I went to Venezia with my family while travelling in Italy in July. I had not be there for about 20 years. My wife, who is not Italian, had been there a couple of times. My daughters really wanted to go there and see it with their own eyes for the first time.
On the steps in front of the railways station of S. Lucia looking at the Canal Grande, the traffic of boats, the old buildings … I felt the same feeling of wonder of many many years ago when I visited Venezia for the first time. It is really a special place. It was of course very busy with tourists. But if you walk away from the main route from Rialto to S. Marco, you can find a lot of small squares, narrow streets, corners which are very quiet and still Venetian.
We rented a small apartment which had a small terrace on the roof of the building. We could sit there and watch the roofs of other houses and the bell towers of the many churches of the city.
On evening, looking at those roofs, the intricate maze of narrow roads, and remembering what we had seen during the day, I thought about Venezia as a Doing Development Differently pilot that has now lasted for centuries. I imagined the first settlers who in the 5th century moved from the mainland to the marshes and the sandy islands of the Laguna after the fall of the Western Roman Empire to escape the barbarians who were raiding the Roman Empire former territories. Those settlements were initially temporary, but at some points the settlers must have had some discussions (or maybe planning meetings and brainstorming sessions) to talk about staying or leaving. Maybe the majority thoughts that living on those islands was not possible, let alone starting to build buildings and houses. Maybe few of them thought that: ‘Yes, this may be crazy and we do not know if it will work, but why not to try to build our village here?’ Some settlers then decided to return to the mainland. Others stayed and started to work on this dream. The village became villages. Bridges soon connected the small sandy islands and became a city.
I imagined that the settlers must have also had to learn new ways of doing things. For example, how to create a solid foundation for the buildings on a very sandy and watery terrain? They used wooden poles which they drove into the sandy ground. Then, wooden platforms were constructed on top of these stakes. Finally, the buildings were constructed on these platforms. They may have had to learn new crafts and knowledge on top of the knowledge they already possessed. They must have experimented. Failed. Succeeded. Tried new ways of doing things.
The result? A wonderful and unique city which from the late 7th century until 1797 was an economic and trading power.
While watching the cityscape from that small terrace on the roof of an old Venetian old blockhouse I imagined the courage of the first settlers in trying something new and different. Something inspiring for the development interventions of today.