Pandemic presents opportunity to rethink our cities for tourism and living, says urban designer

Using big data to rethink urban tourism in cities strained by overtourism like Venice.

Contextualizing the impact that architecture has on the public space is absolutely crucial.

The dream of travelling again post-pandemic to places such as Venice, will have its challenges. (Michelle Parise)

It's been a long time since the pandemic brought tourism to a screeching halt last year. But as international travel prepares to slowly restart again, there's a risk of encountering some old problems. 

Urban designer and architect Carmelo Ignaccolo is working to address one of those problems in particular: overtourism.

Carmelo Ignaccolo was the project lead on a 2020 joint MIT and Harvard study of overtourism in Venice. (Carmelo Ignaccolo)

Ignaccolo is currently a Ph.D. candidate in city design and development at MIT and an adjunct faculty of digital techniques for urban design at Columbia University. In his work, he investigates everything that has to do with historic cities. He wants to understand the challenges and peculiarities of historic centres, especially when they are facing 21st century issues — things like gentrification, overtourism and the maintenance of historic buildings.

In early 2020, Ignaccolo led a project examining overtourism in one of the world's most-visited cities. The study was called 'Unmasking Tourism in Venice: How tourism dynamics unfold within the built environment'.

According to the UN's World Tourism Organization, 2017 saw global tourism rise by about 7% compared to the previous seven years. And some cities, such as Venice, hosted more of those travellers than others, leading to more pollution, overcrowding and rising living costs.

"Imagine that in 2018, the city recorded more than 30 million visitors in a single year. And the ratio between tourists and residents is sometimes really striking. Like in certain moments of the year, you can have 114 visitors versus one single resident," Ignaccolo told Spark host Nora Young.

He said that although this phenomenon has brought economic prosperity to the city, it's taken a toll on the infrastructure. "In a city that's planned for, perhaps having 50,000 residents, think about the plumbing system of the sewage and how it could perform when you triple the number of people in the city."

Overtourism in the historic centre of Venice, as seen on the busy Ponte Rialto, has long been a problem for the city. (Michelle Parise)

Beyond preserving monuments and public spaces, at the core of the issue is the identity of the city and maintaining that sense of place in the historic city for future generations, said Ignaccolo. "Can we envision new ways to make Venice a more socioeconomic resilient city?"

The aim of the project, Ignaccolo said, was to understand how to make a city a good place for tourists and residents to coexist, as well as open up discussions among stakeholders, policymakers and residents about how the city actually functions. 

"There are very different ways in which data can really help us plan better cities," he said.

In collaboration with the University of Venice and local Venetians, Ignaccolo and a team from MIT and Harvard, composed of architects, computer scientists, economists and people who study art and architecture from a historic point of view, looked at spatial data and constructed a tourism index for the city based on tourist behaviour in different neighbourhoods.

"We compiled data about 6,642 Airbnb rentals, tourist oriented shops from Google's point of interest, such as souvenir stores or mask shops that are quite popular in Venice and we also took into account the languages and nationalities of TripAdvisor reviewers in approximately 1,000 Venetian restaurants, just to understand the type of visitors that usually like to dine in certain places."

"We really wanted to take a snapshot picture of how the city performs and how visitors and inhabitants live and experience the built environment."

Tourist-focused shops are layered over Airbnb listings from January 2020 in this map of Venice. (MIT)

He said the study serves as a prototype for other cities facing similar problems. "I believe that planners can replicate this data-driven approach in other tourism dependent cities to understand the spatiality of tourism dynamics." 

One of the patterns that emerged through the project was how popular landmarks and changes in street width, like the leap from narrow alley to wide piazza, known as campi in Venice, predict high tourism levels across the city. "This is where pedestrians tend to slow down to sort of reorient themselves because of sudden changes in the physical surroundings." 

While the pandemic did solve the overtourism problem in Venice and many other cities around the world, it also offered an unprecedented opportunity to rethink regulations, said Ignaccolo. "If we go back in history to 1631, for example, the epidemic gave Venice one of its most iconic landmarks, Santa Maria della Salute."

He hopes that this period will lead to a balanced post-pandemic urban life for cities like Venice, where the turnstiles at Piazza San Marco or in Piazzale Roma will become relics of the past no longer needed to quell the crowds.

By identifying areas prone to touristification, Ignaccolo said, there are advanced ways in which urban planning regulation could tap into existing data sets and inform more specific policy regulations in the city that do not just look at the phenomenon of tourism, but question how built environment constraints or landmarks have an impact.

He said there is also value in smart technology being used to help manage crowds in a city like Venice, which hosts a series of cultural and religious events that tend to gather many people on specific days of the year. "Knowing how the narrow calle in Venice are crowded through real, live data could be definitely helpful."

But these tools should be used with caution and restraint, he said.

"I don't want to see the use of data as a sort of objective, top-down way of managing the built environment. And if deploying so many sensors about the city could potentially turn into a more surveilled atmosphere, I don't think that that would be a good direction for the city of Venice. Locals should be empowered and aware of how these tools could be used and they should take ownership of this action."

He said data can produce a positive feedback loop for those who are visiting the spaces, those who are inhabiting them, and the city authority. By using that type of information, local authorities could plan for improvement of public services, better types of accommodations or the redesign of certain public spaces.

"Concerned citizens in our opinion can, for example, better advocate for resources necessary for urban life, with specific information about current businesses."

Written and produced by Samraweet Yohannes.