Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


Notions Capital calls our attention to an article about the downsides of touristification in Barcelona ("Mass tourism can kill a city – just ask Barcelona’s residents," Guardian).

There has been a lot of academic and other focus on the issue for the last 15 years or so, especially in places like Venice ("Why Venice should charge every tourist €30," Art Newspaper) and with the publication of much literature including the tome The Tourist City, published in 1999.

Venice tourist tax

Venice did levy a tourist tax effective in 2011.  To do so required a change in national laws.  It's not clear if there is a tax on cruise visitors (probably) separately.  The tax is on the first five days of overnight stays, and varies according to the season (high and low), location, and type of accommodation.  (E.g. a hostel-based visitor doesn't pay, although that is scheduled to change next month.)

Interestingly, while off-loading large groups of tourists from cruise ships causes a lot of intense use, it doesn't appear that the city charges a dis-embarkation fee on cruise ship-based visitors.

The Travel Weekly story "Ports of Contention," discusses anti-cruise ship organizing by local residents in Charleston, Key West, and Venice.

Public markets as tourist places.  Other places where touristification can be problematic are public markets, like Pike Place Market in Seattle.  Because so many of the visitors are tourists, the food vendors don't sell that much food, and over time more of the sheds have been converted to non-food retail.

But part of the issue too is the shift in how people shop for food in the US, mostly through supermarkets, but also combination stores (like Walmart or Target) and the purchase of prepared foods, making it harder for public markets and farmers markets to compete and making tourist visits an increasing proportion of total visits.

Touristification vs. embedding (sustainable tourism).  It's interesting because obviously I was just in Germany (bad wifi connections in Hamburg meant I didn't do any blogging from there), but on the plane coming back turns out there was a colleague who had been on a trip in Denmark (the plane to the US left from Copenhagen but sadly I didn't get to schedule the trip in a manner to be able to spend time in Denmark) who had traveled with friends in Denmark and the Baltic states--with one of the places they stayed being a cottage on the Baltic Sea, one of the many places that they stayed in having been booked via airbnb.

... anyway, we discussed being tourists but experiencing places more as part of the local way of living versus the more traditional big hotels-cruises method.  E.g., by staying in an apartment or house or cottage in a neighborhood as opposed to a branded hotel in a tourist district.

I stayed in hotels, but unique ones (Motel One is a hotel chain in Germany that is pretty cool, I stayed there in Essen--oh, the quality of the coffee!, made from a machine) even if part of chains or hotel groups that happened to be amazingly close to the city's main train stations, and not that expensive, in a way that allowed me to be more "embedded" in the local community (e.g., I learned that Germany has a third discount supermarket chain called Penny and wandering through a square (platz) by the hotel to take photos, got propositioned, but before 11am -- I guess it was a "sex-oriented" district--but a block from the train station--judging by the number of shops promoting "kino," slinky clothing, and other stuff) than you can by "big tourism."

Although the extent to which you are embedded in the local community versus being a mass tourist comes down to your own attitude.  Researchers call this "the tourist bubble" when tourists visit other places but are most comfortable consuming the new place in familiar ways (which is why chain restaurants, not local establishments, are often big in tourist destinations) rather than in "adventuresome" ways, etc.

It happened on Saturday I wandered through both Hamburg Family Day (climbing contraption right) and the Alster Lake Carnival just by chance, because of how I wander around in a city center when I arrive in a place as an "urban" or "city break" ("Development of Thessaloniki, Greece as a City Break tourism destination") tourist.

Similarly, in Essen over the weekend they had their big music festival, a bunch of music stages with a variety of types of music scattered throughout the city's pedestrianized shopping district (apparently Essen was Germany's first pedestrianized city core shopping district).

Still, a music event like Essen Original is hard to pull off in a mixed use district with lots of residents because residents would not stand for having loud music outside their doors til not quite 1am.

This isn't a great video (just from my old Kodak camera) but is an example of the loud music played on some of the stages.  This was at Weberplatz, which is next to a church.  I just can't imagine a similar concert next to one of Downtown DC's big churches or residences.  I think it's the band Rockstah.  And it happened that my hotel room looked out onto Kennedyplatz, where the main stage was located, although my room was to the back of the stage.

Managing tourism while preserving locally-serving retail

It happens that on the plane I was reading Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns by Dover and Massengale on the plane (not 100% but very good on the experiential qualities of what our road network should be--a review to come) and they have an extensive case study on Nantucket.

I didn't realize that because the whaling industry died in the 1840s-1850s, that Nantucket Island began repositioning as a resort area starting in the 1870s, and has issues similar to places like Barcelona, Venice, Charleston and Key West, although not with regard to cruise ship offloadings.

The Island has strong preservation standards (dating to earlier than the 1970s) and more recently they've instituted formula retail restrictions, which is rare for any community. BUT, even as problems with touristification have risen, at least they only have one main shopping district, so there can still be "useful retail," because the retail area is concentrated.

Managing the negative effects of tourism is tricky.  There are at least three elements.  One is "overuse" or consumption of spaces that have limited capacity.  The other is how the retail mix shifts to focus on tourists and away from serving residents.

The last issue is the mitigation of retail shift and how it is dependent on the maintenance of a large contingent of residents.  The ability to maintain locally-serving retail is dependent on how many residents still live there (you can't support a hardware or grocery store without customers), escalating rents, and controls on retail uses.

For example, Nantucket has a very strong "formula retail" ordinance which means you'll never see a McDonalds or Starbucks there; Laguna Beach, California has a "neighborhood serving retail" zoning overlay to help protect bookstores, hardware stores, and similar uses from being displaced, etc.

Maintaining a core traditional shopping district.  Essen and Hamburg (left, Spitalerstrasse) have a bunch of shopping centers, but at the same time, they've maintained an important core shopping district in the center of the city, and in both cases, anchored by the main railroad station, which in each city is a very active hub for 100s or 1000s of rail trips--subway, tram (in Essen), suburban railroad, regional railroad,  intercity (national) railroad, and inter-country railroad trips (depending on the station), plus local and inter-city buses and tourist buses.

A key element of the success of these districts is a concentration of retail along a pedestrian prioritized core.  Parallel to Spitalerstrasse is Monckebergstrasse, which is a "transitway" for sustainable modes--bus, taxi, bike, pedicab--with regular car traffic banned (except overnight).  That also concentrates potential customers for the retail.

In the US we have too much retail space per capita generally.

But as long as planning-zoning is mostly laissez faire and retail can be built everywhere, the old spaces keep being outspanned by newer and usually further out spaces.  (Store at right in Essen, Germany.)

It also doesn't help that most retail categories are dominated by national chains, and with consolidation, fewer and fewer representatives in each category.

By contrast, there are plenty of retail chains in Germany, but less consolidation.  And there are plenty of European and US chains active in the market too, like H&M or TJ MAXX.

Train stations as urban hubs and customer concentrators.  Hamburg is big but two-thirds the size of New York City in terms of land, and with much less population, about 1.8m residents versus 8+ million residents, with 5 million residents in the metropolitan area which crosses a couple states.

When I got out of the train station (on the wrong side from my hotel, but where the retail is) I was amazed at the number of people.

It felt like NYC.

The train station was so so busy, like Grand Central or Penn Station (helped of course by the deep and wide local, regional, and national rail transit networks).  That activity extended outside, around and past the station, into the central shopping district.

But according to Wikipedia (photo by Ameins), the Hamburg train station is the busiest in Germany, with 450,000 passengers moving through the station each day.  Penn Station has 600,000 daily riders moving through the station.

There are only a few places that feel that busy in DC--Connecticut and K Streets NW, Georgetown, and the area around the Verizon Center.

Having such a traffic generator so tightly integrated into the shopping district significantly supports its success.

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home