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Long-term (1989 to date) Italian resident, originally from UK, I'm an ex-teacher, passionate naturalist and environmentalist who works as a wildlife tour-guide and translator.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

The internet abhors a vacuum or why we desperately needed “Padania Classics”.

I love Italy dearly, and "my own" north-east in particular. We're like a married couple, tiffs and to-dos, exasperation and ecstasy but so far we've always kissed and made up and in 2014 we celebrated our silver anniversary together. I fear it maybe 'til death us do part. That said there are some habits she has that I'll never accept and today I'll tell you about one of them that has a direct bearing on nature and the environment.

"Capannoni" (warehousing / factories) outside Jesolo (Venice) Similar structures are dotted right across 'Padania', the macro-region stretching from Italy's border with Slovenia right across to Milan and beyond - from Streeview

The Region Veneto (and to a lesser extent my own, neighbouring Region, Friuli Venezia Giulia) has fine reputation abroad. It remains one of Italy's economic power-houses and its capital, Venice, is the single most incredible human-created tourist spectacle, bar none, on the planet and within 50 miles of which lie other, "minor" cultural deities such as Verona, Vicenza, Padua and Treviso as well as outsiders such Ravenna and Ferrara not far away. Throw in 24 UNESCO-listed and 6 unlisted Palladian villas and almost 2000 listed Venetian villas and you get the picture. Nowhere else on the planet, (at least nowhere else on the planet outside Italy) comes close. Period. So what's the problem?

Fooled you! Not a Venetian villa at all but a mock-up 'mobilificio' (furniture factory store) outside Codroipo, complete with concrete statues. For sale too if you have delusions of grandeur and are insane. This is my personal favourite and shows, or I hope it shows, a fine sense of irony, self-effacement and humility. It was killed off as a commercial concern by the crisis and an Ikea opening up 20 miles away. - from Streeview
 A dear departed friend of mine, the first Italian friend I made, a naturalist called Ignazio Zanutto used to tell the tale of a trip to the Province of Padua with a botanist in search of rare and endangered wetland flora. At a certain point along yet another straight road with roundabouts in a sea of cement, houses, small factories and, here and there, tiny patches of ancient wet meadow with rare orchids and adders-tongue ferns the botanist grasped the steering-wheel hard and, at the top of his voice, howled "Argh!! La metastasi umana!" ... "Human metastases!" What was he screaming about? The appalling state of what passes for Italian "town planning", particularly in the north and north-east and the savage "consumo di suolo" - consumption of land -  all the worst excesses of post-First World War UK with ribbon development, speculative building and the devouring of green field sites, much of it top grade agricultural land, under a torrent of concrete, asphalt and hardcore.

Semi-abandoned industrial units outside Fossalta (Venice) - from Streeview
Some numbers: The Veneto is in second place in Italy for loss of green field sites, having lost between 8.5% and 10.5% of its overall surface area to concrete in the period from 1956 to 2010 - between 1,550 and 1,900 km2. According to a study by ISPRA (Italy's Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research) the Veneto is just behind the Lombardy Region (which has lost between 9 and 12%) and ahead of Lazio and Emilia Romagna (in joint third place with 7.5 - 9%). After 250 years of industrial development the UK, of a similar order of size to Italy, has obviously also lost land, just 6% IN TOTAL to urban sprawl.
The (for me) infamous, giant "Gardens of Jesolo" shopping centre outside Jesolo (Venice) which has roof-gardens but whenever I pass just seems totally abandoned although I'm told it's still open. Below is a photo from the AGRIBET0N website, apparently boasting about it as one of their finest works!?! - above from Streeview, below, the web.

What does that mean in terms of area? At a provincial level between 1993 and 2006, the Region Veneto's Tavolo tecnico permanente di sviluppo disciplinare, its planning control office , estimated that the province of Verona had lost 8,000 hectares to development, followed by Venice a little less than 7,000 ha and Padua 5,000 ha. Treviso saw 4,500 hectares go under concrete, Vicenza 3,500. while the smaller provinces of Rovigo and Belluno lost 1,500 and 1,000 hectares respectively for a grand total of  33,159 hectares or 332 square kilometres. How big is that? An area roughly a fifth of the size of metropolitan London urbanised in just 13 years.  In that time the population of the Veneto grew from 4,405,288 to 4,841,933, up about 1% a year. just 436,000 new residents but a piece of ground 10 metres by 76 metres under concrete for every new resident added! Since 2006 however, and the economic crisis, those losses have slowed and many of the speculatively-contructed factory buildings and warehouses lie empty along with other, older ones, lain waste by the downturn. No "green belt", no rational aforethought, just naked, speculative greed. Utterly fucked.

An anonymous Padanian idyll. The muddy river winding between its concreted banks, 
the dredgings, road embankment, trucks and sound barriers. - from Streeview
What's left? A sea of some of the most hideous townscapes in Europe. Mile after mile of soul-destroying ugliness and brutality, waste and shortsightedness. Exactly what happens when money (lots of it) meets a lack of culture and education.... a sort of sad, lower-case Dubai. I once attempted to discuss this with a notable town planning academic who shall remain nameless, recently retired from the Università Iuav di Venezia (founded in 1926 as the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia ("the Higher Institute of Architecture of Venice"), while acknowledging the problem he was extremely defensive and didn't want to talk about it ... at all!

Veneto. The Region that has made ribbon development a virtue and a centrepiece of its "growth". - from Streeview
Which is why Padania Classics is important. It's a website and book cataloguing this catastrophe They DO want to talk about it. They do want to tell you about it, both in English and Italian, holding a light up to this, admittedly minor, Crime Against Humanity. They're on Facebook too. This isn't one of those optimistic stories with a potentially happy ending; you know the sort: "If we do this then we can avoid the consequences!". The damage is done and it will take centuries of abandonment and weathering to grind the resultant mess back into the limestone river gravels it was mostly created from.

Why screw-up the countryside with asphalt and concrete on one side only when you can do it on all four? - from Streeview
I've not tried to pick the ugliest or the worst. Just a few random shots plus my favourite via Streetview to give you a flavour of sites that await the unsuspecting visitor. You have been warned.

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