It seems that everyone wants a piece of Venice, from selfie-stick-wielding tourists and foreign entrepreneurs to self-interested politicians and the rising Adriatic Sea. As La Serenissima sails further into the 21st century, new (and revisited) challenges are stirring up some rather choppy seas. How does a city reconcile its magnetism with its fragility, its individuality with an increasingly homogenised, globalised world?

#Venexodus

Tempers are fraying in La Serenissima as the rising tide of tourism – 25 million per annum – threatens to overwhelm the city. Of the 54,976 residents who remain in the historic centre (down from 102,000 in 1976), life in the world’s most beautiful city is woeful, featuring low-wage employment, lack of affordable housing, neglected civic infrastructure, political disenfranchisement and a declining quality of life.

Top of the list of grievances is the lack of affordable housing, which is forcing young Venetians out of their island home and over to mainland Mestre from where 40,000 of them currently commute. The liberalisation of the rental sector in 2013 and the growth of home-rental websites mean fewer and fewer apartments are available to rent. After all, when tourists will pay €1000 a week to rent an apartment, renting to locals for a quarter of the price is hardly an enticing prospect.

Soaring real-estate prices have also precipitated the closure of essential businesses, from bakeries to hardware stores. Most of these are replaced by fast-food outlets and souvenir shops selling cheap, foreign-made trinkets. More worryingly, schools and libraries are underfunded; fish stalls at the Pescaria are disappearing due to lack of customers; valuable public properties (such as islands, parks and palaces) are sold off to cover city debts; and even the maternity ward at the Ospedale Civile is threatened with closure.

These challenges are propelling an increasing number of grassroots organisations – including Venessia (venessia.com), Generazione90 (facebook.com/generazione90), Venezia Cambia (veneziacambia.org) and We Are Here Venice (weareherevenice.org) – to raise public awareness and lobby politicians to take action. Their chief demands: immediate measures to tackle the housing crisis; a complete ban of cruise ships from the lagoon; regulation on the speed and number of boats; and the creation of a sustainable, long-term tourism strategy.

A Showdown at Unesco

Venice now faces the threat of being placed on Unesco’s Endangered Heritage Sites list, after a damning report on the degradation of the city was issued by Icomos (International Council on Monuments and Sites) in 2015.

In order to avoid the highly embarrassing listing and uncomfortably close monitoring of the city by Unesco, Venice needs to come up with a plan for the protection of the city, its inhabitants and the lagoon environment. In February 2017, Mayor Brugnaro announced the €457 million ‘Pact of Venice’ aimed at revitalising the city, although concrete action has been minimal to date. But young Venetians and campaigners won’t be ignored this time. Many plan to travel to Krakow in July 2017 to witness the Unesco vote and remind the world that Venice is not a cultural theme park but a living, breathing city.

The Changing Shape of Venice

As the population of Venice dwindles, the Metropolitan City of Venice has grown to encompass 2.6 million people. This newly designated area, approved in 2014, includes the urban agglomerations of Padua, Treviso and Venice and replaces the old province, which previously incorporated Venice, Mestre and the communities bordering the lagoon. The change aims to improve coordination in regional governance and upgrade the area's economic base.

On the face of it, this seems sensible given that many of the issues Venice faces are exacerbated by a lack of coordination between the original 21 municipalities. But Venetians are wary of the change, afraid that the highly specific issues facing the lagoon city will be lost in broader, regional concerns and a further political drive to pursue growth over sustainability. Already, the demographic disparity between Venice and Mestre (30:70) puts the concerns of historic centre in second place.

In response to this, Venice plans to hold a fifth referendum on the separation of the cities of Venice and Mestre. It argues that the issue is self-governance of the unique city rather than ‘separation’. Many people in Mestre are also in favour of the split arguing that they, too, need autonomy to shift the perception that Mestre is a suburban dormitory without specific needs and identity. Ideally, both sides would like to see two independent, but interdependent, cities with a networked economy rooted in sustainability that recognises Venice’s special status. It’s a hopeful vision and one that residents are committed to realising.