Como is justifiably famous for the beauty of its natural surroundings and of its ancient walled city, for the inventiveness and quality of its silk production and for the creativity and skills of its artists and artisans throughout the centuries. The list of positives does not end there but it also ranks as the city with the longest, worst managed and corrupted civil engineering project throughout Northern Italy – a project that saw the imprisonment of its first citizen and which has tried the patience of its residents over the last eighteen years. An end to the sorry saga is now in sight, but the shadow of Como’s administrative shame may well linger for years to come.
Long term residents of Como may well have despaired of seeing an end to the project aimed at strengthening the city’s flood defences, known locally as ‘le paratie’ (barriers) . The project was first identified in 2003 but did not actually start until 2008. This delay was just a brief foretaste of things to come when all work was suspended in 2012 as the council and its contractors fell into a long legal dispute. Como’s city council had commissioned the project, secured the budget, appointed directors of work and other specialists from their staff and awarded the contract to SACAIM, one of Italy’s large civil engineering companies based in Venice.
But now, 18 years after the project was first mooted and nine years since it hit the buffers, an end is finally in sight. Como will get all of its lakefront back by 2023. Nor is this just another vain promise since visible progress is there for all to see. And we now also know what our lakefront will look like when we reach the end of this prolonged and tortuous saga.
Why the Delays?
In retrospect, the project grew too big for the council to manage. But they had allowed it to grow out of hand by seeking to implement a series of modifications to the original contract. This was a typical case of project creep – a risk known to all project managers but one with severe impact on large civil engineering projects of this sort. In fact many of the changes requested by the council may well have had technical merit (and the final solution does seem to have incorporated them). But the way the council sought to commission them was all wrong and caused them and their key contractor legal issues on all sides.
Not only was the prime contractor concerned about the financing of these changes but they and the council had started implementing them without gaining appropriate planning approvals or going through the correct tendering process. You don’t go changing the profile of the lakefront without first establishing your right to do so. Some personal financial interests in enlarging the project were also implicated prompted by the promise and temptations offered by the ever-growing budget. These led to the start of anti-corruption enquiries.
The council proceeded even more slowly once the anti-corruption enquiries began, particularly after the first arrest of council officials in 2016. By this stage, the Lombardy Region had finally lost patience with the ability of the Como City Council to restart let alone finish the project. The Region stepped in to take over all responsibility for the project from 2017. However even further time elapsed as the old contractor SACAIM tidied up and left the site before a new contractor could be appointed.
The new invitation to tender now managed by the Lombardy Region was not even published until July 2019. Further delays put down to the Covid pandemic meant the new contractor, Aria SpA, was not appointed until May 2020. But finally from that date, fixed periods of 21 months for completion of the first phase and a further 11 months for the second phase were published. Promises of biweekly updates to the public were then made and work in earnest recommenced. Now with an end date in sight, a conclusion can finally be envisaged to what had seemed to be Como’s own never-ending story.
The Impact of Delays
Como’s lakefront runs on three sides with the beautiful Passeggiata from Villa Olmo to the Tempio Voltiano and the lakefront gardens to the west, the Lungo Lario Trento and Trieste passing Piazza Cavour in the centre and finally the stretch running along Viale Geno on the east. It was the central section of the lakefront that was the worst affected by the stalled project. Wooden barriers had been erected along this stretch at the start of the project in 2008 cutting off all views of the lake. These barriers remained in place, in spite of a total lack of activity, until 2015 when the local business organisation, Amici di Como, paid for the temporary renovation of the section running from the Navigazione’s ticket office to the start of the lakeside gardens. However the wooden barriers running from the old ticket office along Lungo Lario Trieste were left in place for yet another two years. Deprived of their lake view, Como’s residents and visitors were instead confronted by these fixed screens still displaying the old posters placed by SACAIM advertising what the end result of this phantom project should look like.
Italy’s anti-corruption agency ANAC, established in 2012 to prevent corruption in public entities, first began to take interest in Como’s flood defence project in 2015. This led initially to the arrest of two engineers employed by the council to direct the works. Their investigations led to the arrest of a further five officials including the then mayor, Mario Lucini. All seven accused finally faced sentence at the start of 2019 with the main Director of Works, Pietro Gilardoni, receiving a four year sentence and the mayor, Mario Lucini imprisoned for a year and a half. The others received custodial sentences ranging from six months to two years.
Needless to say, the image of the city council and its centre-left political administration suffered badly faced with their inability to move the project forward and reinforced by the charges of corruption brought against the mayor and his other appointees. The financial journal ‘Il Sole 24 Ore’ publishes a yearly ranking of council leaders’ approval ratings. When Mario Lucini first took up his post he came 5th in this poll nationally with a 74.9% approval rating. By 2017 he had fallen down to 56th position with a 53.5% approval rating. Even that judgement by Como’s residents seems generous in retrospect.
The President of the Lombardy Region was Roberto Maroni, a stalwart of the Lega who no doubt took some delight in putting his political opponents to shame when he and the Region stepped in to take control of the project. He immediately granted budget for the removal of the remaining wooden barriers and restoring parts of the lakefront. Nor did he lose the opportunities offered for gaining some positive publicity as in the case of an article in the Corriere di Como written in October 2016 and addressed to the citizens of Como. In this he stressed how the council had been entrusted with a budget of €13 million at the start of the project in 2003 but, in spite of the budget rising to €19 million by 2016, nothing had been achieved with ‘works not done and the beauty of the lake obscured from you and the tourists’.
In the council elections of 2018, the centre-left administration was defeated.
The Technical Solution
The flood defences have two elements to them. The first will be a series of barriers housed within the pavements running alongside the lakefront. These barriers will be made of aluminium. They will be raised by hand up to a range of levels above normal lake height. These barriers (paratie) will run from just before the Funicular station along Lungo Lario Trieste and on to Lungo Lario Trento crossing Piazza Cavour and ending at the start of the lakeside gardens.
The other form of defence consists of a couple of very large cisterns that will hold run-off water from excessive rainfall which might normally cause flooding in the centre (particularly in Piazza Cavour) when combined with a rise in the water table and high levels on the lake. Drains within a 1.5 km radius of Piazza Cavour will capture this rainfall and direct it into the two cisterns built beside the lake. When flood levels recede, the water accumulated in the cisterns will be pumped into the lake. One of these cisterns known as Vasca B already exists under the gardens opened up by the Amici di Como towards the lakefront gardens. However further work is needed to make it earthquake safe. Work is currently underway at building the other cistern, Vasca A, beside Lungo Lario Trieste.
Twenty years from conception to completion has to rank as one of the slowest civil engineering projects in the whole of Italy even exceeding the disastrously compromised attempts to complete the A3 motorway in Southern Italy running from Salerno to Reggio Calabria. There are some depressing parallels between these two projects. The A3 motorway extension to Reggio Calabria was initiated in 1997 with a due completion date set for 2003. The actual project was ‘officially’ completed in 2015, a full 12 years behind schedule. The Como flood defence scheme will also come in12 years behind schedule. The A3 motorway project became a symbol of local corruption and was widely perceived as showing the relative backwardness of the South. The European Union at one stage even demanded the return of the money they had invested. The Como project has not attracted nearly the same level of negative attention or opprobrium. Similar levels of corruption and ineffectiveness do not seem to count when experienced in the heart of Lombardy, Italy’s economic power house.
But, when all is said and done, Como’s residents and visitors can at least look forward with confidence to reclaiming the entirety of their lakefront and they will undoubtedly enjoy the delights of the broad walkway facing on to the lake. All good things are ultimately worth waiting for.
The Lombardy Region has published an informative presentation outlining the history of the anti-flood defence project from which some of the contents have been incorporated in this article. Follow this link to access the full presentation (in Italian).
Como Companion previously published an article entitled ‘Liberating the Lakefront’ on the partial opening up in 2017 that followed on from the Region taking over the project.
We also featured the work of Pierpaolo Perretta, the artist responsible for the ‘Pinocchio’ statement in Piazza Cavour as part of Como’s Streetscape street art exhibition.