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 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”.