With locally sourced materials and labor, the project tries to avoid having to choose whether to save the city of Venice or its lagoon
Saving Venice or saving its lagoon: the eco-dilemma
When we talk about climate change in relation to Venice, we often make the easy mistake of taking into consideration just the city of Venice. Yet Venice is a whole ecosystem, made of the urban area, the lagoon and all minor islands. Up until recently, for local people it was simply impossible to think of the city without thinking of its lagoon and satellite islands. Environmentalists today seem to have abandoned this conception and have started to focus on saving Venice alone. For some, such as Prof. Luca Palmeri, the choice is inevitable: we can either save the city or the ecosystem around it.
Nature-based solutions: creating an alternative
Firstly, we have to get rid of the idea that the lagoon and Venice are the way they are because of entirely natural reasons: «The lagoon exists as it does because men intervened over time», explains biology professor Alberto Barausse. For centuries, when facing an emergency, people have found solutions to deal with a changing natural landscape. The climate crisis is not a novelty for the planet, and solutions towards conservation have been found before. This time around, the main effort was put into saving the city and its historical value.
The biggest work realized so far is called Mose, and it is a way to shut Venice’s openings on the sea during specific climatic events in order to prevent further water from entering the lagoon and stop the phenomenon of acqua alta (litt. high water) that periodically floods the city. After years of design and construction, it finally seems to be working. It also has eco-implications that were not predicted nor studied in advance: «Sadly, there was no proper study on the environmental impact before construction, and we find ourselves doing it in retrospect».
Once the competition for a new environmental solution was won and the work started, the Mose was presented as the only viable solution to contrast the changing climate and rising level of waters. It is not necessarily so. Other, complementary ways are being explored and projects carried out that look at the lagoon and its biodiversity in a more complex and complete way. The main principle behind VIMINE is working with nature-based solutions: studying and following methods that were used for centuries. VIMINE tries to restore in a slow fashion, respecting the times and dynamics of the nature that operates within.
Vimine: trying to save barens
The main field of study, and action of VIMINE, are so-called Barens (or Mud Fluds), isles of mud and plants that are present all across the lagoon. The name comes from the baroque Venetian word that indicates a bush or a clump of grass. Though they may seem useless pieces of vegetation, they are actually considered as the lagoon’s lungs because of their many vital functions for the natural environment. Barens make the surrounding environment sequester the most CO2 per surface unit in the world; they also have a filtering function as well as brining nourishment to local species that would otherwise go extinct, playing a role in safeguarding biodiversity.
At the beginning of the century, they used to make up twenty-five percent of the lagoon; the figure is now down to eight percent. Their disappearance is caused by both natural and human-induced processes. One of the drivers are changes in hydrodynamics and the excavation of new large channels in the lagoon, which irreparably modify the local environment. In turn, with the vanishment of barens, the whole ecosystem inevitably changes. Their very structure has a mitigating effect on water currents; barens also prevent those same currents from corroding other emerged surfaces, such as Venice’s canals, providing a natural habitat to local species.
They also play an essential role for socio-economic dynamics, which are mostly based on fishing activities in the area. The project, LIFE VIMINE, started in 2013 with the aim of improving the barens’ conservation. In order to do that, they worked with a different approach, using micro rather than macro environmental engineering interventions with low impact. The idea is to protect smaller but strategic areas, rather than putting in place bigger operations with the risk of damaging other aspects of the same environment. It was a way to act towards prevention for the whole natural landscape.
The natural engineering parameters taken into account
Each choice was made according to pre-determined natural engineering parameters such as: the selection of natural and low-impacting materials for both the environment, the economy and the natural landscape with particular attention towards biodegradability, and sourcing; developing a design for each solution that was respectful of the intrinsic nature of the barens, thus focusing on a dynamism that is typical of nature, rather than a rigidity that is proper of artificial solutions; and lastly, the choice of methods that are less impactful for the local beds. The conservation works were made with bundles of structures made entirely from biodegradable materials.
Once the structures were put in place, the space between the bundles and the barens was filled with detriments sourced locally with light pumps. Some wave-breaking structures were also put in place, made with the same material, in order to contrast wave motion. Most of the work was done manually, to have as little impact as possible. Panels were used to modify the local hydrodynamics on a small scale. All in all, the idea was to use ancient knowledge that had worked in the past and replicate small adjustments in different places rather than undertaking major transformations while risking damaging more than fixing.
The project was carried out with a total budget of 2,024.295 euros, 1,396.763 of which were European funds.
Involving local fishermen: local ecological knowledge
One of the key points of the project was involving and hiring local workers, especially among fishermen. The choice was motivated on multiple levels: firstly, local fishermen could bring local ecological knowledge to the project (namely all the facts about the lagoon that are not necessarily formally reported but become of general knowledge in the territory). Social dynamics also benefited from the decision: there is a general lack of workplaces in the area, which often results in people going to Venice or to the mainland to find a job, thus the population is getting more and more distant from their land, which is being less taken care of. By employing local fishermen, VIMINE was able to give them an integrative income, while pushing them to be active in the improvement of their lands and waters. This idea also goes in the direction of potential ecotourism and creating new opportunities in the long term.
Venice as a model for the future?
VIMINE and similar projects have a transformative power that goes beyond the city or the ecosystem of Venice and its islands. Being a place that is particularly at risk, the argument is that Venice can become a model for the world. Solutions that work in the city, can be allied elsewhere in the future as well. On the other hand, Venice also has a long history of local craftsmanship and knowledge in dealing with a changing climate, especially due to the peculiar relationship between land and water. By implementing smaller and more organic solutions, the aim is to find a way to restore areas at risk that follows nature’s rules rather than imposing the human hand on the landscape – an approach that often destroys more than it fixes.
A project funded by the European Union and other public institutions with the aim of defining and applying a new integrated approach to land management based on the protection of barens in the Venice lagoon.