Venice, to be or not to be a UNESCO ‘World Heritage in Danger’? That is the question.

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    The beginnings: How Venetians managed to have UNESCO come to the city

    Since 1987, Venice and its lagoon are a World Heritage Site.

    In the past years, several heritage protection organizations in Italy, as well as Venetian organizations, have contacted UNESCO claiming that a crisis point had been reached in the city, and warned that local authorities were no longer capable of protecting Venice.

    As a consequence, in October 2015, experts from UNESCO/ICOMOS/RAMSAR came to Venice to proceed to a reactive monitoring mission on “Venice and its lagoon”, as requested by the World Heritage Committee, to assess ‘current conditions at the property’.

    First came THE report

    After the notable visit, UNESCO published the resulting consultative report in July 2016, which was discussed at the UNESCO meeting in Istambul, later the same month. Righteously, the document confirmed that Venice is under threat and called for immediate improvements!

    The improvements expected by UNESCO

    The changes requested are many, and the committee and the report mentioned that UNESCO was considering adding Venice and its lagoon to the List of the ‘World Heritage in Danger’ at its 41st session in 2017 if the city management had not changed drastically.

    The mandatory requirements of UNESCO are the following:

    – the creation of a sustainable tourism strategy
    – the regulation of the speed, number, and type of boats entering the Lagoon, as short-term measures.
    – the future prohibition, of the largest ships and tankers entering the Lagoon.
    – the suspension of all new projects permits prior to the assessment of the Management Plan and prior to submission of details to the World Heritage Centre.

    But what is the World Heritage in Danger list?

    The ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list includes sites ‘under serious and specific dangers’ where ‘major operations are necessary and for which assistance has been requested under this Convention.’

    A quick look at the sites included in the list shows that most of them already are either in war or poaching zones and that Venice would be the first of all the cultural sites of what’s commonly seen as the western world to enter it, after the mercantile maritime city of Liverpool…

    If Venice, at the time of the Republic, continuously distinguished itself from the rest of the World thanks to its innovations and breakthroughs, we’re afraid that, this time, there is nothing to be proud of!

    So, the report said UNESCO was thinking about kicking Venice out of the Heritage list, then everything really started on the 14th of July 2016

    The 14th of July is a day charged with history for Venice. Indeed, it is on this very same day of 1902 that the symbol of Venice, the Campanile di San Marco collapsed on itself and left the world in shock. One year later, on July 14th, 1903 the reconstruction of the bell tower started and the majestuous “Paron de Casa” currently overlooking the city was inaugurated ‘Dov’era e Com’era’ (‘Where it was and How it was‘) on the 25th of April 1912. Since this significant episode of Venice’s modern history, ‘Dov’era e Com’era’ has become a maxim for Venice and the Venetians as illustrated by the recent reconstruction of the Fenice Theatre.

    Resilience is a quality that Venetians are proud of and that many thought we might see pay again. Indeed, in an historical decision the UNESCO committee, in response to the worry and call for help of the local associations, unanimously adopted on the 14th July 2016, the resolution threatening Venice and its lagoon to be added to the list of “World Heritage in Danger” list at its 41st session in 2017,  if no significant changes were observed in the management of the city by February 2017.

    In order to assess the progress of Venice in meeting UNESCO requirements, the committee called for a meeting before the 1st of February 2017.

    Paris, Paris...Meeting UNESCO before it's too late

    Few days before the beginning of February, on the 24th of January 2017, the Venice Mayor Gianluigi Brugnaro and a delegation of 15 people went to Paris to meet the Committee, at UNESCO Headquarters, in the presence of representatives of the Italian government in order to discuss the measures undertaken by the Venice Municipality.

    Brugnaro handed a 70 pages document detailing the adopted countermeasures and future plans for the city administration, as well as the protection of the environment and the local population.

    UNESCO reports on this meeting in the following words:

    ‘This meeting follows the Director-General’s visit to Venice on 3 and 4 November 2016, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Venice flood.

    The discussion focused on measures taken by the Italian authorities and the Municipality of Venice to ensure the long-term protection of the site. The meeting of the World Heritage Committee in July 2016 made a number of recommendations and asked that Italy report on its actions before 1 February 2017.

    The Italian authorities reaffirmed their total commitment to respond to the concerns raised by the World Heritage Committee in July 2016 regarding the preservation of the city of Venice. This commitment resulted in the adoption of a new “Pact for Venice”, signed on 26 November last, planning for the investment of some 457 million Euros in preservation initiatives in the city and its lagoon over the next four years. In addition, as part of the National Strategic Plan for the Development of Tourism presented by the Ministry of Cultural Activities and Tourism on 16 December last, the objective of which is to put sustainable tourism at the center of national policies, a specific pilot action is planned to monitor and manage tourist flows in Venice.

    “Venice is a shared heritage of outstanding universal value. Working hand-in-hand, UNESCO with the Government, the Municipality, and all stakeholders, is the only way forward. This morning the mayor of Venice presented to me in detail the great number of measures taken and the concrete projects that he intends to carry out. I understand the strength of the commitment jointly led by the municipality and the Government — we will continue to move forward in this spirit.” said Irina Bokova.

    “My presence today is a sign of Venice’s trust and commitment to the international cooperation. I have presented this morning to the Director-General the progress made during the last 15 months by the city of Venice, which shows a strong commitment to the revitalization of the city and a clear trend reversal. I hope that this meeting will be the starting point of a cooperation that builds a new vision for Venice in the next 20 years, where all are committed to a better future for young people and future generations.” said Mayor Luigi Brugnaro.

    The bilateral meeting between the Director-General and the Mayor was followed by working meetings to explore various aspects of the management of the World Heritage site.’

    Upon receiving the file, the General Director of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, thanked the Venice Mayor on behalf of the Committee. The report will be analyzed and a final decision taken at the 42nd UNESCO meeting on the 2nd of July in Cracow.

    But Venice has been looking at Paris...

    While the municipality has indeed applied some countermeasures which improved the quality of life of the local population, such as granting priority access to the public water buses to the Venetians, greater matters have been totally ignored.

    Venetians are being pushed out of their city by a lack of private housing, caused by the unregulated conversion of locals’ homes and apartments into rentals for tourists, by the lack of an efficient public housing policy and administration which is responsible for roughly 600 empty public apartments in Venice.

    Cruise liners often referred locally as Big Ships, are not and will not be forbidden to enter the lagoon. Unlike expressly requested by UNESCO, the Venice Municipality refuses to find an alternative solution to the Venice Port and is planning the digging of a new big canal in the lagoon of Venice.

    No countermeasure has been taken to regulate the speed and the number of motorboats in Venice. The constant waves caused by motorboats, the “moto ondoso”, are still a daunting problem responsible for the erosion of the foundations of the Venetian buildings.

    We believe that the measures taken so far by the city Municipality won’t be enough to prevent Venice to be put in the World Heritage in Danger list by UNESCO.

    While being on this list could be a terrible news for Venice, we believe that the real emergency is the lack of measures taken by the very people and institutions which should protect Venice, its Lagoon, and the Venetians.

    We’re not the only one concerned, several local organizations, namely the very active Gruppo 25 Aprile and Italia Nostra are already organizing and planning a big trip to Cracow to make sure the Venetians are being heard on the 2nd of July.

    Moratorium for Venice: UNESCO grants 2 extra years to the local administration which claims to be undergoing positive changes for the city

    The news has come at the early beginning of the month of June 2017: no decision related to the future of Venice as a heritage site will be taken, as previously promised by UNESCO, before 2019.  The committee, which will meet as planned on July 2nd in Krakow, will not move Venice from the heritage list to the endangered one.

    The future of the status of the lagoon city is tied to a detailed plan of action on the questions of tourism and the cruise ships industry that the city town and government are due to deliver to the committee by December 1st, 2018.

    This decision has been taken as a follow-up to the Paris’ meeting between Venice’s mayor and the committee and underlines the appreciation from the later of the countermeasures listed in the report handed over at the same occasion.

    Needless to say, local associations and individuals are as surprised by the news as they reject the decision of the committee. Indeed, in the case of Venice, time is key and definitely an endangered resource…


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