Guidebook The fragile lagoon

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The fragile lagoon

“Until the 20th century, human intervention engineered the lagoon’s survival against environmental forces,” writes Lonely Planet. But the post-industrial era has seen Venice struggle to find and implement solutions to combat the environmental damage caused by deep channels dredged to facilitate the passage of modern seacraft. Add to that, the city’s eternal appeal to travellers; the lagoon’s delicate balance of salty and fresh water, barene (mudbanks) and grassy marshes that supports a unique aquaculture is further threatened by Venice’s eternal appeal to visitors. “Venice and its lagoon landscape is the result of a dynamic process which illustrates the interaction between people and the ecosystem of their natural environment over time,” observes UNESCO. The balance between fresh and sea water creates a highly productive ecosystem, supporting some 200,000 birds and an array of unique lagoon species. In 2016, Europa Nostra voted the Venetian Lagoon Europe’s Most Endangered Heritage Site.    

Little surprise that Venice, with its 54,500 residents, is heaving under the weight of 30 million visitors a year, of whom many are day-trippers. “Under-populated and over-touristed, Venice is facing threats from all sides,” writes Lisa Gerard-Sharp in The Guardian. Megaships are seen by many as the biggest challenge, an indication of “the vested interests that paralyse Venetian decision-making.”    

Venice is a World Heritage Site. In 1987, Venice and its 50,000km2 lagoon were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, based on these criteria:  

“Venice is a unique artistic achievement … composing an unforgettable landscape whose imponderable beauty inspired Canaletto, Guardi, Turner and many other painters.”  

“The influence of Venice on the development of architecture and monumental arts is considerable.”  

“With the unusualness of an archaeological site which still breathes life, Venice bears testimony unto itself.”  

“Venice presents a complete typology of medieval architecture, whose exemplary value goes hand-in-hand with the outstanding character of an urban setting which had to adapt to th special requirements of the site.”  

“The lagoon of Venice represents an outstanding example of a semi-lacustral habitat which has become vulnerable as a result of irreversible natural and climate changes.”  

“Venice symbolizes the people’s struggle against the elements as they managed to master a hostile nature. The city is also directly and tangibly associated with the history of humankind.”  

You can read the full citation on the UNESCO website.    

Then there’s another huge environmental challenge for Veniceacqua alta, the high tides the city faces over the November to April winter months, when whole areas of the city are flooded with water as river run off and high tides drive the level of the lagoon above the canal banks. High tides are monitored by the Venice’s Centro Maree and when one is expected within 2- to 4-hours an alarm is sounded throughout the city. To combat the increasingly high levels and frequency of acqua alta, Venice has invested in a huge flood barrier known as the MoSE Project (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccnico – Experimental Electromechanical Module). This involves a system of 78 flood barriers at the openings to the sea, which can be raised when water levels rise and the wind drives the sea into the lagoon.    

To understand more about the lagoon and its ecosystem consider joining Venice Kayak on their lagoon tour or setting out on a boat trip with Terra e Acqua, Eolo or LagunaLonga. The city council also recommends some good off-the-beaten track itineraries around the lagoon through their Detourism initiative.

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