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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.