The sinking city that haunts my dreams

Venice is haunting me. I didn’t think it was my favorite place in Italy. That title would have to go to Cinque Terre. Nor did I think it was the most memorable place at the time that I was there. But Venice is the place I keep returning to in my dreams. And it looks just the same in my dreams as it did in real life, with shimmering waterways plowed by gondolas, misty views of distant islands, and buildings that sometimes seem to lean a bit too much toward each other.

It’s my understanding that people love or hate Venice. Love it for it’s otherworldliness and history and art. Hate it for the throngs of tourists that flow along the narrow streets like logs in a stream, jamming up for a bit, then finding a way to move forward. I mostly found Venice fascinating. And because I stayed in the heart of the city, I could wander the streets freely early in the morning, before the hordes of day-trippers arrived.

I chose to visit Venice because the city is sinking. It is probably one of the world’s most famous climate change victims, even though there are other cities that are sinking faster (Jakarta, for example, will be largely uninhabitable by 2030, and if you want cheap real estate in the USA, check out Miami Beach). Venice is a city that has persisted through 1000 years of human history, and is likely to be gone in a few decades, unless something more can be done to hold back the sea.

I was told that the best way to get to know Venice is to just get lost. Find your way through the maze. Discover the alleyways and narrow canals that meander beneath bedsheets strung between the buildings. Stumble upon small pasticcerias and restaurants and silent squares, away from the glitzy glamour district where shoppers hustle from Gucci to Dolce & Gabbana to Armani before they grab lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe.

So I spent a large part of my three days in Venice simply wandering. At first I used Google maps to keep me from ending up on streets dead-ending on canals. But after a day or so, I learned that the city has a pattern, with ‘thoroughfares’ that take you from one neighborhood to the next fairly quickly. It’s also possible to hop on the vaporetto and navigate your way along the Grand Canal.

Crossing the grey-green waters of the Venetian lagoon on a high speed train is like crossing the bounds of reality into some sort of dream. In my first steps outside the train station, I stumbled as I found myself in a land of what seemed like improbable realities. The water lapping on the steps of the canal, and up against the weather-worn buildings is not lake water. It definitely has the scent of sulfur and salt that I associate with the ocean, and gulls whirl overhead looking for scraps dropped among the hordes of tourists that seem to pour into the city throughout the day.

The thought came to me quickly on my first vaporreto ride along the Grand Canal: this is already a sunken city. It was built as a sunken city, in a time when people considered the ocean level to be something that is relatively stable. Sure, there are high tides that flood St Marks square periodically, but the city was ready for that. It just wasn’t ready to have these flooding tides every year, multiple times a year.

Venice is built on marshland. Supposedly, it was built there so its people could have better protection against tribes of raiding northerners. It also just happened to be in an ideal location to become the center of trade and commerce in the 12th century. While it’s a bustling city today, it mostly bustles with tourists from around the world. I imagine it nearly 1000 years ago to be the New York City of the Middle Ages. The place to be if you want to be anybody.

The entire city is built on wooden stilts, driven deep into the marsh. While the stilts, in an anoxic environment, have survived, and even petrified, shifting of the marsh mud means that some buildings and towers in the city have the appearance of being just a little bit lopsided. Like miniature versions of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Between the sinking of these piles into the mud, extraction of groundwater, and rising sea level, Venice has sunk about 15 cm, or 5.9 in, in the past 100 years.

But how do you live in a sinking city? It’s like asking: how do you live in a warming world? We live our lives moment by moment, day by day. It’s hard to see changes on this time scale, so we just go about our business each day as though everything is normal. Each morning, I would wander through Venus, before the tourists arrived, and I would see barge after barge navigating the canals to supply restaurants and hotels with bottled water, fruit, bread, and toilet paper. Each day, there is a morning frenzy designed to prepare for the frenzy later that day.

In the centers of the streets stand long wooden platforms on metal feet about three feet high. These are the walkways that keep people moving when there is an Acqua Alta or high-water event. I imagine that walking on those platforms across the lagoon that has risen up above the streets and between the buildings would be a bit unsettling, especially if you have to pass people coming the other direction.  But imagine living in a place where you knew your house, or your restaurant, or your store could easily be underwater at least once a year? 

In my three days there, I got used to the smell of brine – with hint of mold – wherever I went.

Venice, unlike many low lying cities around the world, actually has the money to try new technologies to stop the sinking. They have built a system of 78 defensive barriers in the ocean, each 20 meters wide, that can rise up to stop the tide. It’s called Mose. The barriers can allow ships to pass, but rise up to block the tide into the lagoon when water rises up 3.6 ft or 110 cm. The system is not popular. It was supposed to be completed in 2011, but is now expected to be completed by 2023. It’s cost 8 billion euros to build, almost twice the initial estimates. And supposedly, each time it is used, it will cost 323 thousand euros. Yikes!

Also, as the system is only designed to work for very high water level rises, so it won’t stop flooding in St. Marks Basilica, or other lower lying areas of Venice. (What I learned from my AirBnB host in Venice is that even a few centimeters of elevation makes a difference. Half a meter of elevation can mean you almost never have flooding on your street.) The system helps for extreme events, but does nothing for ongoing increases in average water levels in the city.

Many say that Venice will have to adopt a Dutch-style flood mitigation program – lots of dikes and large dams. But that could take many decades. Still, Venice has money, which makes it (theoretically) somewhat resilient to climate change.

Jakarta, on the other hand, is another story. This is a city that is sinking into the sea at a rate of 11 inches per year in some areas. As much as 40% of this megacity of 30 million people is below sea level. Things are so dire, that the Indonesian government has recently decided to move the capital to an entirely new city that will be built from the ground up. Basically, they’re giving up. And, while few people around the world are paying attention, Jakarta may be the first megacity to fully sink into the ocean. But there are many others that will follow quickly.

Clearly, this is a humanitarian problem. A global challenge that will impact some of the poorest countries – and poorest regions of some countries – first. I wonder, sometimes, if the problem is just so big that people can’t even bring themselves to think about it. It also comes on so slowly, that it’s hard to see it coming. I took a walking tour of the Cannaregio neighborhood of Venice. The tour took us to the quiet alleyways and out-of-the-way spots that tend not to attract the tourists, such as the site of Marco Polo’s house. I asked the tour guide if she was concerned about rising sea level flooding the city. She replied that of course she was worried, but what can she do to stop it? And hopefully it won’t be as bad as everyone thinks it could be.

I guess that’s what keeps us all going day-to-day in the face of something that is so hard to comprehend in its entirety – even for a climate scientist who has seen the projections and fully understands what they are based on. Hopefully it won’t be as bad as we think it might be.

On my last night in Venice, I decided to treat myself to a hot chocolate at Florian’s, Europe’s oldest and swankiest coffee house on St. Mark’s Square. Florian’s small orchestra played for the rows of cafe tables that spilled across the square, and I shelled out 15 euros for the most expensive hot chocolate of my life. It was thick and dark, basically a melted chocolate bar, delivered with a flourish on a silver platter by a waiter in a white jacket and bow-tie.

After I had been sitting for awhile, absorbing the atmosphere, two men and a woman loaded with shopping bags sat down at a nearby table. I couldn’t see them well in the dim light, just the orange tips of their cigarettes as they lit up, but it sounded like they were speaking Russian. I wondered if they were Ukrainian. I’m hard pressed to tell the difference between any of the Slavic languages by ear. But I had encountered other travelers who proudly announced their Ukrainian origins with t-shirts and stickers on their bags. I saw the waiter chat with the newcomers for a bit, then approached the conductor of the orchestra.

When the music stopped, the conductor called out to the people at the next table in English, “Hello to our friends at the far table – do you have request for us?” The people at the table smiled and one of the men approached the conductor to share their request. I had no idea what they played, but it was deeply moving and affecting for these people. They stood in applause at the end of it. In seeing them so moved, I felt moved by this unfamiliar music. It made me think of home, and I wondered what it would be like to be forced to leave….because of war or fire or flood, shortages of food or water or conflicts due to political strife – any of the things that are spurred on or exacerbated by the challenges of climate change. I feel lucky and privileged not to have every been forced from my home. But I know nothing is guaranteed, especially in a world with unstable environment and an equally unstable political climate.

That night in St. Mark’s Square, listening to the orchestra at Florian’s, I felt was a sense of being part of a global community – a connection to the others there, a connection to the history that I had absorbed in Venice and through my travels in Italy, a connection to all the beautiful things that humans can do and build in the world. While it’s easy, as an environmentalist, to get down on humanity for undermining our ability to live on this planet, the fact is, we have created some really amazing things, and Venice is among them. A masterpiece in a city. An old masterpiece with water damage and flaking paint on a crumbling canvas that holds something of the immortal human soul in its artistic splendor. A soul that is perhaps not so immortal after all. And maybe that’s why Venice haunts my dreams.


BBC article about Italy’s plan to save Venice from sinking.

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