Read: Can the San Francisco Bay be saved from the sea?
When UNESCO recognized Venice as a World Heritage site, the designation embraced not just the city but the lagoon as well. Venice is honored as a unique urban area that has partnered with an equally unique ecosystem throughout its history. Projects in the lagoon have recognized that dual designation, consistently resisting the impulse to treat the lagoon as a means to an urban end. By contrast, most coastal American cities have not restored their natural, environmental features, which over time have lost much of their identity, purpose, and integrity.
Flood-control restorations on the Venetian barrier islands have also brought back resident and transient birds, fish, and mammals that rely on the resources of the intertidal zone and the dunes for food, shelter, and reproduction. Within the lagoon, restoration has provided nesting sites for more than half of the bird species indigenous to the Italian peninsula. During fall and winter migrations, the lagoon is a reliable and rich refueling station for trans-Mediterranean wildlife. And like the shoreline that edges them, coastal fishing grounds are deeply impacted by onshore development and pollution. When coastal waters are degraded, nutrients essential to ocean dwellers are diminished, and ecosystems that fish rely on during their growth cycle are compromised.
In America, restoring coastal habitats is not a hot-button issue like climate-change adaptation is. But the NOAA argues that climate-adaptation projects go hand in hand with coastal habitat restoration. Through landform reclamation, one problem, in effect, solves the other.
In a just-released study called “Coastal Resilience Solutions for South Boston,” planners laid out a multifaceted program that parallels interventions projected in Venice. The South Boston plan also includes the development of open spaces, dunes, and a “living shoreline” that promise social benefits in addition to flood control. The Boston plan emphasizes public recreation and urban amenity rather than habitat restoration, but experience in the lagoon suggests that wildlife and water quality will be positively impacted as well.
On the other side of the country, San Diego Bay shares many of the Venetian Lagoon’s characteristics. Storm surges and El Niño events already anticipate what will happen as climate change raises sea levels in the United States. The San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative is the major coordinator of responses in the area, and like many similar organizations in America—the Chesapeake Bay Program, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, and others—it has been focused on collecting data, convening stakeholders, and informing the public about what to expect as waters rise.
The San Diego Bay is vulnerable to a whole host of problems—with stormwater clearance, with shoreline access, with floodplains, and with the fish and bird species that depend on the bay—that will only worsen with climate change. Here, Venice’s achievements are especially pertinent and encouraging. Successes in the lagoon are clearer and more complete than in any other part of the Venetian climate-adaptation program.