Provoking controversial designs for effective sustainable change: reimagining Tronchetto, and Venice

Olivia White (BA(Hons), Architecture, University of Kent) joined the ‘Sustainable, Healthy Cities: Building for the Future’ Summer School in Venice co-organised by the GCHU, and presents her design for an urban neigbourhood in Venice.

Olivia White

Architecture BA(Hons), University of Kent

Email: [email protected]

In June 2023, I joined a two-week summer school, ‘Sustainable, Healthy Cities: Building for the Future’ in Venice organised by the GCHU, The Prince’s Foundation, and the European Cultural Academy. Each participant was asked to produce an urban design for a neighbourhood in Venice, taking on board aspects of sustainable urbanism covered during the course. The original perception of my design was considered as quite controversial by some members of the class, however, should it instead be perceived as being more realistic for the future of Venice, and other cities similarly facing a range of economic, environmental, and social challenges? My design might provoke controversial opinions, but is it bringing ideas back to basics, beliefs that hold potential for effective sustainable change?

During the fortnight’s series of activities focusing on healthy urbanism, I engaged in seminars, discussion groups, and site-visits to islands, farms, galleries, and markets. The summer school provided a unique insight into Venice, and allowed us to gain a balanced understanding of the city as a tourist, and as a researcher. The course directed us to breakdown ‘sustainability’ into three concepts – ‘mobility’, ‘food urbanism’, and ‘settlement’ within Venice. Sustainability is an important concept – which has entered into mainstream conversation about the environment over the last few decades. Investigating sustainability through these three concepts allowed me to understand that sustainability is more than just its environmental implications. Gaining an understanding of how people work alongside their surroundings reflects the way in which the environment is impacted. The positive health and well-being of inhabitants plays a significant role in ensuring that a place has longevity and sustainability. Venice provides innumerable examples and challenges of the connection between the physical environment – whether built or ‘natural’ – and human health.

Having gained a wider and more detailed understanding of Venice, we were tasked with brainstorming and redesigning the function of Tronchetto. Tronchetto is an artificial island that was introduced to Venice in the 1960s. Its main function is for residents and tourists to park their cars, while also acting as a networking hub for ferries, coaches, and boats that connect to other islands within the region. Upon visiting Tronchetto, the generally perceived characteristics of Venice as a city were completely absent, and the grey concrete parking lots and mirrored office buildings provided the main identity of the island. The experience of walking along the wide pedestrian streets made you feel far from the small, crowded streets of Venice.  

By experiencing and analysing Tronchetto in relationship to Venice as a whole, I directed my narrative towards the more functional identity of this space. The artificial island gives a blank canvas for extreme creativity when it comes to emphasising sustainability, health, and progression for the future. My main interest was to consider the various forms of consumption occurring between tourists and local residents, rather than concentrating solely on aspects of market production.  

Venice is constantly battling the effects of tourism, fears over the dilution of its traditional ways of life or culture; the streets of Venice are scattered with generic souvenir shops, local markets selling gifts, and some fear that fast food outlets driven by international tourist preferences are even eroding the culinary base of the city. Mass tourism is changing Venetian city life, however, there is a balance required that is key within this system, since the urban economy is dependent on the prosperity gained through tourism. A balance between the two is required.

My narrative explores the idea of using the island of Tronchetto as a tourist hub. This would allow forms of Venetian culture to thrive once again. Figure 1 illustrates the aim to attract some the tourist commodity market to the island, such as souvenir shops, to relieve pressure on the main island. This could result in a rise of more traditional skilled or labour-intensive industries in the city centre, encouraged by economic incentives for such investment in the municipality.

Figure 1: Draft Master Plan of Tronchette (Source: the author)

It is estimated that 80% of tourists in Venice come for the day only, the majority arriving via or next to Tronchetto. The neighbourhood’s proposed new urban quarters with hotels, leisure areas, and the introduction of green spaces could hopefully encourage the tourists to stay overnight, enhancing the night economy and generating necessary revenue for the municipal authorities via the tassa di soggiorno, or overnight tax.

Figure 2: Initial Sketches and Precedence Images (Source: the author)

Although the functionality of this proposed design will still support the tourism industry; empathetic and clever architecture could complement other aspects of traditional Venetian culture. Venice is an iconic city, with popular replica developments, most famously in Las Vegas. Creating a ‘mini Venice’ neighbourhood on Tronchetto could slot in seamlessly, and generate an additional interest for the tourist market away from the central city. Introducing hotels (such as spa hotels or retreats), bars, and cafés could encourage tourists to enjoy this western part of Venice, instead of coming just to the central basilica of St Mark’s for the day, and ‘checking it off the bucket list’. Creating a lively environment that parallels positive aspects of ‘the Venice experience’, while spawning new, could also potentially draw residents and the city’s student population to enjoy the new space.  

The proposed design does not aim to use all newly available sustainable technology or to make Tronchetto a state-of-the-art eco space, but instead it aims to combat the main problem of Venice’s longevity. Venice’s existence is being jeopardised both physically, through the rise in sea levels, but also impacted negatively by the impact of mass tourism. This plan aims to find a balance between the two. The plan, of moving an element of consumer and tourist attractions to Tronchetto, using the new space as a ‘honeypot’ to divert some of the focus from central Venice may facilitate reclamation of Venetian social and cultural space, and employment potential away from the dominance of tourism (Figure 3). Creating some structure to tourism through Tronchetto could result in more thoughtful tourism practices in the way Venice is consumed. The summer school has opened my eyes to the fact that cultural longevity is just as important as environmental practices when it comes to sustainability.

Figure 3: Projected future changes to Tronchetta and Venice through Masterplan (Source: the author)