A protest in the Castello area of Venice against mass tourism, which has led to a lack of permanent residents in the city © NurPhoto via Getty Images. Photo: Giacomo Cosua

For most visitors to Venice, it’s the glittering palaces and canals that capture attention. But if you live there, it’s the shuttered windows. After nine years’ residency, I never got used to walking through my district, Castello, often described as the most “Venetian”, beneath row after row of blind, bottle-green boards. 

Those empty dwellings are an SOS that Venice is dying. From around 175,000 in 1951, today little more than 50,000 people live in the centro storico. Those numbers will plummet further now Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on an economy dependent on tourism for its survival. 

No one is under any illusion to the cause of the exodus. Driven by the market for tourist lodging, particularly Airbnb, and second homes for transient visitors, house prices in Venice stood at €4,341 per square metre in 2019. Though lower than they once were and likely to fall further due to the pandemic, they are still beyond all but the wealthy in a city where employment opportunities are scarce.  

Venice’s empty streets . . .  © Getty Images. Photo: Marco Di Lauro
. . . and empty dwellings © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Given the absence of property for its own people, it’s ironic that Venice plays host to the most important architectural biennial in the world. Now in its 17th edition, this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture, entitled “How will we live together?” welcomes architects from 63 countries to the national pavilions, while a further 112 practices are showcased in the international exhibition curated by Hashim Sarkis.

Few locals dispute that on balance the Biennale is a force for good in Venice. “It attracts people who spend a reasonable number of days here and support the city’s culture, its exhibitions and museums. This is positive,” says Aline Cendon, a local writer who is also a spokesperson for Gruppo 25 Aprile, an NGO that campaigns for residents’ rights in the city. The Biennale also creates an internal economy. Currently the organisation employs 112 full-time workers and 80 temporary staff — and the presence of a shifting army of people involved in the various individual projects boost local businesses.

There’s also potential for collaborations between local and global specialists. We are Here Venice (WaHV), an NGO working to maintain Venice as a living city, has teamed up with the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam and Professor Caroline Nevejan, chief science officer of the city of Amsterdam, to co-curate “Exploratorium”, a parallel programme of the Dutch pavilion at the Biennale. Bringing together artists, architects and environmental scientists from Venice, the Netherlands and elsewhere, the project follows 15 different routes — known as “tracks” — designed to examine the theme “Values for Survival”.

Jane da Mosto, WaHV director, emphasises that several of the tracks were designed to “have a specific legacy”, adding that there is a danger that “the Biennale initiatives just fly in and fly out.” Da Mosto is not alone asking the Biennale to forge more permanent links with Venice. Cendon observes that Venice’s beauty “hugely amplifies” the number of visitors to the event, but unlike in municipal museums where Venetians gain free entry, to enter the Biennale they must buy their ticket. “The Biennale behaves as if it was a world apart,” she observes. “A sort of ‘extra-national’ territory and many [Venetians] experience it like that.” 

Roberto Cicutto, who took over as president of the Biennale in 2020, says the organisation is committed to putting down deeper roots. “The Biennale must push its activity beyond the shows of the festival,” he states, adding that it should be bringing “people to Venice 365 days of the year who want to teach, learn and research.”  

‘Radical Observation’ (2020), a community engagement project for the Biennale’s Dutch pavilion © So Young Han, We are Here Venice

Cicutto points to the development of the Arsenale. Now the property of the Venice city council, the medieval ex-shipyard, around 478,000 sq m in all, 61,000 sq m of which is used by the Biennale, remains empty for much of the year. Now there is a plan to rehouse the Biennale’s Historic Archive of Contemporary Art (ASAC) from its mainland home in Marghera to the Arsenale’s historic halls. Cicutto envisages the new archive as “a place of residentiality, somewhere people come to research, write, do masterclasses and work with Venetian institutions such as the university.” The space, which he dubs a “permanent laboratory”, should inaugurate in 2023 with “trailers” planned for the Biennale of contemporary art next year.

There are also plans to create a database that will link up the Biennale archive with those belonging to other Venetian cultural institutions including the Cini and Querini Stampalia foundations and the university of Ca’ Foscari. “If we can augment the offer to scholars and students by giving them access not just to our archives but also to the others, then they are more likely to come,” says Cicutto.

Such initiatives, which fuel the growth of communities who value and understand Venice as a cultural jewel, are beneficial to local neighbourhoods. However, more dynamic intervention is required if Venice’s future is to be secured. That duty is owed to its politicians. Here, narratives differ radically. Entitled “Whose City is it Anyway?”, a 2020 report by Jane da Mosto of WaHV and Cambridge PhD student and architectural researcher Carolyn Smith highlights “the inability to follow through on political promises” that has dogged successive municipal administrations. 

Smith says that housing is one of “three critical factors” which “determine the sustainability of Venice” (the others are employment and services). Her research found that no fewer than 44,000 new accommodation units had been promised to residents since 2000. Only 945 had been outlined as “specific building projects”, of which only 187 had come to fruition. 

Simone Venturini, deputy mayor for social welfare, tourism and development, told the Financial Times that 312 units had been made available to Venice’s historic centre and the surrounding islands since his administration came to power in 2015. He also points to four new “bandi” (application calls) for social housing due to be published in June this year. 

A view over the Arsenale

Cendon from Gruppo 25 Aprile is sceptical. “Our data show that just 100 lodgings per year have become available during that period across the entire municipality,” she says, adding that even if Venturini’s figures were correct, “it’s still nothing like enough given that the city is losing 1,000 inhabitants a year.” 

Furthermore there’s little excuse for the situation given how much publicly-owned housing is currently empty. “The figure has risen from 606 empty public units in 2013 to 937 in 2019,” says Cendon. “The city council should pour resources into the patrimony of public housing. Instead, those resources are going elsewhere, such as to the new nautical project at San Giuliano,” she continues, referring to the planned reorganisation of a nautical hub on the nearby mainland. As for the effort to create social housing, Cendon observes that with “rents at around 800-900 [euros] a month, these houses are unavailable to poorer people like young couples and the unemployed.”

Venturini says the council is committed to Venice’s indigenous population. Efforts to regain economic equilibrium include a recent proposal asking the Italian government for special powers to regulate mass tourism, including that of short-term rentals such as Airbnb. As yet, the government has made no response. 

There are also new restrictions on the transformation of private buildings into hotels. Here, the council’s strategy appears contradictory. Maintaining private property in Venice is enormously costly, hence the enthusiasm for selling out to hoteliers. But until this year owners could boost their coffers by renting to exhibitions associated with the Biennale. Now the council has announced a new decree which drastically limits the time private buildings can host Biennale events.

Opinions on this development are divided. Cicutto says that it won’t cause the Biennale “any problems”; Cendon actively welcomes it because it puts a brake on “opaque, unregulated business schemes”. But the move could damage local interests. “It’s obviously a very different demographic to affordable housing,” says researcher Carolyn Smith. “But it still pushes against people actually being able to afford to live in the city.” She fears that these expensive homes are now at risk of being sold to “Russian oligarchs (or similar) as second homes”, which will be kept “empty save for the odd weekend.” 

The divergence of opinion tells us that, until there is some cohesive strategy to save Venice designed not only by its politicians but also by its people, the city’s problems can only continue.

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