This strategic project involved an experimental transdisciplinary pilot module on Venice and Sustainability hosted in Liberal Arts. The module ran in T2 AY 2018-2019 and was convened by Dr. Bryan Brazeau. Drs. Marta Guerriero, Jonathan Clarke, and Jessica Savage also contributed to the module. Prof. Cathia Jenainati as head of school provided strategic support and vision throughout the project. The module’s learning objectives included critical analysis of local sustainable solutions, analysis of future implementation plans, and consideration of the scalability and adaptability of the problem of Venetian sustainability to other global challenges. The grant for A Sustainable Serenissima allowed us to pilot an innovative problem-based module at minimal cost to students, involving onsite field-based experiential learning at Warwick in Venice. The project was largely a success and has provided proof of concept for the module and for this model of teaching. The strategic project grant not only allowed us to successfully teach the module, but indeed to establish a network of colleagues in Venice (activists, industry leaders, academics, etc…) who collaborated on the module and are eager to participate again in future.
The module began at Warwick in Coventry with an overview of the complex problem of sustainability in Venice and with students exploring the various strands of this problem (economic, ecological, social, historical, cultural). In particular, students struggled to think about what “sustainability” might mean for a site such as Venice, which only exists due to continued human intervention over centuries in diverting rivers from the lagoon and in reinforcing/maintaining the barrier between the lagoon and the sea. Consideration of this difficult problem in group work with active hands-on research also introduced the problem-based learning methodology that would be used throughout the module. The following three weeks were devoted to optional Italian language learning so that students could have a small sense of the language, preparing them both for their time in Venice and for research activities (as many of the sources students needed to access did not exist in English).
We then ran five sessions exploring various sustainability problems in Venice through the lens of a broad historical and cultural perspective:
- a) Empire and the Serenissima. In this session, students explored the problem of sustaining imperial expansion during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries through analysis of various datasets (financial records, taxation revenues, summaries of imported goods) from the period.
- b) Immigration and Identity in Venice (1492-2019). In this session, students queried the problem of Venetian identity being threatened by an influx of overtourism. Through discussion of this problem, students were led to the question: What was this identity that was under threat and how did it come to be established? Each group of students was tasked with exploring a particular migrant community in Venice (Jewish, Slavic, German, Turkish) and their contributions to Venetian culture, preparing a short presentation on these groups for their peers. In the second half of this session, students explored contemporary issues of migration in Venice, looking at existing government policy, activism and political resistance in the city, and the case of Pateh Sabally, the Gambian refugee who drowned in the grand canal in 2017.
- c) Venetian Roots and Ecological Sustainability. In this session, students were tasked to explore and research a particular aspect of Venetian ecology from a historical perspective. Students prepared independent research and then came in and shared their knowledge in small groups by rotating from group to group. In our concluding discussion, students recognised that the problem of ecological sustainability could not be divorced from the profound cultural traditions of living with the lagoon that the Venetians had developed over centuries, and that these traditions could be used to inform approaches to present solutions.
- d) Airbnb and the Changing Face of the City. In preparation for our departure for Venice, students explored the complex problem of economic sustainability with relation to Airbnb. In preparation for the session, students read various articles and listened to two podcasts about the problems of Airbnb in New Orleans and Barcelona. In class, students explored economic data about Airbnb levels in Venice (via data from Inside Airbnb) and about the changing commercial face of the city (via student-led digital projects such as the Shopp Mapp app developed by the Venice Project Centre at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute).
- e) Tourism from the Grand Tour to the Grandi Navi. Having explored the extent and complexity of the problem of tourism in contemporary Venice, students then reflected on the roots of Venetian tourism via a framework provided by Stephanie Hom’s Beautiful Country. Adapting her conception of “Destination Italy” to “Destination Venice,” students discovered the importance of Italy for the Grand Tour, the key role played by Thomas Cook in the nineteenth century in constructing the idea of “tours to Italy,” representations of Italy and Venice abroad (such as the Venetian hotel and casino in Las Vegas).
Once students had investigated the problems of Venetian sustainability from this variety of social, economic, cultural, and historical perspectives, we then continued the module at Warwick in Venice. The week in Venice was composed of five days of experiential learning activities. Morning sessions were usually held in the library of Warwick in Venice (which had ordered a number of books relevant to the module) while afternoon sessions took place throughout the city. Students were required to attend all day on Monday and Friday, while they could choose two of the three afternoon activities in which to participate on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Throughout the week, student groups were working towards a multimedia assessment on sustainability challenges facing Venice and possible solutions.
During the first day, we considered the problem of Venetian infrastructure. In the morning session, students were asked to consider the challenges that rising sea levels pose to Venetian infrastructure and why climate change poses a particular problem for Venice. Students learned about the infrastructure of the city and about the construction of Venetian houses with a salt barrier of Istrian stone to prevent capillary rise of salt and minerals within the brickwork and masonry. They also discovered that as sea levels rise and acqua alta events become more frequent, the water often goes beyond this level, posing a significant threat to the structural integrity of the city.
After the break, students were given an activity whereby they needed to go out into the city and make observations about aspects of Venetian infrastructure and the pressures it faced (whether from tourism, climate change, or other factors). Students were given 45 minutes to go out in pairs and to share at least two different photos. For this activity, we used Twitter and had a Twitterfall projection on the screen in the library. As students tweeted their pictures and captions, they began to appear on the screen. Once all students returned, we were able to go through their observations with students leading the discussion. Some students noticed capillary rise of salt deposits above the line of Istrian stone on certain buildings, while others noted overflowing rubbish bins, or grafitti denouncing cruise ships and the “Disneyfication” of Venice. We concluded our discussion by thinking about ways that these infrastructural pressures might be addressed.
Later, students were invited to the Squero (boatyard) of Arzaná, a local charitable society, where students learned about another key element of Venetian infrastructure: the gondola. Arzaná restores historic boats using traditional methods and the students were exposed to a variety of tools and techniques used to build gondole, along with a discussion around the cultural sustainability of the craft. Being able to spend time with the members of the Arzaná society, many of whom were native Venetians, permitted students to ask a variety of questions about the problems of overtourism and about how contemporary gondole drivers cope with the traffic from motorboats. We concluded our afternoon session with a brief discussion regarding the intersection of Venetian cultural traditions with contemporary concerns regarding the sustainability of existing infrastructure.
Students learning about gondole with Arzaná
Students discussing overtourism Arzaná members
Student holding a traditional gondola-building implement
Each day from Tuesday-Friday, we began with a brief recapitulation of what had been learned the previous day and a reflective discussion focusing on how students’ ideas both of Venice and of Venetian sustainability were changing. To describe all the activities would make this post far too long. As such, what follows is a selection of the activities that the students undertook while in Venice.
Tuesday’s sessions were focused around population flows in Venice and the Veneto and structured around a particular graffiti phrase that had been gaining traction in Barcelona, Venice, and other heavily touristed cities: “Refugees Welcome. Tourists go home.” The first guest speaker we had was Dr. Francesco della Puppa (Ca’ Foscari) who works on migration in Northern Italy and on Venice in particular. This discussion and dialogue was followed with a panel discussion on tourism and community resistance in Venice. The participants of this panel included the activist Tommaso Cacciari, the founder and spokesperson for No Grandi Navi—the protest movement against cruist ships in Venice, and Alberto Madricardo, founder of PER Venezia Consapevole, an organisation that seeks to rebuild a community ethos in Venice through a network of local artists, thinkers, students, and playwrights.
Students discussing pathways of sustaining Venetian communities with Alberto Madricardo and Tommaso Cacciari
Students also visited the Fondazione Giorgio Cini archive on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Upon arriving on the island, students were able to see the physical damage to the stones caused by cruise ships that Tommaso Cacciari had detailed that morning. The afternoon session was devoted to innovative reuse of urban space with the Fondazione Cini as a case study. Students learned about the history of the Fondazione Cini—a cultural research institute founded after the second world war—and about the efforts of Vittorio Cini to not only renovate the former Benedictine abbey that was on the island, but also to recover the wooden furnishings of the Longhena reading room.The reframing and reuse of these spaces, along with their contrasting visions of restoration prompted an engaging discussion about how to preserve Venice’s heritage buildings while also adapting them to modern needs and uses.
This discussion formed the basis of the activity we held in the Fototeca. Among the collections of the Fondazione Cini is a rich photographic archive with photos of Venice from the late 19th century through to the 1970s. Students were given instructions for consulting archival documents and then tasked with researching how Venice had changed in the twentieth century. Students were surprised to discover images of the collapse of the bell tower in San Marco, of the immense flood in 1966, and even of the Squero of the Arzaná where we had been the previous day. The activity allowed students to not only have first-hand exposure to archival materials, but also to follow their own interests through independent research.
Students conducting archival research at the Fondazione Cini
Later in the week, students were invited to the book launch of La Venezia che Vorrei: a collection featuring essays, short stories, photographs, and illustrations by local Venetian artists and intellectuals. All of the contributors were responding to the question “What would you envison for the future of Venice? What kind of Venice would you like to see?” The book launch was held in an atelier that specialised in letterpress and handmade printing along with hosting events that celebrated local artists. Students were able to meet and interact with local residents while listening to staged readings and live music. This event not only permitted students to gain a deeper understanding of Venice as a multifaceted and dynamic city, but it also permitted them to see that some of the cultural traditions under threat were quite contemporary.
Students at the presentation of “La Venezia che Vorrei”
During in-class activities throughout the week, students discussed the impacts that climate change and rising sea levels might have on Venice and other coastal cities, along with detailing a few resilience strategies that such cities have developed. He then led the students in an activity whereby they imagined various sustainable pathways for Venice. Working in groups, students had large sheets of paper where they listed the many sustainability problems Venice faced, and then worked together to come up with a feasible solution. Many groups discovered that part of the problem was political will and inertia. Others noted how many of these problems—overtourism, rising sea levels, political corruption, pollution from heavy industry, gentrification and the destruction of local communities, struggling with the problem of how to adapt to modernity while maintaining traditions of cultural heritage—were not only facing Venice, but indeed were global challenges that intersected on a local level in the problem of Venice.
Students articulating existing problems and potential future pathways.
During the final day of activities, students explored the Venetian lagoon in a traditional Venetian flat-bottomed boat (Bragozzo) to see aspects of the lagoon that are somewhat off the traditional tourist path and to see the lagoon ecosystem firsthand. Dr. Jessica Savage drew on the ecological concepts introduced by Prof. Pastres on Wednesday afternoon and used salt marsh plant charts to help students identify species of plants that they would encounter in the mud flats and salt marshes. We then met up with our boat and guide for the day. As the boat moved through the lagoon, the guide also provided students with information about each of the islands and how Venetians traditionally made use of them (i.e. using one as a plague hospital, another as quarantine for incoming ships, yet another as an armoury, etc…).
We began in Lio Piccolo, a small farming village in the Northern Lagoon with a network of manmade channels for fish farming. Students were able to apply the knowledge they had gained of the Venetian history of fisheries regulations and fish stock management in the discussion around these neglected fish farms, many of which had been transformed into grounds for duck hunting tours. Students were also able to see firsthand how the Venetian lagoon sustained its population through local agriculture and the cultivation of local plants, such as the Carciofo di Sant’Erasmo.
The second stop during the trip was the small fishing island of Burano. Here, students learned about traditional fishing practices in the lagoon, and were surprised to see how much tourism had taken over the traditional island. Students also learned about the tradition of lacemaking in Burano and its intimate ties to the fishing industry. In our discussions, students discovered that much like traditional fishing activities in the lagoon, lacemaking has also been threatened by overtourism with an influx of factory-made, low-cost counterfeit replicas of Burano lace being imported from Asia.
The final stop during the trip was the island of Sant’Erasmo. This large island is known as the “garden of Venice” as it contains a great deal of arable farmland, used to grow grains and vegetables to feed the population of the city. Students walked along a former railway track laid by the Austrian army during their occupation of the city, following the defeat of Napoleon. Discussions returned to the theme of reusing and repurposing existing infrastructure, which had been explored throughout the week. The guide brought us to a beach on the south side of the island. This vantagepoint allowed students to see the Lido inlet of the MOSE dam project, enriching what they had learned the previous day. Dr. Savage led an activity with marine life on the beach, encouraging the students to find particular species and leading them to think critically about how climate change would affect the marine life of the lagoon.
Students learning about marine ecology with guide from Slow Venice and Dr. Jessica Savage
Our final sessions upon our return to Coventry allowed us to bring together the theoretical and practical knowledge that we had gained throughout the module as students delivered their multimedia presentations to the group. The use of problem-based and student-centred learning allowed students to grapple directly with cutting-edge, multifaceted, and interdisciplinary problems facing Venice today. As the module frequently navigated between English and Italian, students also demonstrated a deeper understanding of a multilingual approach to the problems of Venice in their media projects and final papers.
For one media project, students Camille François, Constance Frohly, and Josefa Voigt travelled all over Venice to interview and learn from Venetian artisans throughout the city. Their project focussed on issues of cultural sustainability in a city plagued by overtourism. The students and the individuals interviewed have all provided their consent for the media project to be shared online. You may access their video by clicking here: Venice's Artisans
It is hoped that the Venice module will run again in future. For the moment, logistical details are still being sorted out, but possible future iterations may include a two-week intensive module entirely run in Venice, or a module run in Coventry with an optional field trip to Venice in future years. One of the outputs of the project is an article on dual-site problem-based learning, which is currently in development. For any questions about this module, its scalability, or its adaptability to other contexts, please feel free to contact the module designer and convenor, Dr. Bryan Brazeau firstname.lastname@example.org