Back to the Future

Between Land and Water on the Po Delta

Two regions, a river, a land that extends 60 kilometers from Ravenna to Chioggia and a community that endures with its feet planted firmly in the future. Beatrice Magagnoli and Filippo La Fleur, LAND architects, lead us on a discovery of the Po Delta.

The Po Delta is an ambitious redevelopment project where land and sea meet. A dream for the future of a vast area with a wealth of history and nature. It’s not an idyllic-type landscape, but is instead productive, alive, something that can be molded to match a socio-economic and political vision.

We depart from the Ferrara train station and drive toward the lands of Consorzio Uomini Massenzatica (CUM), the historic farm consortium, which according to historical sources has since the year 1026 tended a territory that is now 350 hectares in size. In 2019, at the European Landscape Convention, it received a special mention from the Landscape Award Alliance of the Council of Europe, for the most virtuous projects linked to development of the landscape. “After a careful historic, cultural, and naturalistic analysis, our role, for now, has been to define a strategic vision, identify key focal points, and prioritize short to medium-term actions,” says Filippo. “It’s a vision. From now until 2100, the year the seas are expected to rise, there would be a need for projects that incrementally help you adapt to the future, where the great challenge for agriculture is to develop productive landscapes that function as much as possible like an ecosystem. That means more diversity, more energy cooperation among plants, it means resilience, it means water, it means carbon, phosphorous, potassium, it means a lot of things.” While we talk, the scene shifts imperceptibly before our eyes: the soil becomes sandy, the vegetation changes, giving way to forms that are unusual even for those who are used to the Po Valley landscape.

We meet Carlo Ragazzi and Ribes Trombini, president and vice-president of the consortium, in the magnificent setting of the Pomposa Abbey. The first thing we absolutely must see to understand the local area, they say, is the hydraulic system of locks, which alternately empty and fill, making it possible to control water level and salinity. Because we’re below sea level, and not all that long ago the cultivated fields before us were all water. “Salt water,” says Beatrice. “Even today, during dry periods, the sea rises and the water tables are contaminated.”

And you understand that you have to give space back to Nature, to the ecosystems, to what was there before us. It’s also a moral question, it means keeping the land from dying.

Beatrice Magagnoli, Landscape Architect at LAND

Time’s running short, we have a boat ride booked in the Valli di Comacchio. We follow the road that skirts the waterfront, the beaches visited mostly by tourists, where uncontrolled development proceeds apace even though the buildings remain vacant. When we get to Comacchio, it feels like we’ve entered a unique ecosystem. “Comacchio is like an island,” says Ribes “with a very strong identity.” We can feel it wherever we turn, while we cross the Valli di Comacchio by boat, with its wetlands crowded with flamingos and many other species of birds. The boat docks near a casone, a typical river dwelling that was once a refuge for eel fishermen, made of reeds and other natural materials from the Po Delta.

The boat returns to the wharf and we set off for Massenzatica again for a visit to the consortium offices and the surrounding fields, cultivated with great care and respect for the natural setting. “The sand dunes, only remnants of which remain today, are nothing more than the traces of the advancing coastline over the centuries,” says Beatrice “Above these lines nature reestablished itself spontaneously, then the great landscape rationalization occurred, and today the sandy land is cultivated year round.”

The last stop for the day is a brief pause along the shores of Po di Goro, a branch of the river whose banks curl around the large Castle of Mesola. It’s a land where you have to look to the past to imagine the future. “One of the concepts dear to LAND is ‘back to the future,’” says Filippo “learning from the past to design the future. In the decade (United Nations 2021-2030) of restoring ecosystems, Nature plays an even more structural and strategic role, including in monetary terms. A project that includes 60 kilometers of green infrastructure from Chioggia to Ravenna is a great agricultural-environmental and water laboratory, traversed by a series of bike and pedestrian paths and touchpoint regeneration structures where services and functions can be concentrated.”

The next morning, we end our walk at the Bosco della Mesola nature reserve, 835 hectares that are home to Italy’s only native crow species, along with many other animal and plant species that are unique in terms of diversity. We say goodbye to Carlo, Ribes and the Po Delta, our eyes filled with wonder. Our trip concludes with ice cream on the Cathedral square in Ferrara. It’s still very warm, even though it’s September. “Speaking personally, I’m particularly attached to this project – I was born here and live here,” says Beatrice. “At a certain point, you become aware that this system can’t continue like this and be sustainable. And you understand that you have to give space back to Nature, to the ecosystems, to what was there before us. It’s also a moral question, it means keeping the land from dying.”

Text: Manuel Toso

One of the concepts dear to LAND is back to the future.

Filippo La Fleur, Landscape Architect at LAND

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