The ENTOURAGE project is not just about cycling, nor just about Barcelona. Last week, we set sail to the City of Venice to set up the project’s case study about accessibility and age-friendliness there. Our first impressions of perhaps the most densely concentrated tourist city in Europe give a mixed picture about its liveability for older people.
Cities’ age-friendliness is approached in many ways, from accessibility checklists to integrated policies that support ageing in place. The City of Venice is a peculiar place to study this concept, given the pervasive effects of mass tourism on housing, community life, and mobility in the city.
What stands out in Venice is the proximity of many urban functions that are important to older people’s quality of life. Shops and commercial activities are around the corner, there is a wide network of citizen associations, and its historic beauty make that city meets many of the Age-friendly City components defined by the World Health Organisation (see the flower image above).
At the same time, the relentless rise of touristic visits to the city in the last decades trickles down in every aspect of social life. It’s increasingly difficult to find housing, with much of the housing stock dedicated to short-term residence, which leads younger generations to flee the city to the mainland. Few people stay, indicated by the dramatic population loss from nearly 100,000 in the 1970s to under 50,000 in 2019. Those who stay tend to be older, lifelong Venetians, or are joined by temporary residents such as students and expatriates.
For the older Venetians, the disappearance of their neighbours and impossibility for their offspring to stay in Venice have made a dent into community life, participation and social inclusion. What’s more, the city’s particular layout with canals and narrow streets, coupled with the massive tourist presence on them, make it very difficult to move around. For all residents, but especially for those who require routes free of congestion and obstacles. Local amenities may be a small walk away, but are also under pressure due to the lower carrying capacity by the shrinking resident population. They convert to shops, bars, and restaurant catering to tourists’ needs and raise their prices to make maximum profit of this precarious market. Public transport is arranged by boats, but the canals are increasingly congested, polluted, and packed with tourist-related transport.
How does pedestrian congestion look like? The Italian RAI recently made a time-lapse video near the train station that provides access to the mainland.
What are we doing in Venice?
Over the course of October and November, we are doing walk-along interviews with Venetian residents to better understand the mobility issues and changes to the urban fabric of Venice. While for healthy ageing, it is essential to move around the city in an active way, walking is also problematic in an environment with traditionally-paved surfaces, bridges, steps, and crowded streets.
We invited local Venetians over 60 of different backgrounds to participate in our study, asking them about their everyday walks, experiences of walkability, and the changes to the city that have occurred over their lifecourse. Some remarkable first insights are the resilience that participants display when dealing with the presence of no less than 80,000 visitors per day (on average). They stay and fight to claim their spot in the city. Of course, locals shouldn’t have to fight to live their everyday life, and many of their counterparts have already left the city. As they get older, they are forced to adapt their lifestyles, avoid the crowds, and even abandon the idea of getting out of the house at their own convenience.
Together, these insights show how tourism compromises mobility and age-friendliness in a variety of ways. The Age-Friendly City concept provides a way to disentangle the city’s problems into eight elements that matter to an older person. When tourism and other global forces threaten locals’ access to community support, social and civic participation, housing, transportation, and housing, they erode the lifelines of older people.
We developed the Venice fieldwork with the social enterprise SerenDPT, who intend to retain people to the city’s historic centre and study the effects of tourism on the city’s labour market, housing, and mobility. One of their key activities in Venice is the SMARTDEST project, which addresses social imbalances in relation to the contemporary development of tourism mobilities, and co-creatively build solutions in the planning, regulatory or social innovation fields.
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