Venice needs to find a better balance in tourist attraction and liveability. The ‘Venice Smart City’ project, initiated by Urbego and IUAV, aims to improve the walkability of the insular city. It proposes physical reorganization of the terminal area and the implementation of a way-finding system. Strategic workshops and intensive in-situ design prove to be effective tools in city improvement.
“Ah, Venice”, sighs the ticket seller gently, when he sells Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice protagonist a passage across the Adriatic. Through its unique urban environment and mythological history, Venice has secured an unrivalled place in the mental map of Europe. As a result, Venice is a place of constant flows of people and goods. The insular city sustains around 90,000 visitors daily, roughly double its current number of residents.
Nevertheless, Venice is a community in decline. Statistics show a persistent haemorrhaging of the city’s population since the 1950s, as locals have moved onto the mainland in response to the predominance of tourism and its impact on the local economy (surging property prices and minimalized employment opportunities outside of tourism) and the quality of life (high levels of congestion and limited accessibility). A better balance in attraction and liveability needs to be reached.
Whether you arrive via road, rail or water, you are redirected to the terminal area where mainland and offshore journeys end up. It is fundamental for the future of the historic centre that the terminal area (train station, Tronchetto and Piazzale Roma) is capable of absorbing and directing pedestrian flows as well as efficiently facilitating the interchange between different transport modes.
Previous questionnaires conducted by IUAV (University of Venice) and the Municipality of Venice reveal that confusion and frustration are constant tourist experiences in the city. Although roughly 70% of the daily trips in Venice are made on foot, very little information encourages walking. The widespread belief that Venice is an inaccessible labyrinth, especially for the elderly, children and impaired, persists among visitors.
Venice Smart City: improving the walkability of the insular city
The ‘Venice Smart City’ project was launched in 2014 to improve the walkability of the insular city. Urbego, an international young planners’ platform, and IUAV carried out two workshops based on three main themes: smart human scale design, way-finding system, and the urban mobility system. Key partners of Urbego and IUAV were Blip Sirius, Cowi, IFHP, and the Municipality of Venice.
Urbego’s aim was to integrate the concept of smart cities with concepts of human scale design and progressive governance initiatives. A smart city provides services based on people’s concrete needs that have been scrutinized through inclusive processes. Behavioural change, with mobility in particular, can only be achieved through people’s involvement. Technology (data collection and extensive analysis capabilities) was a tool to understand the challenges.
Through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi sensors, pedestrian movements in the terminal area were mapped. Subsequently, pedestrian preferences were collected via qualitative assessment. Both analyses provided substance for defining a new flow-managing strategy in the terminal area. The strategy consists of a physical reorganization of the main entrances to the historical centre and the design of a new physical and virtual way-finding system that guides visitors to their destinations while enriching them with Venetian history. An important part of reorganizing the city is unifying visual identity in terms of materials, colours and patterns. In-situ experimentation was conducted to test initial prototypes, which were modified later. This approach showed that strategy-oriented workshops and intensive in-situ design can be extremely effective tools in improving a city.
The workshops posed the difficult question on how to link the global smart cities agenda with a very specific urban context through a people-centred collaborative process. A methodology to manage big pedestrian flows in historical cities has been defined, a research project on smart mobility has started, and a mobile phone application conceptualized during the workshop is now being developed. The Venice Smart City project continues to be a challenging experience.