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Waterlogged Cities

April 27, 2015


Reposting this post from last year: the rain, and an upcoming trip to Venice made it relevant again.


What can Venice teach the world about preparing for climate catastrophe?
Venice vs. Rome.

Italy is battling hydrological emergencies on various fronts.  It seems like half the country is witnessing flood damage and erosion while the other half suffers droughts.  Liguria and Tuscany have seen huge water damage in recent weeks.

Last night in Venice I had dinner with a friend at a fantastic little trattoria called L’anice stellato and as we dined on risotto and granchio we watched the Fondamento (sidewalk) disappear under rising water.  We had boots, so the walk back to the hotel was not impossible.  Wading through 40 centimeters of water, though, I couldn’t help think that this is the future of waterfront cities.  Venice has lived with this for generations and adapts with typical seafaring courage and conviction. The high water is a simple fact of life, like the cold temperatures of a Boston winter.  But for many cities, this is a glimpse of the now inevitable results of climate change.

In Rome schools were called off today because of predictions of rain, a preventive measure to protect the administration from any accusations of lack of preparation.  Better to declare and emergency rather than try to prepare for one.

The closure of Rome today under medium heavy rains is strangely reminiscent of the crowds of protesters (mostly peaceful) that shut down Rome frequently during political demonstrations. Signs of the times in which ecological and economic disasters start to have an impact on our everyday lives. Am I the only one that sees a connection between these events?  Violent weather events like this are on the rise as temperatures rise, results of climate change which are irrefutably connected to emissions from human activity, the same human activity which has concentrated money (and thus power) in the hands of the 1%, a situation which has become intolerable to the masses and resulted in uprisings worldwide.

Of course there is no linear causality but rather a web of connectivity.  Likewise, the unplanned urbanization of our cities has resulted in impervious surfaces which translate heavy rains into flash flooding. If we incorporated green space into our city-building, rains like this would be absorbed and enrich the aquifers, rather than overflowing into rivers.

Wisely the Mayor sent out a call to citizens to avoid driving during the weather emergency.  (Strangely, he also suspended the restrictions on traffic in the historic center, increasing the likelihood of auto related incidents.)

Part of the reason Venice doesn’t shut down in time of flood is that people are far more flexible and resilient without cars (and in Venice, of course, there are no cars.) Our dependence on automobiles traps us in rising floodwaters, blocking emergency vehicles and public transit, effectively shutting down the city in situations where were we on foot, living close enough to our daily needs to walk, we might get wet but still function.  On days of rain emergency in Rome,  I bike to work as usual (actually better than usual because the clogged traffic means that for once I’m not a target of homicidal drivers).  I just bring dry clothes and change when I get to work.

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