The Consumed City

Rethinking urban tourism in Venice through big data

By Carmelo Ignaccolo

Once the heart of a powerful maritime republic, Venice’s historic city has lost more than 120,000 residents since the early 1950s, driven away by myriad issues, including, more recently, 21st-century mass tourism. These intertwined socio-economic dynamics have put the city of Venice into an existential conundrum: can Venice be both a tourist attraction and a nice place to live?

The strain of mass tourism on historic destinations like Venice has generated a growing debate about a city’s responsibility to share its cultural heritage while safeguarding its sense of place for current residents and future generations. Until now, however, spatial data has been underutilized to understand where and at what intensity tourism services (such as souvenir shops, short-term rentals, etc.) cluster in cities.

Through maps and animated visualizations, The Consumed City–an exhibition by MIT researcher Carmelo Ignaccolo currently on view at Palazzo Mora (European Cultural Centre) during the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale–narrates a spatial investigation of tourism in Venice by harnessing data on lodging (6,642 Airbnb listings, InsideAirbnb), dining (997 restaurants, Tripadvisor), and shopping (226 tourist-oriented stores, Google Points of Interest).

Carmelo Ignaccolo–exhibition curator and urban planning researcher at MIT–said:

“We constructed a highly granular Tourism Index, which measures, almost at the building level, the magnitude of tourism-related activities. This Index can inform policymakers on how to identify areas with extremely high tourism saturation and act accordingly by limiting the number of tourism services.”

Detail of map containing short-term rentals, restaurants, and souvenir stores. Credit: Carmelo Ignaccolo
Exhibition Catalog. Credit: Matteo Losurdo
A group of tourists snaps some selfies from the ground floor of the former Palazzo Reale at the west end of Piazza San Marco, looking out from the deep shade of the classical arcade. Credit: Jiakun He
A group of kids plays in the footsteps of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Cannaregio, where the church’s polychrome marbles meet the water of the canal. Credit: Jiakun He
Exhibition space of “The Consumed City” located on the mezzanine floor of Palazzo Mora. Credit Carmelo Ignaccolo
Venice and the nearly ubiquitous presence of short-term rentals (yellow circles), restaurants (light green circles), and tourist-oriented stores (orange circles), such as souvenir and high-end designer stores. Credit: Carmelo Ignaccolo
Riva degli Schiavoni, a wide promenade plenty of souvenir stalls. Credit: Jiakun He
Palazzo Mora — exhibition venue of “Time Space Existence” organized by the European Cultural Center. Credit: Matteo Losurdo

The Consumed City invites visitors to experience and understand the omnipresence of tourism in Venice through the lenses of big data and digital visualizations. Visitors are encouraged to explore the geography of Venice and the distribution of Airbnbs (some of them with more than 15 beds in a single apartment unit!), restaurants ranked by an ad hoc Internationality Score (calculated by mining thousands of Tripadvisor reviews in more than 20 languages), and tourist-oriented stores. By showcasing the complexity of tourism dynamics, the maps of The Consumed City render visible the tourism geography of the city. Moreover, they become instrumental in raising awareness about the urgent need to construct a more socio-economic resilient Venice.

“The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the volatility, unpredictability, and fragility of the tourism sector. However, the recent uptick in visitors to historic cities still requires a more holistic understanding to link tourism intensity to specific sites and urban form conditions,” said Ignaccolo.

Acting as a visual policy-making tool, The Consumed City, advocates for the use of maps and data analytics to support tourism management strategies in cities “consumed” by tourism.

The “Consumed City” is sponsored by the Council for the Arts at MIT and by the MIT Urban Planning Department’s Bemis Fund, generously provided by Dean Hashim Sarkis of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning and Curator of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. “The Consumed City“ was further supported by the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University.

The Consumed City (video)

Team Credits

Curator: Carmelo Ignaccolo
Scientific Supervision: Prof. Sarah Williams
Researchers: Emily Levenson, Melody Phu, Leo Saenger, Yuke Zheng
Digital Animation Designer: Ting Zhang
Exhibition Design Assistant: Dila Ozberkman

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