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Future perspectives of Porto Marghera

Porto Marghera, the most famous industrial area in Italy, is just one of the many cases of industrial waterfronts which are slowly and inexorably becoming areas of urban decay, pollution and dereliction. Many cities, during the twentieth century, have developed their industrial and commercial activities near water bodies. Today, because of the natural evolution of cities and the intense relocation of industries due to changing patterns of the global industrial geography, these areas are progressively losing their original role. What should local authorities do about these abandoned sites then? A first step is to look at these areas as opportunities rather than problems.

Panoramic view of Marghera (on the left) and Venice (on the right). Source: Vetto on Flickr

The adoption of this optimistic way of thinking gives space to an infinite number of potential solutions. A site within the city and strongly connected to water bodies has a high intrinsic potential of attractiveness. Some examples could be the creation of communal meeting places, centers of arts and entertainment, or even the conversion and renewal of existing companies in more environmentally and socially sustainable activities.

The case study of Porto Marghera is the perfect example to understand the problems of a typical declining industrial site and to raise the awareness about the high regeneration potential of such attractive areas.  Located on the Italian mainland, right in front of the city-island of Venice, at the top end of the Adriatic sea, Porto Marghera is in a strategic position to act as the European gateway for trade flows to and from Asia.

The waterfront where Porto Marghera is located stands in a unique ecosystem in which the Venetian lagoon, an enclosed bay of the Adriatic Sea, is the main actor. The waterfront contains in itself a vast industrial area of about 2,000 hectares, the size of a small town,  with about 14,000 employees and 700 companies. The main activities of the industrial area of Porto Marghera concern basic chemical productions, oil processing (refining, cracking, etc.), deposit of petrochemical products, fertilizers production, production of synthetic fibers, production and distribution of industrial gases and electricity, waste treatment and so on. All the activities within the area are closely interlinked between each other, since the intermediate and final products of certain companies constitute the raw materials for the productive cycles of others. Porto Marghera can therefore be defined as an industrial network where every company sustains and is sustained by the others.

This industrial complex has been one of the most important and influential in Europe, reaching its apex of employment in 1965 with 32,890 workers. But from that year, things have drastically changed. Currently, Porto Marghera is subjected to several economic, environmental and social issues that have generated numerous abandoned industrial sites (brownfields). Moreover, the expected rehabilitation and reutilization processes which could bring new life to an area with such a great potential, are constantly slowed down by legal and political issues.

A Polluted Environment

Former Industry situated in Porto Marghera. Source: Cioriz on Flickr.

In Italy, Porto Marghera is called “the mother of all contaminations”. As a result of the industrial activities listed above, the chemical contamination of the environmental compartments (air, water, soil and sediments) of Porto Marghera has soon become a serious problem. The remarkable biodiversity of the Venetian lagoon, a protected wetland (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands), and the great cultural value of the city of Venice (UNESCO World Heritage Site) are constantly threatened by the presence of Porto Marghera. The major contaminants found in the soil, sediments and waters of Porto Marghera are:

  • Organochlorides and by-products: Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), Organochloride pesticides (DDT), Organochloride pesticides (DDT), Dioxins;
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (IPA);
  • Heavy Metals: Arsenic, Cadmium, Copper, Lead, Zinc.

Therefore, it looks pretty clear that the Venetian lagoon has been utilized as a dumpsite for several years by the industries of the area. The effects of these behaviors on the quality of waters, air, soil, on biodiversity and even on human health are many:  numerous incidents of dead fish due to lack of oxygen in the water and the excessive concentration of harmful elements, abnormal proliferation of algae, impoverishment of species, and cases of chronic diseases and deaths on the local population.

Besides the chemical hazard for the environment and the local population, the high reclamation costs are the main “limiting factor” of the rehabilitation of the several abandoned or underused industrial sites in Porto Marghera.

An Unstable Social and Economic Situation

Italian workers on strike. Source: Luigi Marino on Flickr

The industrial area of Porto Marghera reached its apex of employment in 1965 with 32,890 workers. From that moment, the industrial area has been subjected to a progressive fall which has leaded to the actual situation: 14,190 workers in 2008.
This progressive and relentless decline in jobs has been leading to numerous strikes of workers of the area. These strikes, see picture to the left of the general discontent of the employees of Porto Marghera, have negative effects also on the local population. Demonstrations usually cause discomforts and discontent between the citizens. Moreover, the high level of degradation and abandonment of some former industrial sites has led to the increase of the phenomena of prostitution and drug dealing.

Regarding the economic situation, the area of Porto Marghera is struggling to maintain its strategic relevance in the local and national economy. Chemical, metallurgical, and oil industries are the sectors for which the problem was particularly acute. These sectors have often, especially in the past, conflicted with the protection of the environment and with other human activities creating unsustainable conditions. Finally, the crisis of the industrial sector, affecting many developed countries, is bankrupting many small businesses and is fostering the shift of larger companies toward eastern European countries, where labor costs are lower and binding environmental laws are fewer and milder.

Solutions: Green economy, Commercial Transport and Research

A conversion to the green economy, or rather to an economy that is compatible with the surrounding environment, would be functional not only for a better cohabitation within the urban context of Venice, but also for the relaunch of the companies still active and for the establishment of new and innovative businesses.

  • VEGA Scientific Park (Venice Gateway for Science and Technology): one of the most important Science and Technology Parks in Italy, active in the most advanced sectors of technological innovation: Nanotechnologies, Information Communication Technology (ICT), and the Green Economy. It is a network of universities, research centers and manufacturing business aimed at promoting and developing scientific research initiatives to help the transfer of knowledge, and to stimulate technological development and the competitive edge of companies. VEGA is most successful example of the redevelopment potential of Porto Marghera.
  • Pandora, the first “intelligent” building: the project, in collaboration with the MIT, has been compared to a living organism. The building will be completely autonomous, equipped with ergonomic furniture made of recycled material and with a “thinking” fiber optic system that will allow various diagnoses and to communicate with users of the building. The building will then be able to make independent decisions to reduce energy consumption, to adapt in the best possible way the workspaces, and so on. Thanks to the “cloud computing” and to the external sensors, the brise-soleil (sun-shading technique) will automatically be oriented in the most congenial direction for every climatic situation of the year, letting the sun rays go through the windows during the winter and stopping them during the summer. The facades will be coated with a nanotechnological fabric treated with titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide that will allow a self-cleaning action and the photocatalysis of  particulate matter and of nitrogen oxides, thus providing an important depolluting action of the air
  • Bioethanol production: In 2005 it has been presented an innovative project related to the production of bioethanol in Porto Marghera, where it has located the largest milling plant in Europe. This project would allow the reduction of air pollution and would contribute to energy savings. Moreover, it would reduce the dependence on imported oil. Unfortunately, the current economic crisis has created an unfavorable situation for investments on such activities.
  • Green Oil refinery: Green oil is a project that will produce biofuels, additives and antioxidants for foods, medicines and dietary supplements from biomasses which result from the food and the biotechnological industry.
  • INCA (Interuniversity National Consortium “Chemistry for the Environment”): INCA was established in October 1993 by five Italian universities, including the University Ca’ Foscari of Venice. Its objective is to create skills through the creation of a network of scholars engaged in the chemical field of environmental protection principles and then spread principles and areas of interest related to the sustainable and green chemistry.
  • Fusina integrated Pole – CDR Production: the Fusina integrated pole for the disposal of waste allows the utilization of 70,000 tons of refuse derived fuel (RDF), which replace 5% of the coal used.  This is the first case in Italy and Europe. 70,000 tons of RDF are sufficient to supply electricity to 35,000 households (the whole annual supply of the inhabitants in the island of Venice).
  • Hydrogen Power Plant: In August 2009 the world’s first hydrogen power plant has successfully started. The Fusina hydrogen power plant has a capacity of 12 MW, as well as an additional 4 MW generated through the hot gases produced by the hydrogen-fueled turbine. The total energy produced, approximately 60 million kWh per year, is able to meet the needs of 20,000 households, avoiding the emission of more than 17,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).
  • eNave – Energy from algae: On March 2008 the Port Authority of Venice presented the project to build an algae power plant. It could make the Port of Venice energy independent, also including the energy supply required by ships (to reach the independency goal the creation of a solar park is also required). The power plant will be built on an area of 10 hectares, will employ 46 people and will consist of two units: one for the breeding of microalgae, the other to turn biomass in electricity.
  • Vallone Moranzani Project: The “Vallone Moranzani” project utilizes the dredged sludge of the Venetian Lagoon in a program of environmental and urban restoration designed to providing parks, a renewed and improved road network, and an environmentally safer area to the local communities of Marghera. The project involves an area of 500 ha situated along the Lagoon. It provides the implementation of permanent safety measures of over 2 million tons of polluted sludge resulted from the South and West Canals. The cost of the entire operation is worth 477 million €.

These are just few example of sustainable activities which allow the reutilization of industrial spaces and infrastructures. Such interventions can maintain industrial activities in the area, by transforming and making them more compatible with the surrounding environment and the local population. Moreover, it creates the conditions for the settlement of new economic or research activities and of public areas such as parks or squares. Porto Marghera is the perfect example of how hard things can be to regenerate industrial areas but at the same time it proposes some interesting solutions that can be applied in many other similar cases.