Can the Porto Vecchio undergo a sustainable development? It depends on the EU

11.04.2021 – 09.00 – The European Union, Trieste, the Porto Vecchio. If we want to choose an order of magnitude, all three terms are often present and interconnected when discussing the former northern free-trade zone; yet they are rarely adequately contextualized. Certainly, European Union funds will guarantee the revitalization of Trieste; and in turn this will happen thanks to the Porto Vecchio. But what is Europe asking for, given the billions (maybe) at stake? And how, according to urban planners and architects, is the Municipality of Trieste moving in relation to such a vast and gigantic area as Porto Vecchio? The perspective in which all three terms of the equation must be considered is the environmental one; more specifically, sustainable development. Although in Italy, we look at European Union funds through the vulgar filter of “billions coming in”, European aid appears to be subordinate to a precise plan of environmental sustainability, to a green turn that parallels American and Chinese efforts.

Green in this context is not just a coloring or a bonus with which to add a few more points to one’s proposal, but a founding element in the general discourse. This very issue was addressed on Wednesday, April 7th, by the Veritas Study Center, through a conference with the significant title: “Porto Vecchio: prospects for sustainable development.” Coordinated by Jesuit Father Luciano Larivera, the meeting analyzed the Porto Vecchio through a speech by architect William Starc, former public manager and member of the network “Un’Altra Città – Trieste”. Larivera recalled how that of Porto Vecchio was a topic already discussed twenty years ago; and in recent months, thanks to the ongoing construction sites, it has become “a hot topic, now magmatic”. In this regard, the subtitle prefigures more than an evolution “a species leap”: it is necessary to change both the development model and the timing, trying to foresee how the Porto Vecchio will be in 2030/2050, with a bird’s-eye view, looking far ahead.

William Starc has basically retraced in parallel on the one hand, the environmental path crossed in the last decade by the European Union and by the main supranational organizations, with a green turn accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic; and on the other hand, analyzing the ongoing redevelopment of the Porto Vecchio. The two elements – the European/environmental one and the port one – should go hand in hand, one supporting the other; but the directions appear divergent, if not on a collision course. The Porto Vecchio, Starc recalled, is characterized by being a two-faced Janus: on the one side there is a physical environment planned in the nineteenth century in all its aspects; on the other side there is the powerful idea of the Free-Trade Zone and the reality of a nineteenth-century port that was that of an empire of millions of people.

Today – after the hardships of the 1900s – both the commercial port and the Porto Vecchio can face their future development more serenely. And in the case of the former northern Free-Trade Port, this development extends luxuriantly for 65 hectares equivalent to 1 million cubic meters. A considerable area, considering that in Trieste, in 10 years, 900,000 cubic meters have been built, just a few less than the entire Porto Vecchio. A legacy that cannot disregard a well-marked physiognomy, with warehouses with two or more floors built with reinforced concrete and floors with iron crossbeams. In this context, Starc pointed out that already in 1971 there was “Kenzo Tange’s project for the transformation of Porto Vecchio, which envisaged the metamorphosis of the entire area into a business center with artificial islands and a development axis looking towards Monfalcone.

Irony or prescience? Considering how the Authority has recently included the Monfalcone port in its sphere of action, perhaps both. And yet, according to Starc, there seems to be a lack of overall vision: “we continue to look at our region, without looking around, without having an international vision”, even though “the European Union could guarantee us enough breathing space to give us incredible potential”. It’s true, of course: the warehouses are full of projects on the Porto Vecchio! However, according to Starc, it was necessary, after the demarcation, “not […] to do yet another project, but to have a strategic idea of our territory”. To date, however, “The mountain has given birth to a mouse”. The potential of Porto Vecchio seems to shrink in the distance, to be enclosed within topographical boundaries. This is certainly not something new, according to Starc, who cited the example of the silos: bought at the end of the 1990s by the Municipality of Trieste, they were to be transformed into a multipurpose center.

The agreement even envisaged a congress center that today, with the two present in Porto Vecchio, would become the third in the city. In this context where there is a gap between local and international, between Trieste and the EU, Starc has preferred to focus the intervention on two elements: housing and transport. In the first case, in Starc’s opinion, the Porto Vecchio “for its so marked identity can never become a fourth suburb”. The guidelines of the European Union, from which the funds come, do not accept an excessive use of the land and on the contrary reward its conservation. More green, more trees; and less building. In this context, the transformation costs of the Habsburg warehouses would be incompatible with the European directives; besides being an excessively expensive operation. In fact, next to the use of the warehouses for residential purposes, 100 thousand cubic meters of building are foreseen; a proposal dramatically in contrast with what the European community asks.

The EU invites “to plant trees, to free areas, to give oxygen to the city, to provide a new idea of sustainable living”. The vision of a fourth suburb, finally, seems “incompatible with the demographic profile” that sees a decrease that cannot be buffered by new minorities, such as the Serbian one, which appear transitory. Starc’s judgement is lapidary: “To speak of residence in the Porto Vecchio is blasphemy”. In addition to housing, the problem of transportation is another burning issue in relation to the Porto Vecchio, which sees the two blocks of proponents of the cable car and the rubber on the one hand and the railways and streetcars on the other. Starc falls into the latter category, noting that the variant approved by the Superintendence provided for the preservation of the “historic” track bundles. The current plan provides for a railway, but with the incongruous presence of “right angles” that would presuppose the use of turntables. Instead, according to Starc, “all rail lines should be safeguarded for possible re-functionalization.”

After all, if one wanted to think of a cruise terminal in Porto Vecchio, “what could be better than getting off the ship, taking the train and going to Zagreb, Vienna or Ljubljana?”. At the present stage, therefore, the ongoing recovery of the Porto Vecchio does not seem to correspond “to the canons of sustainability” required by the European Union. There will, in fact, be “billions available, but for objectively sustainable projects”. In addition, according to Starc, “I don’t think there are entrepreneurs willing to risk in similar projects, without having a way to calculate in how much time they’re going to amortize compared to the expenses”. Even the private sector’s contribution, according to the architect, is therefore overestimated. Overall, the conference suffered – like many similar meetings on the Porto Vecchio – from a disproportion between pars destruens and pars construens: the criticisms were not accompanied by alternatives such as to replace on paper what was prefigured by the Variant. The time left, considering the arrival of the European funds and the ongoing requalification, does not allow pauses for reflection; the impasse must be circumvented unless we want to lose the prospected financing. In this context it should be admitted how the Municipality of Trieste has in recent years started the work, traced the road to follow, while previously that same road had always remained on paper; on technical paper of course and with beautiful drawings. But tragically unrealized.

[Zeno Saracino]