How cities reinvent themselves

Travel inspiration

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July 29, 2021

By | July 29, 2021

Renewal and reinvention are big words in the 21st century. How can destinations mark themselves out as different while making a positive change?

With the increase in mass tourism and cheap travel, there came a realization that you need a USP, something unique that will set you apart. Sometimes, these can simply be cynical-looking cash-ins on famous locals (Salzburg with Mozart, for example), but more and more, cities and regions are looking for a genuine point of difference, something that will bring not only short-term interest, but long-term sustainability and rewards.

Thinking locally

Freiburg has reinvented itself as a green cityFreiburg has reinvented itself as a green city — Shutterstock

Freiburg in Germany is a fine example of this. A 900-year-old city of 220,000 people in the heart of the beautiful Black Forest, its Year Zero came in 1975. This was the year that construction of a nuclear power station was supposed to take place in a part of the forest 30 km from the city. Locals, furious about this, camped out to stop construction, and were soon joined by an eclectic mix of people including farmers, winegrowers, skiers, left-wing political activists, students, doctors, lecturers, and even police officers.

Nine months later, construction was officially canceled, and this was the start of Freiburg’s love of alternative thinking and locally-led activism. Since then, the city has been showered with awards for its green leanings, has twice as many bicycles as cars, and has a number of municipal buildings including the Town Hall and SC Freiburg’s football stadium that are both solar-powered and feed excess energy back into the city’s power grid. It’s also a city of young people, drawn here by the city’s fresh thinking, excellent university, and relaxed lifestyle.

Another local initiative that came about through necessity is the example of Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest.

These days, Costa Rica is known as one of the planet’s top ecotourism destinationsThese days, Costa Rica is known as one of the planet’s top ecotourism destinations — Shutterstock

Costa Rica is known as one of the planet’s top ecotourism destinations, but it wasn’t always so: the 20th century brought about the destruction of half of the country’s forests. But by the end of the 1990s, through both grassroots action and government intervention, Costa Rica managed a dramatic rescue of its forest life and became a shining example of what environmental protection, ecotourism, and competent leadership can achieve.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Costa Rica’s tourism industry collapsed. For a country that relies almost entirely on ecotourism, closing their borders was necessary but disastrous.

Costa Rica has managed a dramatic rescue of its forest lifeCosta Rica has managed a dramatic rescue of its forest life — Shutterstock

“[Losing this revenue] has a direct impact on the ground, in our ability to patrol the forests and make sure that the biodiversity and ecosystems are actually being protected,” says Lindsay Stallcup, executive director of the Monteverde Conservation League. “It really highlighted how dependent Monteverde is on, particularly, international ecotourist dollars. It’s definitely risky to tie your fate to ecotourism.”

Monteverde decided the only option was to go local, and the community responded. Initially by simply asking for donations, the League sensed this was also the perfect way to get local communities involved in something that had spent so long looking outward for support.

When public schools in Costa Rica closed due to the pandemic, focus was shifted to a more family-oriented, multi-generational approach — organizing hikes to guide one local family at a time into the forest, where they plant a tree and learn about citizen activism and recycling, for example. The unusual circumstances spurred the League to reexamine “who is our audience and how we can have a broader impact,” Stallcup says.

The realization that ecotourism needs to involve a real connection between tourists and locals, not just the two parties walking around in their own bubble, was key. It’s a two-for-one win: local people feel more involved in caring for their wonderful surroundings, and tourists get an appreciation and genuine understanding of the lives and work that continues long after their trip is simply memories.

The industry of ideas

It’s one thing to alter your surroundings when they’re already conducive to it, but what about industrial locations that want to reinvent themselves after their golden age has been and gone?

Pittsburgh wanted to make a shift to supporting digital technology and tech startupsPittsburgh wanted to make a shift to supporting digital technology and tech startups — Shutterstock

Pittsburgh has spent virtually its entire history as the center of the US’s steel-making industry, but by the end of the 20th century the furnaces had closed, and the city was a rotting, rusting hulk of what it had been.

In 2017, Pittsburgh adopted a strategic plan to get the city back on its feet. Called One Pittsburgh, the idea was that the desolation felt by the city as the US had seemingly left it behind should never be felt by one of its citizens. This pugnacious attitude goes deep, with no punches pulled; Mayor William Peduto wrote, “Our resilience journey begins with the acknowledgment of our recent past. […] [filled with] the peaks of success and the valleys of disappointment.”

Brutally honest assessment of Pittsburgh’s failures as well as its successes would be key. Plusses were identified — a much-trumpeted shift to supporting digital technology and tech startups was seen as a clear win — however, fragmentation along social, racial, cultural and economic fault lines was clearly identified as the cause of a future crisis if left unaddressed. “All Pittsburghers have not benefited from the current momentum,” wrote the mayor, and the One Pittsburgh project aims to address that.

An even more extreme story is that of Osaka, Japan. Seen as a singularly industrial city, it went even further than Pittsburgh and aimed to reinvent itself not only as a city, but as a brand.

Osaka went on to reinventing itself not only as a city, but as a brandOsaka went on to reinventing itself not only as a city, but as a brand — Shutterstock

Environmental degradation and economic ups and downs became rallying points for change, with new, strong environmental management policies and strategies, urban planning and development, community involvement and heritage conservation.

The creation of Osaka as a “brand” aimed to associate the city with quality, excellence and care, not just in the physical objects produced there, but in less tangible ideas such as academic excellence, sporting achievement, and cultural openness. So far — within Japan at least — it seems to be working.

A backwards step?

Liverpool had been added to Unesco’s list in 2004 only to be removed again in 2021Liverpool had been added to Unesco’s list in 2004 only to be removed again in 2021 — Shutterstock

On the flip side, what happens when preservation and regeneration butt heads? In mid-July 2021, Unesco announced that the city of Liverpool had been stripped of its World Heritage status due to, among other things, work on a new stadium for Everton Football Club on the waterfront at Bramley Moore Dock.

Liverpool had been added to Unesco’s list in 2004, in recognition of its role as “one of the world’s major trading centers in the 18th and 19th centuries and its pioneering dock technology, transport systems and port management.” The River Mersey in Liverpool was, once upon a time, the busiest port in the world; between 1830 and 1930 an estimated nine million people used the docks as their transit point out of Europe to seek their fortune in the US and Canada. After decades of decline, their renovation as a historical, cultural and educational beacon has been a source of pride for the city, making Unesco’s decision all the more baffling.

Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram called the decision “a retrograde step that does not reflect the reality of what is happening on the ground.

“Places like Liverpool should not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left-behind communities and the wealth of jobs and opportunities that come with it,” he added.

“Places like Liverpool should not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left-behind communities and the wealth of jobs and opportunities that come with it”“Places like Liverpool should not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating” — Shutterstock

Indeed, Everton are doing all they can to preserve the nature of the area, including agreeing to invest up to £55m to “preserve, restore and celebrate the heritage assets” of the area as part of its stadium plan. The project was approved following two public consultations, in which 98% of over 40,000 local people surveyed supported the proposed design of the stadium, while 96% backed the club’s plans for historic features on the site.

Changing for the better, today

As people, as communities, and as a planet, we cannot afford to rest and accept things as they are. Change for the better is always possible, even with petty decisions like Unesco’s seeming more like badly-judged vindictiveness for meddling with a pre-approved idea of “heritage” or “tradition”. Indeed, what is heritage if not something for future generations to look back on with pride? That doesn’t mean we have to cast a place in amber; any change, no matter how small, can take place today.

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