Who Are Cities For?
Historic Preservation Pits Tourists against Residents
“Tourist Go Home!”
Wandering through Barcelona’s ancient Gothic Quarter and gritty El Raval last summer, I couldn’t help but notice those words emblazoned in spray-painted scrawl on pavements, buildings, and lampposts. As I squeezed through the throngs of tourists while trying to cross La Rambla or admire the breathtaking Sagrada Familia, it occurred to me that perhaps the graffitists had a point. As a former New Yorker, I could understand the frustration of locals who felt besieged by tourists in the place they called home, especially by those tourists—like the ones who take up entire New York City sidewalks, ahem—who fail to consider that people actually live there.
At the heart of this frustration is a valid question for city lovers and city dwellers: who is a city for?
In a recent post, economistasks if cities are for tourists or residents, warning that a “new ideological struggle is brewing” against so-called “overtourism” in destination hotspots. Cowen cites a number of recent anti-tourist actions taken by cities across the globe, everything from New York’s crackdown on short-term rentals to Venice’s admission fees for daytrippers to Vermont’s road closures for would-be leaf-peepers. In Spain, the anti-tourist trend has turned into outright attacks on tourist-oriented businesses and even the tourists themselves, though I witnessed no violence personally. This backlash may seem strange, since so many of the cities struggling with overtourism are so economically dependent on those same tourists. To wit, visitors to New York, a city facing a $7 billion budget shortfall, contributed $3.6 billion in local taxes last year. Similarly, “Tourist Go Home” Barcelona generated 14% of its GDP from tourism in 2019, while tourism was responsible for 13% of Venice’s economy. And all those leaf-peepers in Vermont spend $3 billion per year supporting jobs for more than 10% of the state’s workforce. Curbing tourism would be economically disastrous.
But if the tension between residents and visitors seems irreconcilable, the responsibility may have something to do with the residents themselves. Indeed, the root of the problem may be not that there are too many tourists but too few locals.
In his article, “I Want a City, Not a Museum,” Binyamin Appelbaum indirectly suggests why this might be. Appelbaum argues that New York City, by freezing many of its beautiful older neighborhoods in the amber of historic preservation at the expense of new development, has driven prices up, long-time residents out, and newcomers away. In other words, New York, like other old, especially European cities, has chosen museumification over livability, which increasingly makes such cities merely nice places for the masses to visit, not to live.
Consider Venice. Most Venetians, by a ratio of 4-to-1, don’t live in the inimitable historic city on the lagoon but in the modern neighborhoods on shore. The historic city has not been allowed to evolve and so persists as a beautiful but expensive asset to maintain. By day, it is essentially an open-air museum, and now, appropriately, the city is charging a daily admission fee. Such congestion pricing may be a perfectly reasonable way for Venice to balance the flow of tourists with the cost of upkeep, but preserving the old city as it was has made it practically unlivable for the majority of Venetians today.
The pattern is the same in many other cities or neighborhoods inundated by tourists. Among the throngs of visitors in historic districts—from Amsterdam’s Centrum, Bruges’s medieval center, Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, or New York’s West Village—you’ll find few locals. After all, [normal] people can’t live in museums, where we keep fossils and mummies, ancient statuary and modern art.
Museums are for things that are not alive.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote that a “city cannot be a work of art.” By this she didn’t mean that cities can’t be beautiful, but that healthy cities are not static, unchanging, something to be admired from afar—they are real places that real people live in. And it’s the people that bring them to life.
Cities are machines built not for their own sake, but for the purpose of human life. Yet when we treat buildings as works of art, and the cities that contain them as museums, we preserve their forms but kill the force that made them alive. If the physical structures of places are not allowed to evolve so that they remain livable for modern, everyday people, the type of people who use them evolves—and eventually it’s mostly the super-wealthy or the tourists who are left.
Whether this is good or bad is not really the point; the point is that historic preservation is not cost-free, neither financially nor socially. Those who complain about overtourism should consider that museumification is a choice that prioritizes the architecture of the past over the needs of the residents who live there today. Inevitably, that means choosing to make a city only a nice place to visit, not a nice place to live.
Who is a city really for? Cities have to decide whether it’s the buildings or the people.