Portsmouth: an English Venice?

Guy Walker imagines the future of Portsmouth if the city modelled itself on Venice.

A flat, wide lagoon reflects dazzling light. The saline waters seem still, almost stagnant. A smudge on the distant skyline shimmers in the heat. Upright wooden posts transect the horizon. Approaching the distant smudge by boat, spires and domes emerge among a tumble of buildings. Flags flutter on striped uprights, the sea slaps against pontoons and gulls wheel over Venice. This is a city built on mudflats, the island refuge of peoples threatened by barbarians, connected to the mainland now, solely, by a road and rail bridge.

On the south coast of England lies an island city built on mudflats. There are no hills, railway bridges providing the only elevation. It is surrounded by two large natural harbours, one of considerable depth. At one time, due to the high number of small terraced houses provided for shipbuilding labourers during the boom of the ironclads, this island was the most densely populated urban area in Europe. Today the city, served by a motorway and two arterial roads, is often heavily congested.

Could Portsmouth ever become the English version of Venice?

Venice is served in virtually every respect by water. A network of canals gives access by boat to most properties with the necessity, only, of a short walk. Refuse is removed, the emergency services patrol, undertakers visit and fridges, freezers and televisions are delivered by water-born craft. The city does not know the car although most Venetians own one. They are kept in multi-stories on the mainland at Marghera or Mestre, for example. The Venezia Santa Lucia railway station welcomes trains on the island via the bridge to the mainland and residents have reduced price passes on the waterbuses or Vaporetti that act as public transport. Buses trespass on the island on the Piazzale Roma but this is only a foothold beyond which they never venture.

Clearly Portsmouth is not served by the same network of canals as Venice, although it used to have a single one cutting across the city from the Dockyard to the end of Locksway Road via Arundel Street. However, were one to purge the city of private motor vehicles one could transform it at a stroke. Residential roads would be opened up for raised gardens, children’s games or sitting out. People would walk or cycle as a preferred means of transport. The atmosphere, in every sense, would be improved immensely and the island city would become a fascinating novelty of some renown.

Such a suggestion, of course, raises innumerable questions.

How do we service the shops and supermarkets? How do we get the tourists into the Dockyard? How do we service the naval base? What about access to the Isle of Wight and Channel ferries? What about emergency vehicles? How do the old and infirm get about? How do we get refuse out? Do we allow Supermarket delivery vans? How do citizens receive their fridges and TVs? How do the football fans and the Great South runners get in and out?

Well, we ban the private car only from Portsea Island. We license a large fleet of taxis. We permit delivery vans and lorries to service shops and businesses. We allow supermarket delivery vans the run of the town. We keep two arterial roads and the Motorway open allowing them to connect with the main commercial centres, the Dockyard and the ferries. We put in excellent regular public transport in the form of buses and, perhaps, trams criss-crossing the city and connecting with transport hubs on the mainland. We beef up the Park and Ride system and the Park and Sail. We install multi-stories for residents’ saloon cars at North Harbour and other sites and we sustain the railway stations we have already. Emergency vehicles continue to function as they do now. Bicycles and pedestrians are prioritised.

Would this be the making of the Waterfront City or the death of it? Would Gunwharf lose its customers or would rail, ferry, bus and tram links continue to provide it with lifeblood? With our commutable distance from London and the Hindhead tunnel in place would this become a special place to live, pushing property prices up as more people choose to inhabit a unique Island-Garden city? Would the city’s poorer areas be changed for the better? Would districts foster a greater sense of community so that we have our own equivalents of the Venetian sestieri of Canareggio, Dorsoduro and San Marco? Would the University flourish even more than it does now with such a unique attraction to students? Would the arts find a home in this special environment? Although Portsmouth cannot compete with the wealth of riches to be found in Venice, it has, in the Historic Dockyard, one of the most visited attractions in Britain. Would the new nature of the city increase tourist frequentation of the city even more?

As we pan out from the centre we glide away over expanses of water speckled with sails and marshland inhabited by kingfishers, waders and, in the summer, little terns, all within walking distance. The city becomes a smudge with the Spinnaker tower, alone, as a visible vertical.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.