Infrastructure Lessons From Venice

How a city built on water handled its infrastructure gives America much to think about.
by | April 2017

Alex Marshall

Alex is a Governing columnist and a Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City.

One of Venice's many cisterns (Shutterstock)

I had the good fortune to travel this winter to Venice, that serene collection of islands filled with grand homes and set on avenues of water in a lagoon on Italy’s Adriatic Sea. And like most visitors, I was smitten with the lovely stone plazas, or “campi,” sprinkled amid its network of small alley-like streets.

Given that Venetians in centuries past had to dredge up and fortify each square meter of buildable land, I was surprised at how many of these plazas there were, and wondered if Venetians simply loved their public spaces that much. I learned that there was a more practical and essential reason for so many campi: drinkable water.

Venice has no fresh groundwater underneath it, so it initially had to rely on rainwater for drinking. At the center of each campi is what looks like a stone well but is actually a cistern. In addition, each square has four drains. The rain that falls into them enters a filtration system made of rock and sand that ends at the cistern.

The campi and its cisterns reminded me of the larger story of infrastructure that plays out in America and everywhere else -- that it is about much more than serving a specific need for, say, roads to convey us from place to place. The complex interplay of infrastructure, commerce and government determines not only how our societies function but also reflects how -- and if -- we govern ourselves.

For Venice, the water system was just one of many factors that enabled a city lacking natural resources to climb and stay at the top of the hierarchy of wealth and status in Europe for at least half a millennium. This city, which during its heyday was really a nation and empire of its own, was motivated to trade and cooperate with other cities and nations because of its natural environment. Some scholars believe it was because Venice had to dredge land, sink pilings, build bulkheads and so on that pushed its residents to govern themselves, a rare feat for the time, rather than descending into the bloody wars of kings and aristocracy.

While kings fought over the rest of Europe, Venice was a republic from 697 to 1797. That last year, Napoleon conquered it with nary a shot, thus ending the Venetian republic and the reign of the last doge, its elected leader. Having won, the short Corsican handed the city, to its horror, over to Austria, which it remained part of for most of the 19th century.

Under its new overlords, the elaborate infrastructure systems Venice had in place declined. The Austrians did improve its transport to the mainland by building a bridge. But it came at a price because it ended the city’s sacred physical independence. Other systems were neglected as well. By the mid-19th century, only a minority of the cisterns still functioned, and the city’s sewer system, which funneled waste from houses and streets into canals, was barely working. Venice began to suffer episodes of disease and a reputation for foul-smelling canals. This was the background of Thomas Mann’s 1912 masterpiece, Death in Venice, in which the novella’s main character is stricken during an outbreak of cholera. Mann presents the epidemic as an act of God. But it was really the product -- at least in part -- of a dysfunctioning political system.

In recent decades, our own fragmented infrastructure systems have decayed physically as well. Is this because we, like Venice in the 19th century, are decaying politically and unable to govern ourselves? It’s clear that our roads, bridges, water and other systems are generally considered to be in the worst state of repair in our republic’s history. And we are spending less than ever on infrastructure. What’s unclear is whether we can pull it back together.

Perhaps we can. When I look around our country, it’s not hard to find big, bold infrastructure projects. In Manhattan, it was national news when the first leg of the Second Avenue subway opened this New Year’s Day. As one of the initial riders, I can attest to the joy New Yorkers expressed as they walked through the stations, gleaming with public art, and rode the new trains. The smiles reflected not only pent-up demand but also gladness to see that America can still do stuff. And in last November’s elections, Los Angeles, Seattle and other cities approved tax increases for new revenue streams to support rail, bus, water and other systems.

Our new president has promised that he will make trains zoom and bridges sparkle to match those in Europe and Asia. But it’s always been difficult in this country to build public works. Thanks in part to our English roots, we have a fragmented governing infrastructure -- local, state and federal, plus an independent judiciary -- that produces fragmented physical infrastructure. It’s no accident that former English colonies tend to lack things taken for granted in other advanced countries, such as high-speed rail.

But things are still possible. Venice got out of Austria’s grip when it joined the newly unifying Italy in 1866. Two decades later, an underground aqueduct was built from the city to the mainland, finally ending Venice’s water troubles.

Let’s hope we can find ways to keep our infrastructure systems going and to build needed new ones. And let’s hope we can do it the best way, through our democratic institutions and without the help or hindrance of any Napoleons.

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