‘Unliveable’ Cities

The Guardian’s Jon Henley reports from across Europe on Overtourism (Overtourism in Europe’s historic cities sparks backlash), a subject that the Citizen project has been derided for bringing to public attention last year. Edinburgh is conspicuous by its absence in this article, but the problems described in Amsterdam, Prague, Barcelona and Florence will be very familiar to its residents.

The phenomenon turbo-charges the pre-existing housing crisis. Unable to control the rise of Airbnb, Barcelona has the highest density of tourist apartments in Europe:

“For residents, this has translated into a 50% rent increase over the past five years. A 24-year-old earning an average wage now faces a monthly rent equal to 114% of their salary. As a result, about 80% of 16- to 30-year-olds still live with their parents.”

The article is interesting not because of the repetition of the problem but because the idea that you can mitigate or ‘manage’ the problem (as Edinburgh Council proposes) is so obviously completely futile.

For Amsterdam re-locating the Red Light District, putting up signs saying “We Live Here” or “dispersing visitors to lesser-known but equally attractive towns” – all seem like good ideas. But this is too little too late. It is moving the problem about the place not dealing with it.

The response in Barcelona is similar.

The city’s response (as in Edinburgh) is “improved management”. Its Plan 2020 initiative aims to change “from managing tourism in the city, to managing the tourist city” – although  the councillor responsible, insists residents take priority.

“Dispersal” is the answer, councillor Xavier Marcé believes: “the problem is not so much that Barcelona has sold itself but that it’s sold itself badly”. Aware the sector brings in about €10bn a year, he said: “We don’t want more tourists but that doesn’t mean we want fewer.”

This is double-speak.

Stemming the flow of overtourism requires taking the climate crisis seriously and re-thinking the economy of the city. Moving the mass about or retrospectively regulating the phenomenon that has hollowed-out entire communities – whilst simultaneously planning for more of the same – is fundamentally dishonest.

The idea that you can “manage” an out of control growth economy is no longer credible. The idea that we can carry on behaving like this, milking tourism for the benefit of the already very wealthy, whilst draining the municipal budget and engaging in widespread social cleansing is untenable.

The suggestions for “managing tourism” put forward by civic leaders don’t stand up to scrutiny. The sooner citizens realise this and we move to a degrowth economic agenda and a rapid reduction in tourism the better. The benefits will be liveable cities and the opportunity to meet our carbon targets and survive.

We have created cities as theme-parks, but the reality is seeping in, interrupting the fantasy. It’s time to stop behaving like children and respond to the crisis with some honesty.




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