By Edwin Heathcote
The hijacking of this year’s Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh by entertainment outfit Underbelly has ruffled kilts. Residents were told they needed tickets to have guests at their own New Year celebrations as the city centre was transformed by a London-based events company into a huge commercial space.
This was an extreme version of takeovers elsewhere: London’s riverside, privatised for a ticketed firework display; its parks and urban squares overrun with mega-gigs, tents, festivals and fashion shows.
Some cities have been made almost uninhabitable by a radical transformation from metropolis to “spectapolis”. Barcelona, once probably Europe’s most liveable and enjoyable city, has attempted to find ways of countering its status as city-break central, with locals priced out of apartments by short-let landlords and narrow medieval streets impassable. Venice is stymieing preservation measures with corruption and still embracing the mass tourism that threatens it. Locals in Prague, Budapest, Lisbon and Vienna bemoan the rapid change as historic cafés and bars, once home to writers and intellectuals, are overrun with selfie-snapping tourists. Familiar haunts have become hashtags.
The crisis lies in the conflict between the desire for tourist income and residents’ resistance to change. Who are cities for if not citizens?
This change was foreshadowed by French flâneur and situationist Guy Debord. “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production,” he wrote in 1967’s The Society of the Spectacle: “Life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into representation.”
Debord was attempting to reimagine the streets of Paris as civic spaces incapable of being co-opted by capital, places of imagination and freedom. A year later, the 1968 protesters declared: “sous les pavés, la plage!”, referring to the beach sand beneath the granite cobbles. The idea was that the city is a public paradise waiting to be discovered. (The stones were lifted and hurled at the police, but that’s Paris).
Cities that were once self-sufficient within their locales, each with a series of specialised industries, craft, culinary and retail traditions, have succumbed to a globalisation which homogenised their shopping streets and put them on the tourist itinerary. Increasingly, they rely on that tourism, ensuring ever greater degradation of exactly the things that made them unique. As Debord wrote, we end up with “the opportunity to go and see what has been banalised.”
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 reimagine 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?
New York, we should note, does not allow the commercialisation of public spaces. Only free events can be mounted. We need to guard all our urban centres against erosion of the public, whether that is the homeless excluded by steel spikes or the new enclosure of the commons, epitomised in Edinburgh last week. Otherwise we will carelessly lose what makes the city our greatest achievement.
The writer is the FT’s architecture critic