Planning and Environmental Disaster in the Ravenna Coastal Plain

From the Series: Coastal Futures

A marsh restoration project in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Taken during a damage survey flight following Hurricane Ida. Photo by Sheehan Moore/SouthWings.

In May 2023, Emilia Romagna in Northern Italy experienced what may be remembered as the worst floods in its history. The province of Ravenna is part of a vast coastal plain, some of which lies below sea level. It is dominated by the Po Delta, whose geomorphology, as with many deltas, is characterized by a long history of expansion through sediment deposits, and more recent subsidence. The subsidence of the plains of the Po Delta has been attributed to sediment loss through hydropower and gravel mining, as well as gas extraction, and the clearing and drainage of most of the ancient swamps and wetlands for agriculture (Parrinello, Bizzi, and Surian 2021).

Through its long history of environmental transformation, the Po Delta lost between 75 and 95 percent of its wetlands, emblematic of Europe’s record of radical loss of this vital form of habitat (Fluet-Chouinard et al. 2023). The process of drainage or “bonification,” which began in Roman times, enabled Emilia Romagna to become the most important agricultural region in Italy. This landscape had been engineered and planned since 268 BC, when the Romans first began clearing centuriae allotments bordered by drainage canals and roads. During the Middle Ages Benedictine monks sought to keep up and develop the work of bonificazione, coining the morally inflected term still used for the reclamation and “improvement” of land. In the early modern period, artificial transformations of the Ravenna coast took off again with the Taglio di Porto Viro, which diverted the waters of the Po away from the Venice lagoon to prevent it silting up and led to much greater levels of sedimentation further south towards Ravenna, and a network of canals and artificial river courses that drained nearly all of the vast coastal delta for farming (Frascaroli, Parrinello, and Root-Bernstein 2021).

The 2023 rains and floods caused thousands of landslides in the Apennine Mountains, rendering hundreds of roads impassable. As the rivers in spate from unusually high rainfall in the Apennines spilled down into the plains, where watercourses and bodies have been corseted into narrow canals over the centuries, several rivers broke their artificial banks, flooding fields, hamlets, and large parts of several cities, especially Faenza, Cesena, and Forlì. A few days later, the networks of canals which irrigate the coastal plain started overflowing and causing further floods. The storm had also caused high sea tides, so that the coast was threatened from all directions. The city of Ravenna and its coastal satellites began to turn into an island, as the plains inland were flooded. Schools were closed to provide shelter for those whose homes had been isolated and rendered uninhabitable. As we write, 20,000 people are still displaced. We joined the thousands of volunteers who helped to clear mud and sodden objects from buildings, and trucks with mechanical grabbers took ten months’ worth of rubbish to landfill in a few days. Officials raised concerns about water sanitation, and swimming wass temporarily forbidden on many stretches of coastline, while the sodden land was treated with DDT in parts of the region to control mosquitoes, given the risk of diseases like West Nile and Chikungunya virus.

Questions quickly formed around the type of reconstruction that would be decided by both national and regional authorities. Local and national governments wanted to show a quick, top-down, effective response to rehouse victims and aid farmers. But less attention was paid to long-term, sustainable approaches. While public discussion of historic land management in the region has included some criticism of land use and “cementification,” as well as the compression of the soil from heavy agricultural machinery, more emphasis has been given to lack of investment in maintaining existing hydrological infrastructures as regional authorities (on the political left) and central government (on the political right) have blamed each other’s administrative legacies. Local politicians like the Mayor of Ravenna made appeals to popular pride and nostalgia, especially among older generations, for the developmental legacy of land reclamation, and the modernization and industrialization of agriculture, which had brought prosperity. Their speeches emphasized the resilience and ingenuity of local inhabitants, thanks to whose labor the water infrastructure was built, and evoked historical figures who designed and launched these grand hydrological projects in order to reclaim the land and “protect” cities: their foresight was said to have “saved” the city of Ravenna (Comune di Ravenna 2023).

Politicians’ appeal to a narrative of improvement and progress is in tension with historical facts: as embankments and deforestation were expanded in the nineteenth century throughout the Po River Basin, a direct consequence was an “increase in the volume of water draining into the river and its canals,” which “resulted in major floods in 1872, 1879 and 1882” (Frascaroli, Parrinello, and Root-Bernstein 2021, 496). Nostalgic associations with land reclamation projects are shared by older generations of dockers in the Ravenna port who remember how industrialization lifted their families out of poverty. They hesitate to embrace the ethical aspirations of a post-industrial world critical of the devastation brought by industries that also brought employment, wealth, and a measure of social justice in the form of job security, generous pay, satisfactory working conditions, and numerous peripheral benefits.

This nostalgia underpins the incapacity of nation states to move away from grand progress narratives, illustrated by the Italian government’s top-down view on hydro-infrastructures. Public health offers a similar area of friction, in the form of longstanding vector-control initiatives that treat wetlands as places of permanent health risk where the possibility of infection has to be monitored constantly.

Climate change combined with the legacy of landscape alteration will make similar events more frequent. This leads environmental scientists to argue that what is needed is to give more space to the rivers and water bodies, rather than raising the riverbanks still further (CIRF n.d.). Indeed a growing scientific orthodoxy supports visions such as those of of architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha who critique the radical separation of land and water, and embrace a dynamic notion of “wetness” (Mathur et al. 2014). But the cultural legacies of millennia of land improvement, and nostalgia for the prosperity afforded by the industrial boom, pose a deep political challenge to the acceptance of such ideas.


Centro Italiano per la Riqualificazione Fluviale (CIRF). 2023. “Alluvioni: Per Ridurre Gli Effetti Non Servono Più Opere Ma Una Revisione Epocale Della Gestione Dei Fiumi e Del Territorio” [Floods: To Reduce the Effects We Don’t Need More Works but an Epochal Review of the Management of Rivers and the Territory]. Centro Italiano per La Riqualificazione Fluviale (blog).

Comune di Ravenna. 2023. L’Alluvione a Ravenna Spiegata Dal Sindaco Michele de Pascale [The Flood in Ravenna Explained by the Mayor Michele de Pascale].

Fluet-Chouinard, Etienne, Benjamin D. Stocker, Zhen Zhang, Avni Malhotra, Joe R. Melton, Benjamin Poulter, Jed O. Kaplan, et al. 2023. “Extensive Global Wetland Loss over the Past Three Centuries.Nature 614, no. 7947): 281–86.

Frascaroli, Fabrizio, Giacomo Parrinello, and Meredith Root-Bernstein. 2021. “Linking Contemporary River Restoration to Economics, Technology, Politics, and Society: Perspectives from a Historical Case Study of the Po River Basin, Italy.Ambio 50, no. 2: 492–504.

Mathur, Anuradha, Dilip da Cunha, Rebekah Meeks, and Matthew Wiener, eds. 2014. Design in the Terrain of Water. Philadelphia: Applied Research + Design Publ.

Parrinello, Giacomo, Simone Bizzi, and Nicola Surian. 2021. “The Retreat of the Delta: A Geomorphological History of the Po River Basin during the Twentieth Century.Water History 13, no. 1: 117–36.