Is mass tourism destroying the beauty of Venice?

Tourists on the Rialto Bridge, 2011. Image: Getty.

“Sustainable tourism” is a phrase usually linked to the idea of offsetting the carbon footprint – and the resulting guilt – of your long-haul flight by paying to have a few trees planted, or perhaps volunteering at an orphanage before enjoying your once-in-a-lifetime safari.

We associate it more readily with places we’ve been encouraged to view as ‘at risk’ – in danger of losing their character. We worry about rising sea levels, and deforestation, and exploitation. We don’t tend to think about cities, especially European cities, in the same way.

But one place where the dramatic impact of over-tourism has been well documented is, ironically, known also as ‘La Serenissima’. Yes, Venice, the famously extremely overcrowded romance capital of Europe is also known by a nickname which literally translates to ‘the most serene’.

While many of the city’s remaining locals sensibly lock their doors and flee to the coast for the duration, school holidays and package deals tourism to both the Venetian lagoon and the city itself ramps up throughout July and August. The city is estimated to receive 20m visitors a year; its permanent population is just 55,000. But like any other destination promising something unique, this influx in search of an authentic experience has become a threat to the very existence of what draws the crowds in the first place.


The Floating City’s tourism problem is arguably inevitable. The magic of the city, built of more than 118 islands intricately linked by overlapping bridges and floating in an Adriatic lagoon, has been documented in art, film and literature for generations. Its reputation for romance has seen it become one of the world’s top honeymoon destinations, while the mammoth cruise liners that visit the area have sparked protests, barriers, and a furious battle to preserve the rich fabric of the city.

What’s more, it’s not hard to get to. Any number of airlines will fly you there, with budget travel apps offering return trips from UK airports for £23. And once you arrive? Well, the more than 11m Instagram posts on the #Venice hashtag speak for themselves, from shimmering reflections on the waterways to photogenic aperitifs in waterfront bars. While listening to the waves lapping against the edges of the city’s canals, or watching the sunset from a medieval bridge, it’s easy to forget the churn of the crowds just a few streets away. Like any other place billing itself as one-of-a-kind, Venice retains its appeal by making you feel as though you’re the only one to have experienced it.

But the challenges Venice faces are more than the product of a place simply being too popular for its own good. The reality of visiting can feel more akin to the moment your budget airline flight begins boarding. It’s noisy, crowded, chaotic, confusing. The snatches of Italian you hear are only one language among many. It’s the experience of visiting any major European city during the summer months, but there’s something more fragile about Venice, as though it could more easily be overwhelmed by the stream of passport stamps and passers-by.

Posters featuring warnings in multiple European languages advise visitors of €500 fines for walking around the city bare-chested or in swimwear, or for “plunging or paddling” in canals. The municipal government has launched a social media campaign #EnjoyRespectVenice, which encourages visitors to support local craftspeople and businesses with the Made in Venice stamp. And signs of local frustration simmer under the surface, with scribbled graffiti on a bin close to the Fondamente Nuove area, in the north of the city, imploring: “Tourists, go home.”

Venetian officials are taking action to preserve the city. By 2021, cruise ships more than 55,000 tonnes in weight will no longer be able to make their way up the canals and dock in the city. And during the May bank holiday weekend this year, mayor Luigi Brugnaro oversaw the trial of crowd control measures. Metal turnstiles were installed at the Calatrava Bridge at Piazzale Roma, and Lista di Spagna, outside the railway station, to separate residents and visitors on major entry-ways into the city. The initiative met with a mixed reaction, with local over-tourism campaigners criticising the ‘Disneyfication’ of the city. Tommaso Cacciari, from the No Big Ships group, told the Guardian: “These metal barriers show that our home is already a museum and entertainment park.”

It’s clear that the impact of an unending chain of visitors could impede Venice’s future as a functioning city. The reality of the damage done to a city by the incessant footfall and AirBnB bookings of over-tourism is visible, ultimately, in the very place from which some of that hype comes: online. Our desire to participate in these trends, to see somewhere for ourselves, and to document it on social media, is perpetuating them.

What’s not clear, is whether a solution exists that isn’t simply fewer of us visiting. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to enjoy those waterfront Instagrams of Venice from afar.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.