“A resource that is killing the town”: on the resident’s groups campaigning against over-tourism in Venice

Venice in 2013. Image: Getty.

The video circulated widely in Italy. The camera keeps moving as protesters chant “Venezia libera!” – “Free Venice!” A few move towards black metal barriers – Venice’s then newly announced anti-tourism turnstiles – and remove one early in the video. The camera jerks, zooms out, reveals the Calatrava Bridge in the background, and policemen in way-too-warm uniforms holding onto the barriers, trying to protect them.

“We are citizens, we are inhabitants living in Venice,” says a man with a megaphone, wearing a black cap and dark sunglasses. He speaks in English. “We refuse the idea of having checkpoints to get into the city. We own our city. […] Today we show we have the right to have a free city with a free entrance.”

A sign reads, “Venice is not a reservoir. We are not on the verge of extinction.”

It was 29 April 2018. Venice mayor Luigi Brugnaro and his team were experimenting with putting turnstiles near the Calatrava Bridge at Piazzale Roma, and Lista di Spagna, where car, coaches and trains arrive. Their goal was allegedly to govern flows when tourist numbers become uncontrollable.

At first glance, the protests seem puzzling: Venetian residents’ groups have been vocal about the need to curb tourism. So why attack against anti-tourism measures?

But answering the question shines a light on the contradictory tensions that are shaking Venice, in the peak of its annual tourism season. As Marco Scurati, spokesperson for the Sustainable Tourism Committee, put it to Italian TV programme Report, when asked if tourism is a resource for Venice: “Yes. A resource that is killing the town.”

The mass tourism industry has had dramatic consequences for Venice. The trends are global and have hit many touristic cities, but the small size and the delicate geography of Venice make the numbers make for an especially gloomy picture. In 2017, some 9.5m tourists visited Venice, totalling 37m daily stays – dwarfing the historic centre’s population of under 54,000.

It wasn’t always like this. The city used to be different: the historic centre’s population has seen a stunning 70 per cent drop over 70 years after hitting its record-high 175,000 residents in 1951.

Laura Fregolent, associate professor of urban planning at the IUAV University of Venice, points out that Venice’s demographic decline started before mass tourism – with the long-term “physical and social degradation” of the city.

But now mass tourism seems to be exacerbating the trend, fuelled by cheaper transport and the boom in short-term holiday lets through platform like Airbnb.

“Residents are being kicked out,” says Tommaso Cacciari, an activist with Laboratorio Sociale Morion, and the man who held the microphone at the demonstrations described earlier. “If you have an average-sized place, you can rent it out to a resident for €500-€700 a month. You can make the same amount of money in a week with short-term rents to tourists.”

“There are about 7,500 Airbnb listings in Venice,” says Giovanni Claudio di Giorgio, who is part of Generazione 90, a group of young Venetians who worries about the future of their town, quoting data from the Inside Airbnb project. “That’s a higher listing-to-resident ratio than London.”

Venice on Airbnb. Image: Inside Airbnb.

This has had consequences for locals’ livelihoods. “You see the problem in day-to-day life,” says Di Giorgio. “You can see the transformation in individual cases – shops, rents, letting agents. It’s strident.”

For example, touristic services are taking over the shops that previously served residents. A set of studies by the IUAV University of Venice, found that just 450 of Venice’s 3,300 commercial activities provided goods or services for residents alone. (Of the other activities, over 700 were restaurants, 280 souvenir shops.) In one case, the Art Nouveau gem ‘Teatro Italia’ has become a food hall.

And as local shops, theatres and butchers gave way to fast-food restaurants, hotels and souvenir stands, residents have grown worried the historic centre of Venice might soon cease to be a city, and become an amusement park surrounded by hotels instead.

Teatro Italia. Image: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr/creative commons.

The conundrum

Residents have no shortage of ideas about how to fight the trends.

The ‘No Big Ships’ association calls for a ban on large cruise ships in the Venetian Lagoon. Generazione 90 calls for experimenting with only allowing a limited number – about 60,000 people a day – into San Marco Square, regulating AirBnb, and to follow Barcelona in stop issuing new licenses for tourist apartments. Gruppo 25 Aprile produced a manifesto calling for a minimum two-year halt on permits to change residential units into tourist accommodation, as well as strict controls on tourist flows.

Most groups want the council to limit touristic flows and promote active housing policies to boost the local population – following measures introduced by other global touristic hotspots. For example, Berlin and Kyoto cracked down on AirBnb, and Barcelona even imposed a moratorium on building new hotels.

But Venice is a lot smaller than most other cities: tourism has saturated the local economy, making moving away from it all the more difficult.

“Tourism has become a fundamental economic resource for the city, and has not always had just a negative effect,” says Professor Fregolent. “Many benefit from owning a house in Venice. Tourism creates jobs, generates income, and provides capital to improve the city and restore buildings.” The Cinema Teatro Italia, for example, was allowed to become a small supermarket only after the chain committed to restoring the Art Nouveau building.

But also, as Fregolent explains, with souvenir shops, holiday rents and restaurants, “the tourism economy has taken over other economic forms.

This is why the turnstiles became a battleground for residents worried of the upcoming ‘Disneyfication’ of Venice.

Some, like Cacciari, suspect they might not be used to reverse tourism’s replacement of the residents’ other sources of income – but to monetise mass tourism even more. “Mass tourism must be regulated and fought with every necessary measure,” he says. “And turnstiles are no more than a symbolic measure. Cities used to have walls and gates in the Middle Ages – today, only malls and amusement parks do.”

Di Giorgio of Generazione 90, who did not join the protest, is more cautious. He says he is curious to see if they’ll have an effect, and welcomes the council’s will to at least try something. Yet he believes more long-term solutions are needed.

That’s Fregolent’s opinion too. To reverse the trends, she believes Venice should work on long- and medium-term measures to attract population, with a focus on younger generations, and to boost alternative sources of income to tourism.

“Work needs to be done around the city’s economies,” she says. “The question is: what does this city produce?”


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.