City resilience in Venice – the reality of resilience

By David Singleton, following a recent three week ‘living like a local’ holiday in Venice.

Aaaahhhh, Venice. Remarkable in so many ways. Its canals, its art, its piazzas. Its kiosks, its gondolas ...  its flooding!

There certainly are many reasons to loveVenice. To an outsider perhaps there are a few reasons not to love it, most notably its regular flooding, otherwise known as the Aqua Alta. This natural phenomenon has occurred for centuries when especially high tides (caused by the moon's gravitational pull) coincide with a strong scirocco, a warm wind blowing across the Mediterranean that forces water from the Adriatic into the Venetian lagoon.

But to me, the flooding from the Aqua Alta is special in that it really highlights city resilience in action. Venetians live resilience daily, it’s part of their life, and in Venice it demonstrates that being resilient is not always about dealing with catastrophe.

In many other parts of the world we are discussing how we make urban centres resilient in anticipation of shocks that are going to come, or to an extent might have experienced already in recent times … but there are places in the world - like Venice - that actually live a resilient lifestyle on a regular basis. There is value in looking at how that occurs and how the inhabitants cope.

In Venice, when the Aqua Alta hits, the locals literally take it in their stride thanks to a number of flexible measures which limit the impact and extent of the flooding.

There are sirens which sound warnings when a high tide is forecast, an app delivers real time data and information, and various public water transport lines are diverted to all-weather routes.

But there are also some other clever - and simple - measures which show how resilience is literally a part of life, and which help the city to continue to function, even as the water rises past shin height.


Temporary elevated wooden platforms are set up in the parts of the city with heavier pedestrian traffic, small barriers are attached to every shop front door to keep rising water at bay, power points are always installed at least halfway up the wall in ground level floors, and when flooding is coming there are gumboots or galoshes for sale on every street corner!

It’s those ‘everyday’ aspects of Venetian life that help the city to ‘fail’ gently rather than catastrophically, when the Aqua Alta occurs. Following Aqua Alta, the water retreats and most of the city is left unscathed.


But as the buildings in the city continue to sink due to subsidence around its lagoon (over nine inches in the past 100 years) and global sea levels continue to rise, there is now a more acute danger which is forcing the city to re-think their approach to resilience.

Every three years or so an exceptional high tide occurs as a result of a combination of events - such as spring tides, Aqua Alta and a storm in the Adriatic sea – which can bring huge tidal surges into Venice and cause massive amounts of damage to heritage buildings and priceless artistic treasures.

In an attempt to combat these freak events and minimize the damage caused to Venice’s cultural icons, the city is investing a huge sum of money (€5.4bn) into the MOSE flood barrier, which is designed to protect Venice and the lagoon from ‘super’ tides of up to three metres.

In parallel with the construction of MOSE, the Venice Water Authority and Venice Local Authority are raising quaysides and paving in the city, to protect built-up areas in the lagoon from medium high tides (below 110 centimetres, the height at which the mobile barriers in MOSE will come into operation).


Image from 2012. Source:

A project marred with controversy, it is hoped the MOSE barrier will be the best solution yet to a long standing problem. In an article in the Guardian, Dominic Standish, academic and author of Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality, made the point that Venetians have always adapted to the unique problems of living in the lagoon.

“MOSE is continuing in the tradition of the Venetian Republic, which intervened in the lagoon to protect against natural threats. Ancient Venetians built sea walls and diverted two major rivers – these were huge engineering projects. The Venetian Republic suffered more from flooding than we do now. People were regularly killed by flooding. They had difficulty in predicting it. Venice is much better protected now than it has been for a long time.”

So, what can the world learn from Venice and its people and their approach to resilience, not just in modern times, but throughout the ages?

Venice has always been a living resilient city, not a city that is PLANNING to be resilient because it MAY have to face certain shocks. It’s always been a resilient city because it has had to be.

I’ve been involved in many projects where we have looked at resilience of various cities, conducted workshops to consider where the system might break down in a certain event, and what the alternative solutions are. Strategies such as alternative routes to the hospital, transportation of food when roads were blocked and so on, Venice has been doing this for a long time. It’s part of Venetian daily life and perhaps that is a mindset that many cities around the world will have to consider shifting to.

It’s interesting to compare Venice with say, cities in Australia. Venice knows they will be hit by Aqua Alta or king tides, and thanks to modern technology and data, they know when. So they can prepare. They can raise walkways, wear gum boots and so on. But in Australia, our resilience strategies for Melbourne and Sydney are more about dealing with a catastrophic event which we hope we don’t have to face.

So inevitably, there are differences in approaches to resilience in those two countries, but at their core, their essence is the same.

It’s about a certain inevitability. It’s about accepting these things will (and do) happen, having a plan and learning to cope and just get on with things.

We may find it frightening, but we need to get used to the fact these events will happen, and ask ourselves, what can we learn from the Venetian approach.

We might not be able to prevent the impacts of a catastrophic event entirely, but we can learn to adapt and live with these events. That is a truly resilient approach.