The unsustainable Venice

Unsustainable Venice

Weaves of power close to the Grand Canal, imbued with overflowing, nauseating sustainability, relaunched globally these days by Expo Dubai 2020. Starting from merely technical sectors such as energy, construction, urban planning, mobility, tourism, passing through competitive sports, to arrive at the red carpets of culture and entertainment. Imperialism of the mayor-entrepreneur and his private affairs, such as to raise now even a parliamentary question.


Wrapping oneself up in useless attempts to connect previous and current administrations would be ridiculous, given the dense undergrowth of judicial proceedings and bureaucratic fetters that sees our political landscape increasingly engaged in financial and criminal balancing acts rather than in efficient government practices.

The same mayor in office, running for parliament, holds, in fact, in various capacities, private patrimonial interests in articulated company holdings, concealing more or less obvious conflicts of interest. A small empire started in 1997 with a temporary work agency, which made the headlines for anti-money laundering trafficking, masterfully transformed into a holding company that groups together 23 companies, properties in Argentina, etc.

Now, in addition to granting thirty-meter boats to himself, he aspires to the leadership of Forza Italia, weakened by the health problems of Berlusconi. To quote an emblematic phrase of the former mayor of the city, philosopher, Prof. Massimo Cacciari: we are at the market of cows. 

The new plan for sustainable mobility foresees the excavation of a new lagoon canal close to the Vittorio Emanuele III canal that connects Marghera to Venice, resuming the project of Brugnaro's company that provided for a dock in the same area. The survey report on the problems of Venice in 2017 edited by Prof. Eng. Luigi D'Alpaos describes how relevant the effects of the excavation of large navigable canals were on the hydrodynamics of the lagoon. Digging a channel or increasing its depth means building roads or tidal highways.

A public-private mix attested by the proliferation of building permits and conspicuous construction interventions on dry land in derogation of the urban planning instruments in force. These ramifications extended to the transportation sector, which was privatized during the pandemic, except for the recent verification by the Captains of the Navigation Association that the Port Authority of Venice who did not have the regular documentation required to operate scheduled services.

Historical view of the city of Venice, Cartography of 1600

Status of Fact

The governmental decree of July 13 moves from a situation blocked in 2012, the Clini - Passera decree, established a ban on transit for Bacino and Canale di San Marco plus Canale della Giudecca, now declared a national monument, for ships over 40,000 tons.

The current ban concerns ships over 25,000 tons, but its effects have been postponed until after the identification of alternative routes and landings. In these nine years, the supporters of the permanence of large ships, companies and businesses in the sector, the Brugnaro city council and the Zaia regional council, thanks also to the indolence/convergence of the various governments, have pursued projects such as the excavation of the Contorta Canal or the Vittorio Emanuele Canal, to maintain the homeport at the historic Marittima, even though it cannot be reached via San Marco - Giudecca.

Thanks to the growing mobilization, including No Great Ships Committee, environmentalists, international press, and UNESCO world black list of sites at risk not only for ships, the government has accelerated, but without firmness. A durability ban, subordinated to the temporary berths in Marghera reachable from the mouth of the port of Malamocco and usable until the realization of an off-shore port in the Adriatic for cruise ships and merchant ships. Fast temporary docks costing over 150 million euros, timing 3 years. Compared to slower times of 10-15 years for hypothetical off-shore.

Any future alignment of the current national, Venetian and Veneto political framework would favor the transformation of the provisional solution into a definitive one, bringing tourist, merchant and industrial traffic into the mix, stabilizing the passenger station in the midst of dangerous installations and extending the tourist monoculture that disrupts Venice and the industrial and logistic area that until now represented its major constraint.

The economic and political lobbies in favor of the Great Ships make no mystery of wanting to stay in Marghera placed in the lagoon. For many years and perhaps forever, the big ships would remain there, with the devastating hydrogeological impact they cause and which could worsen in the future. Even with the provisional solution of the decree, art. 2, paragraph 1.b and c, it still provides not only "maintenance of existing channels" but also "accessory interventions to improve nautical accessibility" potentially harbingers of heavy tampering and excavations. It would be better to permanently relocate light and reversible temporary moorings at the Lido inlet, without impacting the already proven lagoon ecosystem, as per various projects already presented.

Breaking of the balances

The characteristic ecosystem of the Venetian lagoon with unique features in the world, is composed of a channeled environment with a tidal exchange, where the combined action of sea and rivers has created in six thousand years morphological forms at different levels (islands, sandbanks, mudflats, bottoms, canals, ports), each with a precise function in the overall system.

This equilibrium has been rendered unstable and at risk of erosion/silting by the prevalent action of water. In fact, an analysis of the maps of the early twentieth century shows that in little more than a century the sandbanks of Venice have reduced their surface by 70%. The territorial uniqueness of the lagoon and the marsh has given way to portions of the sea. This has caused the detour of rivers, soil erosion, but above all summer tourism. The navigable canals in fact create a wave motion that goes to demolish the boundaries of the Venetian salt marshes, irreversibly compromising stability and future.

In the last sixty years, the preservation of the lagoon has been conditioned by strong economic pressures that have gradually extended the industrial and port boundaries up to the current connurbations. New productive settlements have progressively involved excavation works and related communication routes, generating increasing levels of pollution, cementification and degradation. Phenomena largely bypassed by progressive policies without environmental dictionaries suddenly paled in the face of climate urgency and its most serious danger: the eustatic rise of the seas due to global warming.

The opportunity of European funding should have allowed medium and long-term defense strategies capable of restoring a more harmonious development between morphological features, resources and scenarios. In the light of what has been described, the endolagunare design solution adopted appears unsustainable, also with reference to MOSE costs.

Each lifting of the sluice gates involves an economic loss to the port of 100 thousand euros, which considering its operation at full capacity for tides of +110, will be very frequent. Last December environmentalist associations had sent to the Government an alternative intervention program focused on restoration, rebalancing and safeguard of the city from medium-high tidal phenomena in the long term. Aimed at providing specific criteria for future planning and avoiding irreparable errors such as the temporary transfer of cruise docks to Marghera, a geolocation within the lagoon that would effectively invalidate its morphological and hydraulic recovery.

Comparison of bathymetric cartography, historical and current

Hydraulic, morphological, and ecosystemic rebalancing

Scientific studies by CNR and international universities, superimposed on the multiple and fragmentary legal literature, show that the main cause of morphological instability in the lagoon is the Canale dei Petroli, due to the variation it induces in the regime of currents and the sustained naval traffic, having been traced in an unnatural way with respect to the direction of the other lagoon canals, at a depth not compatible with the original one.

The Morphological Plan of the Magistrato alle Acque, approved in 1995 and in force, provided for the study of the reactivation of the Fisolo canal, a natural channel entering the lagoon from the mouth of Malamocco, replaced in the mid 1960s by the Canale dei Petroli. The reactivation of the Fisolo represents the premise for the progressive reformation of the network of canals in the vast lagoon.

These theses were confirmed by the 2004 Safeguard Commission, with a renewed request to reduce the officiosity of the Canale dei Petroli and a consequent reduction to -12/13 m in the depth of the first stretch between the Malamocco inlet and the San Leonardo oil port responsible for the devastation of the lagoon. This is an extremely up-to-date plan which, without subordinating the re-balancing of the Lagoon to the needs of the port, when appropriately revised and updated, will be able to provide for external landings at sea for larger commercial vessels.

Mitigation of erosion phenomena

The transit of large ships in confined channels, of limited width compared to the size of these, such as the Canale dei Petroli, produces waves that break in the shallow waters, demolishing them and moving sediments then sucked or deposited again in the bed of the same and adjacent. The wave motion erodes the characteristic morphological elements, creating disruption to buildings and banks, compromising the safety of the town. Establishing homogeneous speed limits of habitual transit in the entire lagoon, lowering them from 20 to 10 km/h would be of little use without the obligation for all boats to have GPS instrumentation to allow control and localization. If we then look at the artificial salt marshes created in the absence of environmental continuity, we need at least a census of the interventions.

Mobility conversion

Transport&Environment of June 2019 ranked Venice as the third most polluted port city in Europe; concentration of particulate matter five times higher than WHO guidelines, annual cost of pollution in 2020, mostly related to transport, amounting to €552,381,931, €2,106 per capita.

Marco Polo airport, according to the 2015 UNESCO Mission report has exceeded carrying capacity but continues to expand.

Cruises contribute significantly to the poisoning of water and air: the Grandi Navi decree passed to history as revolutionary resumes the Venice Blue Flag 2018 between the City, Port Authority and cruise lines that already introduced the limit of 0.1% sulfur in fuels during navigation. This limit, however, is 100 times higher than that provided for fuels on land, neglecting fine particulate matter.

The health risk for citizens and cultural heritage: chalking of bas-reliefs. There is an urgent need for concrete alignment between legislation and decarbonisation measures, to impose the use of anti-particulate filters on all motorboats (cruise ships, commercial, public and private transport), providing adequate incentives for conversion with relative limitation of engine power.

Compatibility between port activities and the lagoon ecosystem

The proposal to temporarily move the cruise ship berths to Marghera - with entry into the Lagoon from the port of Malamocco - means increasing traffic through the Canale dei Petroli and therefore erosion. Ships must instead leave the lagoon (including the inlets that are part of it). It is necessary to reconvert the Tronchetto maritime terminal, assigning it to cruise traffic with a lower impact and more compatibility.

Authorizing the entry of cruise ships of lesser tonnage and higher quality into the Lido inlet would allow the reduction of the depth of the seabed beyond the MOSE line and its serious reliability reserves, down to -7/8 m, with experimental self-sinking systems (caisson hulls), protecting the monumental core of the city. The insula of San Marco, located at a lower level than the context, is currently submerged to less than 80 cm. The existing project of defense from high water provides for the functional restoration of the historic underground, restoring the ancient masonry sewer system. Keeping the square and basilica dry could be achieved by simply raising the insula boundaries to +115 cm and then blocking the rise of water with hydraulic non-return valves at the four perimeter points, then mechanically expelling both rainwater and tidal water. In this way, criteria of gradualness, experimentality, and reversibility are respected, verifying and modifying the functionality if necessary. Finally, with geological experimentation of verification and feasibility, lifting the entire city, repressurizing the deep geological strata.

Marghera industrial peninsula area

Intermodal plan, transitory or definitive

The operating procedures of the international design competition on the realization and management of temporary berths for cruises and containers outside protected waters will not be concluded before July 2023. Translation: This means 2.2 million euros for temporary solutions outside the lagoon in order to delocalize naval gigantism. That is to rethink Porto Marghera in terms of:

1) Maintenance of the more strictly port activities, linked to the canals, protecting the environment and the lagoon landscape;

2) Infrastructural enhancement to serve sectors and logistics, insisting on rail transport.

Hub land water San Giulano area

Feasibility studies of the new intermodal land-sea terminal of San Giuliano to decongest the current main access gate, constituted by Piazzale Roma, have been financed for an amount of 25 million euros.

Design alternatives to Ponte della Libertà, today the only road access, involving a former contaminated area was purchased by the mayor for allegedly 5 million euros before it was made buildable and disproportionately increased its financial value. Suspected collusion between the municipality and the region in the conduction of a costly project to use the Canale Nord as a temporary cruise port, included in the Great Ships decree, for the exclusive benefit of the area.

Years later and with work underway, we see the first official request to verify the legitimacy of these transactions, now aware that the choices on the future of the territory do not include environmental protection and collective defense. A paradoxical passage, indicator of the risk threshold reached by the time reversal between observations, decision making, and design phases, then civic conscience are concluded, so that civic conscience matures when the destruction is complete.

A few years ago, Sir Elton John also noticed this, as he owned a house on the island of Giudecca and wrote a reply via social networks about the local politicization: Beautiful Venice is undoubtedly sinking, but not as quickly as the boorish bigot Brugnaro. While the latter in turn publicly challenged him to donate monetary resources with the trivial imperative: fora i schei.

Current and future scenarios

Programming other interventions

National recovery and resilience plan prepared by the Italian government to illustrate to the European Commission investments for 173 million euros of the Next Generation program:

  • The railway bridge over the west industrial canal will allow access to Marghera Scalo station avoiding the passage through Mestre railway station. Financed for 8 million euros, included in the Veneto Intermodal program, co-financed by the EU for the integration of the logistic nodes of Venice, Padua and Verona;
  • The mixed rail-road intermodal link between the disused Bivi railway line, upstream of the Mestre entrance and the chemical peninsula, Porto Marghera South Area;
  • Verona Interporto, with the establishment of a shuttle train;
  • Padova Interporto, with customs clearance and storage of goods coming from Germany through road or rail connections according to requests;
  • A logistics platform between the three provinces and the future Porto Marghera area;

The first infrastructure, suspended cable-stayed with pivoting central span, entrusted to the Spanish design studio Carlos Fernandez Casado, envisages a curved route with two dual carriageways plus a single-track non-electrified railway line. The estimated amount for the realization of the work: about 6 million Euros to lighten the South West port quadrant, where 40% of the total traffic is generated. A mobile bridge that will allow to reduce shunting times and improve capacity and safety of rail traffic.


Feasibility of intervention

Contrasting dualisms between navigability of canals and access routes in unique and fragile contexts on the one hand and port activity on Mediterranean traffic and long-range routes on feeder ships on the other.

The inlet of port Malamocco, the area of location of MOSE, intended for merchant shipping to Marghera, is the deepest and measures -14 meters for vessels up to 280 meters long, maximum width of 39 meters and draught up to 12 meters. The Malamocco-Marghera canal, the nerve centre of Porto Marghera, leads to the various terminals where ships with a draught of less than 12 metres can moor, depending on the area. These are open challenges between cargo and passenger accessibility, wherein the commercial practice a few significant centimeters in the variation of transported cargo dictate the law.

An increase in draught as a decisive condition for satisfying the growing market demand is therefore closely linked to the distance between the keel and the seabed. A distance itself that, even if allowing for innovative dredging techniques without moving sediments, remains fundamental to preserve such precariousness.

Another important aspect to be considered is the synchronism of navigation with the MOSE. A very high environmental impact for an incriminated and obsolete project, costing 6 billion euros. Given that the malfunctioning of this affects the activities of the Port, in particular container ships and ferries, for which punctuality is essential, it would be necessary to implement margins of optimization with respect to the closure procedures, which translated means further revision and expansion of the same Malamocco navigation lock.

Cruise economic induced

Analysis dated 2018 conducted by the international association that brings together the cruise lines, placed Venice as the second Italian cruise port of call after Civitavecchia, with 1.42 million cruise passengers and 466 ship calls.

Previous estimates of the economic impact of cruising carried out by the Venice Port Authority revealed the impact of spending on local goods and services estimated at 283.6 million euros per year, of which 72.9% was attributable to the tourist spending of cruise passengers, 16.4% to spending by shipping companies and 10.6% by ship crews. Employment impact is estimated at 7,473 equivalent work units at the national level of which approximately 4,255 equivalent work units are in the Venice area.

For a total of 6 billion euros and 21.000 places of work. Impossible data, qualitatively denied by the existing small and medium local enterprises, substantially subdivided in cooperatives for logistic services of earth, constituted normally from some tens of associates, little units of fixed employees, and hundreds of seasonal workers. A similar discourse for the direct fallout, since the very organization of cruising, foresees the annexation of special crew cargo in order to travel in total autonomy. In practice, usually, the most conspicuous proceeds for port destinations come from agreements with tour operators, while the companies' income margins are based on the types of expenditure made on board.

Naval assets and yachting

Among the international cruise lines that dock in Venice, MSC Crociere, sees its founder-owner Gianluigi Aponte positioned with 10.8 billion euros, 208th richest man in the world. Immediately after we find Costa Crociere, owned by the Carnival Corporation group and headed by the Israeli-born American billionaire Micky Arison with assets of 6.5 billion dollars. Royal Caribbean Cruises, which moved as to Ravenna as a homeport, had a fortune estimated by Forbes at 1.5 billion dollars. Venice Yacht Pier, the company that manages the lagoon yacht moorings, has long denounced excessive innovation trends and gigantism that can compromise mooring requests. Bacino di San Marco hosts lengths of about one hundred meters, for corresponding values of about one million euros per meter. The 16-18 piers present record about 200 dockings a year, concentrated between May and September in conjunction with major events such as Biennale, Redentore, Film Festival, and fashion shows. Among them, docked last month in Riva Sette Martiri, Bravo Eugenia, 250 million dollars boat, three decks, 109 meters long. More than the bell tower of San Marco. Owner Jerry Jones, patron of the Dallas Cowboys professional football team.

Venice, the historic capital of the sea, does not seem to have enough appeal as a homeport for yachts that would otherwise have a fixed base in the lagoon, bringing incisive economic benefits in terms of work for shipyards and services. With some exceptions, Serenissima is no more attractive than the Tyrrhenian Sea or French Riviera. Increasing the number of resident yachts means attracting crews, or having their families live in equipped and functional cities, which Venice is not today.

Citizens' perceptions

The Fiom union of steelworkers would like to preserve the destination of industrial activity: tourism and industry are and must remain two distinct and separate activities. Brugnaro as mayor has demonstrated a political vision totally imbued with economic speculation, from which the ecological representatives take due to distance.

What has been realized and planned clashes with the propaganda image of a mayor who proclaimed himself as the only true environmentalist: let's remember the cancellation of the North Lagoon Park a few months after his first mandate. So the administration, with the new Urban Sustainable Mobility Plan, PUMS, wants to create other transport hubs in the lagoon, completing the destruction of the Park of St. Giuliano and devastating one of the last uncontaminated corners.

The official motivation to give a fast connection service between North Lagoon Islands and Mainland to free the access bridge to the city, which forgets an existing project already approved that connected them to Tessera. A tourist bus terminal will further implement heavy traffic and new devastation of existing canals, in violation of the Do Not Significant Harm, DNSH, dictated by EU Regulation 2020/852 that promotes investment without causing significant damage to mother nature. Legitimate retro thoughts suggest that in reality it only serves to disproportionately expand the tourist offer, starting new private interests on currently virgin land.

With the need to contain the number of visitors but contingent on this, would it be possible to issue building permits to enlarge one of the garages in Piazzale Roma? Mayor Brugnaro wants to bring to an end all the outstanding mandates of the first term, leaving in oblivion the electoral promises of 2015, including 30,000 new residents. In the meantime, in recent months, citizens have organized themselves into various committees against private encroachments and blind visions of development that are not shared, claiming collective rights and quality of life, as well as the regulation of tourist clogging.


It is, therefore, necessary and proper to rethink the lagoon ports as a complex territorial system, in order to guarantee their protection and development not only on paper.

Integrated multi-level planning focused on the functional, hydraulic, morphological, and ecological restoration of the lagoon, aimed at guaranteeing truly sustainable development prospects. At the same time, capable of embracing confluences and exchanges, districts and sectors, conservation and innovation, in synergy with all parties involved to trigger proactive, virtuous, and lasting actions and behaviors. Mercantile vocation par excellence, mutually linked to international exchanges, obligatorily reconverted and downsized.

The balance sheet is sadly connected to that of the driving sector of tourism, which we will refer to in a separate discussion in the next issue, where the impact of the health crisis has reduced over 3 billion in turnover, an indicator of the desired paradigm shift from mono-cultural to holistic. Shifting landings and transits a few kilometers away, as well as reducing their speed, will not solve the existing complexities. Contrary to what one might think about navigation safety, the moderate pace of naval giants, instead of being beneficial, will affect their governability. In fact, the stretch of the Petroli lagoon has a high incidence of collision.

That's why, more than ever, it remains a priority to fight for a biocompatible cruise industry, imposing international legislative levels, design standards and energy performance that improve environmental impacts already considered acceptable. Environmental sustainability, digitalization and social responsibility should be the performing pillars of an administration, which, if public, cannot but guarantee the achievement of the objectives without the revisited liberalist triad: equity, inclusion and transparency, required by the change we are going through and profess.

Therefore, to paraphrase Giancarlo Bettin of Il Manifesto: the mobilization continues, in Venice and wherever its destiny is truly at heart.


  • Inchiesta sui progetti segreti, Giovanna Faggionato, Editoriale Domani, Set. 2021;
  • Interrogazione parlamentare, gruppo PD, Senatrice Orietta Vanin, Set. 2021;
  • Forbes business press, Lug. 2021;
  • I tre futuri di Venezia, Laura Facchinelli, Apr 2021;
  • Progetto Laguna di Venezia – Recovery Plan - WWF, LIPU, Terranostra, Dic. 2020;
  • Health costs of air pollution in European cities and the linkage with transport, European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), 2020;
  • Air quality in Europe, 2019 report, European Envirinment Agency, EEA;
  • Scenari possibili per il riequilibrio della Laguna centrale, L. Bonometto, 2017;
  • Studio di fattibilita e linee operative per la pianificazione e progettazione degli interventi morfologici nelle aree attraversate dal Canale dei Petroli, in La Laguna di Venezia e le nuove opere alle bocche, Commissione di studio sui problemi di Venezia, 2017;
  • Variazioni geomorfologiche nell’area centrale della Laguna di Venezia. Elaborazione di cartografia storica e foto aeree, Barbara Favaretto, Federica Rizzetto, Emanuela Molinaroli, 2015;
  • L'evoluzione morfologica della Laguna di Venezia attraverso la lettura di alcune mappe storiche e delle sue carte idrografiche, Luigi d'Alpaos, 2010;



Patrizia Iorio

Patrizia Iorio

Born in Benevento and lives in Turin (Italy), is a registered architect, high school teacher, and passionate cyclist. After working in research institutions and public administrations, now deals with risk management in the context of professional activity, production processes, environment, workplace, and buildings.

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