevens, as well as a lengthy site visit and engagement sessions with all parties who had a vested interest including neighbours. Two key aspects of this research were discussions with staff and students at Te Puia, the Maori cultural and geothermal centre in Rotorua and the discovery that one of our clients’ principal businesses was the production of engineered timber.

All of this mapped a rich narrative for our the firm in the concept design and organisation of the proposed masterplan. For instance, in the use of engineered timber sheets, a 1200mm panel size was an optimum dimension that could be fabricated and would result in little waste material on or off site. All buildings and dimensional criteria would use this ‘rule’ to establish an aspect of the masterplan’s spatial characteristics in a wholly sustainable way. Even buildings that require long spans or on difficult parts of topography are conceived in timber – glulam or composite frames as well as the skin and external walls. The Karearea (The Hawk’s Nest) hotel is a typical example of how this is manifested. A slender timber frame that moderates the severe slope is occupied by modular bedroom units that are simply slotted into place.

Neil continued in our discussion on the importance of collective memory:

'The famous architect Aldo Rossi created a floating theatre for Venice with the idea of taking culture to the people. But I also think we need to be aware of the layers of collective memory, one that is shared and inclusive. If we travel to another country we bring our memories and understanding back, it triggers a collective narrative and it shapes future city spaces. We need empathy for indigenous peoples through travel. We are not going to stop air travel and our trips abroad make us more tolerant if we share experiences.

Below: Aldo Rossi's Teatro del Mondo in the 1980s - in Venice (from Scott Brownrigg)


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