I’m currently taking a class called “Declining Cities” as part of my Master of Science in Urban Planning. It seems like population is the most commonly used metric for determining whether a city is declining, although my impression is that population was chosen for convenience, rather than because it’s a particularly good indicator. With Earth’s population well beyond the planet’s carrying capacity already (I’m sure you’ve already heard about how many Earths we would need to sustain various lifestyles), population decline will almost certainly become the norm in due course anyway (at least in the aggregate). At that point, maybe we will start using another metric, such as economic performance. Although there might not be much of an economy left at that point, anyway!

I am very familiar with the city of Venice (Italy), so I am planning to look more closely at that city during this class. To help visualize the decline of population there, I plotted some data points that I collected from various sources. Each dot represents a census or other population estimate, and I have linked them together with straight lines as a basic form of visual interpolation. Unsurprisingly, the dots get closer together as time goes on, as the censuses became more regular and consistent, and in the last few years the dots actually represent the daily estimates prepared by the city’s statistical office, which I have been recording for the last year or so.
Some of the dips correspond to significant events in the history of Venice, including plagues and the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. The graph’s most obvious attribute, though, is the unprecedented decline in population from 174,755 people in 1951 to 56,310 people as of today, January 25. In other words, for every ten Venetians 64 years ago, there are only three living there today. Imagine what that means for the provision of services, housing, and amenities. The loss of grocery stores and other basic necessities has been exacerbated by the birth of literally billions of potential new tourists since the 1950s, so it’s no surprise that Venetians are left wondering if they’re expected to subsist by eating papier-mâché Carnival masks. You have to admire the commitment of those who remain.

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