Venice will survive climate change. But less famous cities won’t be so lucky

St Mark’s Square has seen dryer days. Image: Getty.

Venice has flooded. But while worry about the worst floods in a decade and warnings about the impacts of climate change and sea level rise dominate most of the media coverage, there’s a more complex story to be told.

In Venice, floods are a feature, not a bug. The city was founded by people fleeing the Huns. They were safe in the lagoon (a word borrowed from Venetian), where horses and armoured men could not advance: the soggy ground would slow the enemy, the tide would wash them out.

Halfway between land and sea, trade is the only way to make a living. And so Venetians became successful merchants and built a magnificent city, with dazzling palaces and splendid churches filled with delightful works of art.

That city would flood every so often, when the tide was high and the wind pushed the waters of the Adriatic up north. But Venetian buildings are designed to withstand this, and city life bustles around the water.

The cost of protection

Venice has changed – it is primarily a tourist attraction now. Many locals have moved out, their houses converted to hotels, restaurants and holiday homes. The floods have changed, too. The rising sea pushes the flood waters ever higher, and this will get worse in the future. Stronger winds would exacerbate the problem.

The impact of climate change and sea level rise is moderated by adaptation. The Sumerians, the earliest known civilisation in Mesopotamia, knew how to build a dyke: 5,000 years have passed since, and we have learned a lot about how to protect our coasts.

Some places are easy to protect. The Piazza del Duomo in Pisa is vulnerable to erosion, but there is plenty of foreshore to build a dyke without spoiling the view of the Leaning Tower. London will need a new barrier eventually, and the only thing standing in its way is the government’s ability to decide and deliver large infrastructure projects.

Other places are much harder to protect. You can build a seawall in Miami but the water would seep right under it. A seawall would be effective in Dubrovnik but would spoil the Old City. A glass wall would be more appropriate, and expensive. Costs are a concern too in Leptis Magna – an ancient Roman city in Libya – as are kidnappings of skilled engineers.

Off the tourist trail

Research shows that cultural heritage is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Of 49 cultural world heritage sites located in low-lying coastal areas of the Mediterranean, 37 are at risk from a 100-year flood and 42 from coastal erosion. Up to the year 2100, flood risk may increase by 50 per cent and erosion risk by 13 per cent across the region, with considerably higher increases at individual world heritage sites.

Although Venice faces a serious threat from flooding, tourism generates so much money that the city can afford to protect itself. As a matter of fact, after the record floods of 1966, the authorities decided to protect Venice. It took a while to agree on the design and the financing. Construction began in 2003 on a set of movable barriers that lie flat on the sea floor for most of the time, but close the inlets of the lagoon during high tides.

This set-up maintains the ecology and hydrology of the lagoon roughly as it is today, which is important as it is the largest tidal marsh in the Mediterranean. The first tests of the barriers have already been conducted. Full scale testing should commence in January 2019, and the project is due to be completed in 2022.

Reports of the death of Venice are premature: €6bn was spent to make sure it will not drown below the rising sea. Why? Because it’s worth it. The media focus on the impacts of sea level rise on places such as Venice feeds the needs of sensationalists. Many people have been there, or would like to go. Around 30m people visited Venice last year. The alarm is raised by the threat of seeing an iconic city destroyed by climate change. Except that in this case, the threat is baseless.


That is not to say that sea level rise is no concern. Cities such as Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire, Accra in Ghana, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Jakarta in Indonesia, Lagos in Nigeria and Mumbai in India will face greater challenges, when it comes to shielding themselves from the rising sea. Poor and disorganised, the authorities have a hard time providing basic public services – they can ill afford a multi-billion dollar project to protect the coast.

The most worrying impacts of climate change will fall on those unable to adapt, and places off the beaten track face far greater obstacles than those on the tourist trail. Al Gore described climate change as a moral problem. Perhaps we should focus less on the cities and sights we know, which are ultimately safer from climate change, and more on the real destruction that climate change will cause.

The Conversation

Richard Tol, Professor of Economics, University of Sussex.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.