Sustainability Revolution in the Venice Lagoon: La Certosa Smart Island and e-Mobility Pioneer for Water Transport

November 19, 2015 | 00:00
Sustainability Revolution in the Venice Lagoon: La Certosa Smart Island and e-Mobility Pioneer for Water Transport
Sustainability Revolution in the Venice Lagoon: La Certosa Smart Island and e-Mobility Pioneer for Water Transport
La Certosa is one of the largest islands in the Venice Lagoon, located at the very heart of it, just 200 meters from the historical town and 2 km East of the renowned Piazza San Marco.

La Certosa Island circled in red
Picture 1: La Certosa Island circled in red


Throughout its history, the identity of the island had been changing. Once an abode of the Augustinians and the Carthusian monks, with developed religious and agricultural sites (XIII century), during the Napoleonic occupation it was turned into a military base with the "Pyrotechnics of Certosa" established on the island. The decline of the military industrial activity in 1962 subsequently marked the complete abandonment of La Certosa, the urban use of which was confined to being an unofficial waste disposal site confined in the Eastern part of it. At the same time, as for the rest of the island, the abandonment made it possible for Mother Nature to gain back control over the island, quickly turning part of it into a dense, valuable ecosystem: a practical example of what the Venice Lagoon ecosystem may have looked alike if human exploitation would have been just a little less invasive. As of 1982, the island was set to become an urban park in line with the urban standards for the Venetian historical center, however only in the late 90’s the Venice City Council was granted the concession to carry out the programme of island redevelopment.

La Certosa: State of Art in 1987
Picture 2: La Certosa: State of Art in 1987

Back then, mainly with the help of EU funding programmes (ERDF, PIC RETEX), some general, structural maintenance and remediation of the island took place (restoration of the island’s sea wall, the construction of the first new buildings, such as a shipyard and a hotel).

Vento di Venezia Ltd. (VdV) started developing the island's economy back in 2005 with its commercial offer in the nautical sector, as it made Certosa home to its activities and offices. The objective of VdV has been to unlock the socio-economic potential of the Venice Lagoon, starting from the strategic redevelopment of La Certosa. Therefore, the first step was creating and locating in the island the “Polo Nautico” (Nautical Pole) for designing, building and operating facilities and delivering services for recreational boating in the Lagoon. Apart from that, VdV has been promoting environmental education, sustainable tourism, sports and cultural events, while also running a sailing school and hospitality services. This is how Certosa shortly became a hub providing integrated services for the nautical sector in the area.

Land remediation of the island & creating the certosa urban park

While the industrial part of the island received such strong impetus by VdV, the park area still remained underdeveloped. Only in 2007 the City of Venice created the first area of the urban park of about 3 hectares in the surroundings of the shipyard area.

The City of Venice then launched a public tender to find a partner that would be able to carry out the management and implementation of the public urban park project in Certosa, relying on a public-private partnership (PPP). VdV decided to apply for the tender and, in 2009, won it to create, activate and manage the urban park on the Certosa island. A year later the Masterplan presented by VdV was approved and the company was granted a concession to manage the entire island for fifty years.

Land remediation activity, that took advantage also of the adoption of innovative phyto-remediation [1] techniques, to clean the site from the contamination generated by its military past and illegal waste dumping, was the key precondition set by the Venetian Authorities for launching new initiatives on the island, and this was one of the main tasks carried out with the coordination of VdV during the last two years.

Phyto-remediation in Certosa explained schematically.
Picture 3: Phyto-remediation in Certosa explained schematically.

The remediation programme, in turn, enabled the development of further innovative energy and sustainability projects on the island, such as:

  • the reuse of inert materials (about 7.500 m3) from the demolition to realize a surface cover in the park (including pedestrian paths);

  • the reuse of green materials as soil amendments;

  • the discovery and cataloguing of archeological findings.

This very year, the first phase of the environmental remediation work will be finalized, and the largest part of the Certosa Urban Park is ready to be opened.

2015: La Certosa Development status (VdV and Polo Nautico VdV developed services and infrastructure on the western side of the island).
Picture 4: 2015: La Certosa Development status (VdV and Polo Nautico VdV developed services and infrastructure on the western side of the island).

Picture 5. La Certosa Development Masterpan 2010
Picture 5. La Certosa Development Masterpan 2010

Certosa plan for the sustainable recovery: towards an off-grid smart island model

A milestone for the island’s development has been the approval of the Plan for the Sustainable Recovery [2] jointly developed by the Italian Ministry for the Environment, Land, and Sea (IMELS), the City of Venice, and VdV (2013). The main axis of interventions envisaged in the Plan is fostering the development of a comprehensive program of activities composed by energy efficiency solutions in buildings, local renewable energy generation & storage, public smart-lighting, land & water e-mobility, and other innovative pilot actions on the island. At the same time, such a Plan allows for the Certosa development to go hand in hand with the establishment of the "Ecodistrict Porto Marghera" - a centre for enhanced urban waste management located a few kilometers away, in the industrial compound hosted by the industrial port of Venice.

Underpinned by the carbon management methodology, the Plan for the Sustainable Recovery essentially enables the creation of a new ecosystem in Certosa, connecting the natural, technological and social dimensions of the island. It does this by covering multiple systems (e.g. energy, water, sewage, communication), while being carbon-neutral, and keeping the island free, open and beneficial for the public and the growth of economic activities. The actions set out in the Plan are meant to be finalized by the end of 2016.

The table below summarizes the main pillars of the Certosa Plan, while a schematic map pinpoints the exact areas of the project's implementation on the island.


Plan for the Sustainable Recovery of Certosa: main actions.
Picture 6: Plan for the Sustainable Recovery of Certosa: main actions.

This smart integrated system of energy, utilities, water and waste management & monitoring on the island is designed to achieve advanced resource self-sufficiency with a minimal carbon footprint and minimal energy supply costs.

The latter objective, in turn, is enabled by a comprehensive set of solutions, which includes energy efficiency technologies and retrofit; an integrated energy system (generation from renewables sources, transmission and storage) with PV energy generated by solar panels on residential rooftops, geothermal and potentially vertical wind turbines. Systems for rainwater collection and phyto-purification technologies complement the overall energy model of the island, while sustainable transportation on and around la Certosa is envisaged to complete the smart island profile.

A wireless broadband network connection that will cover la Certosa facilitates management of the entire system.

When it comes to construction and retrofit interventions, the developers are set to use the best practices in environmental sustainability, ensuring the balance between cost effectiveness and the environmental impact, including that of the complete life cycles of resources used during the construction and operation phases.

A number of pilot retrofit projects have been considered already over years, for instance, designing double layer façade as a promising technology, weatherproof, with thermo and acoustic insulation (see Picture 7). [3]

An example of double façade retrofit technology envisaged on the Certosa island (pilot project was envisaged back in 2010)
Picture 7: An example of double façade retrofit technology envisaged on the Certosa island (pilot project was envisaged back in 2010)

Simultaneously, a number of pilot energy projects and testing programmes on the island have been discussed jointly between VdV and several international players. There is clearly a lot of potential for exploiting the island as a test bed for new technological and process solutions, particularly in the energy field.

In early 2015 an experimental project using new insulation materials – based on the use of advanced cork coating – was implemented on a residential unit, and the energy performance of the latter has been monitored ever since.

One innovation stream developed in Certosa that hasn’t been discussed yet is that of sustainable mobility. By the end of next year, all the land vehicles on the island used for the internal mobility, as well as the machinery to handle boats in the dry-dock area or to maintain the park, will be running on electric or electro-hydraulic motors. The electrification of the ground transportation will also be coupled with the establishment of a network of charging stations connected to the smart grid, to ensure a balanced distribution of energy acquired from the network and produced by the photovoltaic panels.

On top of that, moving beyond the scope of the island, la Certosa finds itself at the epicenter of a both hybrid and full-electric mobility revolution for water transport in the Venice Lagoon.

Sustainable water transport in the venice lagoon: Electric boat sharing project as global emobility benchmark

Sustainable mobility indeed constitutes one of the key elements for the integration of natural, social, and technological ecosystems, while in the case of the Venice Lagoon, it is not only a desirable achievement, but an unconditional priority.

Noise, pollution, and wave motion caused by marine transport are identified as one of the primary threats for the site in a number of studies. [4] The Venetian research consortium CORILA, that focuses on all the scientific aspects of the Venice lagoon system, has been addressing these issues too through a number multi-disciplinary research projects on the Lagoon’s metabolism, biodiversity, hydrodynamics, and morphology, to list just some of the topics.

At the same time, on the political level, the need for developing “green” water-borne transportation alternatives is also stressed in a number of regional policy documents, such as the Smart Specialization Strategy of the neighboring Friuli Venezia Giulia Region. While environmental sustainability and its role in the smart community model feature in the Smart Specialization Strategy of the Veneto Region itself [5].

Despite the clear scientific evidence base, as well as explicit political support, so far the deployment of alternative marine transport has been lagging behind, especially compared to the expansion of electric, hybrid and compressed natural gas (CNG) land vehicles across Europe.

That said, given the role of water transport for the socio-economic profile of the Lagoon, shifting to a new low-carbon transport system is undoubtedly key to unlocking the sustainability potential of the Lagoon itself and possibly across the greater region.

From the commercial and technical perspective, the Lagoon of Venice with over 30,000 boats working on the internal combustion engines could be considered an ideal living lab for implementing low/zero emissions technologies. In this sense, it can set an example for other areas with fragile ecosystems, particularly exposed to detrimental anthropogenic impact in both their natural and architectonic values.

Boats with electric propulsion and electronic control are known to have a number of advantages compared to those with combustion engine: not only environmental and operational advantages, but also maneuverability, weight distribution, elimination of vibrations and noise (which means greater comfort for passengers and the environment with minor damage to urban fabric/infrastructures of the Lagoon). There are of course a number of issues that come along with the expansion of electric boats, such as low durability of the accumulation system, as well availability of a recharging network, let alone the legitimacy of such a new solution within the local society.

However, most of the technical issues could be solved efficiently and rapidly given the number of proven technological solutions available on the market and the advancement in sectoral R&D.

In order to bridge this gap between existing scientific knowledge and best practices adopted by industry, the triple helix partnership was formed with the local authorities (the City of Venice), private companies and major industrial players (including Enel, Siemens, the local waste/water management utility VERITAS, the local public transport company ACTV, and, of course, VdV), as well as research organizations (Ca 'Foscari University of Venice, University of Padua and CORILA), that in year 2012 conceived the Electrosmartboats project proposal, to bid for public funds and spark electric mobility in the Lagoon.

Although the Electrosmartboats project was not selected for funding, part of it fed into the Plan for the Sustainable Recovery co-funded by IMELS, where the retrofit activities carried out throughout the Plan cover all the key types of water transport in the Lagoon (see the table above). 

Apart from that, a pioneering service – not only for Venice, but on the global scale -, will be launched through the above mentioned Plan: the Venice Electric Boat Sharing system (VEBS), that allows for shared use of small electric boats, which can be driven by anyone (no need for a license). It is expected that the first 10 electric boats for the boat sharing initiative will be available for citizens and visitors in the coming year, while a network of charging stations will be established across the Lagoon. The relevant infrastructures and moorings will be spread across the main strategic transit knots of Venetian mobility routes, thereby facilitating further scale up of the project.

Central moorings lots (swap & charge) of the VEBS project, headquartered at la Certosa.
Picture 8: Central moorings lots (swap & charge) of the VEBS project, headquartered at la Certosa.

What next for Certosa?

The current initiatives developed on and around La Certosa through the entrepreneurial discovery process seem to be setting a new best practice of establishing a PPP that delivers comprehensive projects addressing a spectrum of socio-economic challenges in energy sustainability, urban development, as well as mobility.

The PPP cooperation has indeed served as a strategic tool to activate the island’s regeneration process, which in turn, created an opportunity to start the redevelopment of the island and boost public and private investments into the public property. Hence, this smart sustainable energy island model was eventually created through a smart synergy between tools and existing technologies.

Perhaps it would not take long to broaden the local scope of sustainable solutions expansion from Certosa, making the island a benchmark project and a model for the territorial redevelopment process in neighbouring areas. There are, as a matter of fact, other surrounding islands that have been experiencing decades of abandonment and depreciation. This is the case, for example, for the Sant’Andrea island. The latter could soon form a new chapter in the Venetian redevelopment book, opened by la Certosa story, which served as a powerful catalyst for the region.

Finally, one may also suggest that synergies and good practice sharing could be developed on the European level, for instance, with projects of similar nature in Scotland and Denmark. For this reason, a comparison with conditions and solutions adopted in the different locations may be well worth studying.

Meanwhile, it is safe to say that La Certosa is emerging as the true sustainable energy pioneer in Europe. The symbiotic functioning of social and ecological ecosystems in La Certosa makes it a quintessential self-sustainable smart island project, which will be reinforcing the regional and national strategies for sustainable energy development and CO2 emissions reductions, contributing to the delivery of national 2020 targets and essentially embodying the wider EU 2050 energy sustainability vision. Stay tuned for new insights to come.

The table with the main pillars of the Certosa Plan and a schematic map with the exact areas of the project's implementation on the island.

1. Type of bioremediation (phyto-remediation) used in the case of Certosa - enhanced degradation of PAH’s in the rhizosphere and associated microbial community (rhizodegradation) of two herbace plants (Festuca arundinacea Schreb. and Medicago sativa L.)
2. Financed through a fund established by the Italian Government in 2007 to co-finance promotion of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in partnership with public and private entities.
3. See
4. For instance, see UNESCO’s “Fragile Venice” study.
5. Smart Specialization Strategy of the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region, pp. 50, 72, 82.
Smart Specialization Strategy of the Veneto Region, pp. 115, 129.

Daria Nochevnik, European Energy Review and Greek Energy Forum.
Alessandro Costa, Venice International University

Image: Aerial view of the Venetian Lagoon, showing many of the islands. By: Chris 73. CC-BY licence.
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