Globalisation in a Snow Globe

Bella Caledonia, by Mike Small

Commodification (n.) the social process by which something or someone comes to be regarded and treated as an article of trade or commerce.

Edinburgh is the city in which Patrick Geddes did some of his greatest work, gifting the world town-planning, urban theory and civics, heralding kindergarten into the closes of the poorest communities and seeding the world with a legacy of ideas which is only now being fully appreciated. He pioneered ecological thinking and appropriate technology a century ahead of his time. It’s a dark irony that the Old Town that Geddes did so much to save should be the scene of such dereliction and crass commodification.

If “People make Glasgow”, as the saying goes, “Money makes Edinburgh”.

The city has been bought and sold.

As the Hogmanay hangover fades and the Christmas Trees come down, many people in the city are reflecting on the bruising experience of the council handing over large swathes of the city centre to a private company, Underbelly.

The argument has raged over the Christmas holidays as a procession of PR blunders came hand over (first) foot. The companies huge German Market covered the entire East Princes Street, apparently without the need of Planning Permission; residents of the Lawnmarket endured a through-the-night week long build for “Santa on a zip-wire”; memorial benches were piled high to make way for candy floss and burger stalls; the city’s Nativity scene was removed from the Mound to make way for Johnny Walker adverts; and people were told they needed permits to gain access to their own homes.

This is a tourism dystopia resembling a cordoned-off theme park surrounded by a series of outlying bantustan districts.

The company operating the theme park operates without regulations and is now extending the commercialisation of every activity to include swimming in the Firth of Forth.

This is late-capitalism in action where the role of the city council is to administer the safe transfer of millions of tourists into the city by air and to contain the masses to the periphery.

The model, known as the Doughnut City is where the urban centre becomes hollowed-out. In Edinburgh’s case this is a case of hollowing-out people – inconvenient long-term residents who want amenities like nurseries and schools are replaced by high-spending short-stay visitors with their dollar and euro and yen. But it is also the hollowing-out of culture whereby any local expression is replaced by Mark Ronson and Bavarian Glühwein.

The great irony here is that Hogmanay was Scots gift to the world. Now it is owned by a couple of Etonians.

This is not a petty squabble nor another “stooshie”.

This is part of a profound crisis of overtourism found across the world. It is globalisation in a Snow Globe.

The City Fathers and Mothers are to blame not the avarice of private companies. City councils (and this is not just Edinburgh) have no other model in their heads: growth growth and more growth.

Overtourism of course feeds our climate crisis, but even as Australia burns, nobody’s going to do anything about that, because, well, what’s the alternative?

And so as cities become hollowed out, as overcrowded as they are culturally empty, they also merge into one big mush of sameness.

The irony and the tragedy that all these people on short-haul flights contributing to climate chaos will be making the journey to visit somewhere that’s very like where they have come from. Edwin Heathcote, writing in the Financial Times observes:

“In the experience economy, global cities are interchangeable. So the events that take place in them assume greater importance: Edinburgh’s Hogmanay; the Venice, London and Rio carnivals; the ubiquitous Christmas markets that make everywhere a simulacrum of a second-tier German city. Meanwhile, the sublime is commodified: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the “Mona Lisa”, the Trevi Fountain and so on. Big, ugly signs spell out their names, locating weekend trippers in their Instagram feeds in case they forget. The city becomes a stage set for a certain kind of self-affirmation. If cities re-imagine themselves as global brands to attract tourism, they deserve what they get. A city is not a brand. And while we bemoan the pressure of mass tourism and the creeping privatisation of public space, we are complicit. There is talk of tourist pricing and gated entry to Venice: might the most beautiful cities become museums with admission charges? Might the city, once the epitome of inclusion, become exclusionary?”

This is a fundamental change to the governance and management of cities, which we forget, were the starting-place for democracy.

Many of the gains made in the 18th and 19th centuries are being eroded.

These range from schools, affordable housing, clean water, parks and public health facilities.

The city as a “place to play” rather than a place to live and work is noted by the American writer John Teaford (see The Politics of Bread and Circuses: Building the City for the Visitor Class).
He writes:

“Today the city as a place to play is manifestly built for the middle-classes who can afford to attend professional sporting events, eat in outdoor cafes, attend trade and professional conventions, shop in the festival malls and patronize high and middle-brow arts. Many if not al of these are visitors to the city, and in the view of local leaders, must be shielded from the city’s residents. The city is not regarded as a great melting pot, the meeting place of diverse classes and races.”

How ironic that most of the history and guidebooks steering the tourist down the High Street will boast that here is precisely the ‘melting pot’ of the Old Town that produced the thinkers and writers of the Scottish Enlightenment. The architecture and civic culture that brought you the likes of: Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns, or James Hutton now brings you Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood.

Hume sits at the top of the High Street, just inside the security zone watching as Santa flies by on his zip-wire.

A city that has brought visitors for centuries has been sold out and bought off. In 2020 it’s time to change that, and reclaim a cities culture and common good land from the profiteers lining their pockets with someone else’s heritage.

“But a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time” – said Patrick Geddes the Scot who gave the world civics and urbanism and tried to defend the Old Town a hundred and twenty years ago.

But also: “Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins. Whereas the world is mainly a vast leaf colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: and we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.”