The Venetian Arsenale is perhaps best known for hosting one half of the prestigious Venice Biennale, the international art and architecture exhibition. However, the northern part of the former shipyard, which covers no less than 15% of the city, has remained closer to its military and industrial roots. Tucked away from the 60,000-70,000 tourists who visit Venice daily, the north Arsenale houses a number of companies and institutions responsible for constructing and managing the complicated infrastructure of the man-made lagoon.
One of these companies is Thetis, an engineering firm which operates Venice’s public transportation system and monitors traffic. Its premises comprises several repurposed buildings situated around a central garden. The garden is neatly kept, filled with trees and flower beds.
More notably it houses a large collection of contemporary sculptures in a fenced-off area, referred to by the firm as ‘Spazio Thetis’.
However, despite previously sitting unused for years, the site of the sculpture garden is in fact allocated public space, as declared by the Venezia Communa (the city’s municipal government). When the Communa pointed out that the land was actually designated for the public, Thetis responded that they would happily hand the gated area back the to the Communa - as long as they were prepared to pay the thousands of euros per month it costs to maintain the sculptures and flower beds.
The garden, fenced-off from the public in the name of preserving the art, is a particularly apt metaphor for the bizarre deadlock regarding the use of space that exists between Venice’s residents, the Communa and the private sector. Its complicated history raises questions about what is assigned value in Venice. Who speaks for the city? How can progress be made?
We Are Here Venice (WAHV), a Venetian think-tank and activist platform, was created to navigate these issues. Founded by Jane Da Mosto, the organisation describe themselves as ‘a non-profit association that addresses Venice’s challenges as a living city and advocates evidence-based approaches to policy making’.
This is no mean feat: Venice’s challenges are numerous and overlapping. During a walk around the city and northern Arsenale, Jane told us about the efforts of WAHV to address ecological threats to the lagoon, including rising water levels and pollution from cruise ships, as well as overtourism and the decline of the permanent population.
What separates WAHV from traditional activist groups is their unique methodological approach, working with everyone from scientists, universities, businesses, cultural institutions and public authorities. As well as evidence-based research, the organisation interrogates the language of value and systems of governance that can often impede progress.
Their undertakings are not only used to inform policy-making, but also seek to changes perceptions of Venice to that of a living city. Through events and community engagement WAHV equips local residents to engage with the urban fabric of their city, encouraging them to take part and get involved in the processes that shape the built environment of Venice. Consequently, WAHV play a vital role as a mediator between these different actors, all with a stake in the city’s future, where previous communication had been severely lacking.
However, there is still a long way to go. At the end of our visit, Jane rather poignantly informed us that since the 1980s, the decline of the Venetian salt marshes, vital to the lagoon’s ecosystem, has occured at the exact same rate as that of the local population. Clearly, the issues facing Venice as a city, an ecosystem and a home cannot be separated- making the approach of WAHV all the more essential.