Can smart mobility planning prevent the "Disneyfication" of Venice?

Venice, the Birmingham of the south. Image: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty.

Venice is struggling with both a shrinking population and a massive flood of tourists and cruisers. The Italian island has an unrivalled place in the memory of Europe. Today, its visitors number around 20m people a year, almost 100,000 each day; most of them are day-trippers. That number is roughly double than the 58,000 inhabitants the city hosts today.

The unique geography of the historic island, spanned with innumerable bridges and canals, reduces the city’s capacity to absorb and slow the visitor flows. Arrival and departure are concentrated in two gateways located within approximately, two minutes walk of each other: the train station of Venezia Santa Lucia, and the bus station Piazzale Roma. This situation creates high level of congestion: people and goods arrive mainly by boat or train, but 70 per cent of movement in the inner city is on foot.

Visitors are completely disorientated in a labyrinth of narrow streets, countless bridges and blind alleys, and disturb the residents’ daily life. The existing system of signage is confusing, and this “information disorder" contributes to the image of an inaccessible city”. Tourists don’t even realize they have even arrived in Venice when they reach Piazzale Roma, and ask themselves if it is a Venetian piazza or a parking lot.

Leaving the square, they tend to follow the crowd heading across the Constitution Bridge, which offers an open line of sight to the city, without really knowing whether or not their destination is actually across it. Since 2008, the Calatrava Bridge has completely reshaped the distribution of flows into the inner city, creating congestion along some well-defined streets and alleys, whilst others remain isolated and suffer economically.

The city’s original function is effectively under threat. Demographic statistics show a constant hemorrhaging of the city’s population: since the 1950s, it has fallen by more than two thirds. Venetians are abandoning the insular city for Mestre, situated on the mainland, to avoid ever increasing pressure from tourist numbers, soaring property prices and a significant reduction in essential everyday services. Venice, so spectacular by day, turns into a ghost town by night. Streets and piazzas stand empty, since inhabitants are very rare and increasingly tend to be old.


A “de-tourism” strategy is often presented by authorities, and endorsed by residents, as an obvious rescue plan. But would the transformation of Venice into an open-air museum with controlled access really be a healthy strategy for the city? Analysis of the Census data shows that most of people’s income comes from touristic services.

If plans to limit the number of tourists were to be taken forward, it would need to be done as part of a comprehensive strategy that involved replacing some of the lost income from tourism with other economic activities. It would also require some way of restoring housing affordability and essential services to the island. If not, this approach could end up reducing economic opportunity yet further, and thus reinforcing the pattern of migration to the mainland.

The worst case scenario, feared by all residents is the complete “Disneyfication” of Venice. How will future tourists be able to truly appreciate the city without its inhabitants? Notwithstanding the protection received from UNESCO, Venetian identity and cultural heritage must be further preserved too.

Could reshaping mobility and re-designing wayfinding be the key to relieving congestion, reactivating abandoned areas and rediscovering the rich cultural offering of Venice?

The Venice municipality is working on providing a system of terminals capable of managing the pedestrian flows. The municipality has also identified the need to diversify access to the island, by developing new entry points at Tessera and San Basilio.

But these solutions will remain ineffective in a context of fragmented institutional responsibilities, unclear city governance and pressure from the tourist economy.

The city needs a “smart solution” that reflects a real understanding of the city’s needs and a dialogue between city actors. A group of professionals and students from Urbego and IUAV University, in partnership with sensor systems provider Blip, decided to tackle the issue by assessing the “walkability” experience of pedestrians.

Venice from above. Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty.

The group’s aim was to integrate the concept of smart cities with those of human scale design and progressive governance initiatives. It made use of technology to refine the information related to pedestrian flows on the ground.

The researchers tracked people movements in terms of frequency and directions in the central station, and in the Piazzale Roma area, through a network of Wifi and Bluetooth sensors. In order to assess the real experience of users, pedestrian behaviors, they observed pedestrians’ reactions, and recorded their suggestions.

The data provided a basis for the creation of a new decongestion strategy, and for ways of improving users’ orientation as they explore the city. Experiments were conducted to test the initial prototypes, and the results were used to reshape the final proposals.

Despite its ambitions, the Venice Smart City vision poses the difficult question of how to link the global agenda of smart cities into a very specific urban context through a people-centred collaborative process. The experience shows the difficulty of acting in a fragmented political territory, and underlines the need for social innovation and in situ solution testing.

In order to embrace the complexity of the city development, local government, citizens, institutions and tourists must come together to achieve a resilient future of planning based on human capital, experimental methodologies and user-orientated design.

Farah Makki is an architect and PhD candidate at EHESS, Paris. She is the co-founder of Urbego.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.