Is Airbnb changing our idea of the “authentic” urban experience?

A laptop showing the Airbnb logo. Image: AFP/Getty.

Our experiences are heightened when we travel. Removed from our day-to-day rituals and familiar terrain, even the most pedestrian things – street signs, passersby, sidewalk cafes  can become fascinating.

But in the age of Google Street View and the relentless posting of holiday snaps on Instagram and Facebook, experiencing unfamiliarity has become harder. Social media is reconfiguring our experience of the city, and tapping into our increasing appetite for unique and authentic urban experiences.

In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), Walter Benjamin argues that artworks embody an “aura” – a kind of authenticity that cannot be captured in a reproduction. Each time an artwork is reproduced through film or photography, the cultural value of the original is diluted.

Architect Hans Hollein made a similar observation in response to the increasing access to television in the 1960s:

It is almost of no importance if […] the pyramids exist in physical reality, as most people are aware of them through other media anyway.

Benjamin and Hollein’s concerns for the dwindling cultural value of the original has never been truer than in the current image-saturated context of social media. We have exhausted our global architectural icons – they have been reduced to photogenic backdrops for our selfies. We want to be seen at these sites because they allow our audiences to instantly locate us. But, as cultural experiences, they have become empty and clichéd.

Enter Airbnb.

Whether coincidentally, or strategically, Airbnb’s appearance is well-timed. In the company’s Mankind, Belong Anywhere marketing strategy, Airbnb promises something much more immersive: a day in the life of a local.

Interpreting buildings: from spectator to participant

It is widely acknowledged that there is a shift in mentality among Millennials, who privilege the consumption of experience over the consumption of material things. We could understand our changing relationship with buildings as an extension of this logic.

In Learning from Las Vegas (1972), Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown investigated the architectural strategies casinos developed in response to the drive-by experience of tourists to the Strip.They categorised buildings into "Ducks" and "Decorated Sheds". By their terms, Ducks are architectural icons whose meaning is conveyed through their form. Sheds are everyday generic buildings, whose meanings are conveyed through applied signage.

But through platforms such as Airbnb, we are no longer spectators reading a visual language. Meaning is derived through experience, through our active participation.

We are invited to interchangeably experience the ordinary and the extraordinary varieties. Both the Le Corbusier-designed apartment and the suburban bungalow are up for grabs.

A San Francisco property listed on Airbnb. Image: Airbnb/AAP. 

Airbnb reconfiguring the city

Airbnb has reprogrammed the city. The “hardware” or urban fabric remains the same, but the “software” – our use of it – has been radically reconfigured.

European summers have traditionally seen an influx of tourists to historical centres, while the local populations – the majority of whom live outside the centre – vacate to escape the summer heat. But today, rather than leaving their homes vulnerable and losing money on rent, many locals are choosing to sublet.

As a result, everyday neighbourhoods that would typically be in lock-down during this period have reawakened. The decentralised activity provides incentive for local businesses to continue their operation, and more eyes on the street.

Opening up the tourism industry to grassroots entrepreneurs has been a democratising process. With the redistribution of available accommodation across the city, our urban experience has changed.

A mapping exercise comparing the location of hotels to Airbnb stays in Brisbane in September suggests that the online platform offers a much more diffuse and a largely suburban experience. This is in direct opposition to the almost exclusively urban experience indicated by the concentration of hotels in the centre.

Brisbane airbnb v hotels. Image: Jacqui Alexander/MADA

Adding to the allure is that the Airbnb map is always in a state of flux. Tourists may never experience the city in the same way twice.

To this effect, the psychology of Airbnb is similar to that of the ephemeral pop-up. The “ordinary” and everyday “back regions” – now much more accessible – have become the fresh, unchartered territory for exploration.

Each year, governments around the world pour huge amounts of money into the anachronistic preservation and maintenance of historic city centres primarily for the tourist market. But has Airbnb burst the “Disneyland” bubble that has enveloped our historical centres, governing their image and operations for export?

Since Airbnb, the traditional spatial division between urban tourist and the suburban local has been ruptured. It remains to be seen whether this leads to positive urban outcomes such as the upgrading of infrastructure for our greater metropolitan areas, or whether the “city-as-a-themepark” analogy will persist and spread, sanitising and homogenising our everyday neighbourhoods.

Architectural implications

Certainly, the impacts of Airbnb on architectural typologies are already tangible. We are witnessing a shift towards new and modified residential configurations to accommodate co-habitation or dual occupation which, increasingly, may start to drive housing diversity.

Another product of the Airbnb phenomenon is the revival of urban “existenzminimum”: making use of existing left-over spaces that are plainly too small for long-term rental but that resonate and fetch a good price with experience-seeking Airbnb guests.

The more sinister flipside could be the perpetuation of unregulated, high-density apartments. The potential is for such properties to be designed as investments to maximise profits with little or no regard for their presently “itinerant” tenants, or future legacy.

Hundreds of taxi drivers protested the ride-sharing service Uber in Brisbane on 16 September 2015. Image: NEWZULU/Isaac Sharp/APP.

As with the taxi industry after Uber, there has been much speculation about the impact of informal tourism on the hotel industry. Researchers have argued that while Airbnb lowers the financial barriers for travel and will appeal to adventurist tourists, hotels will continue to attract business travellers.

Consolidating attraction and accommodation

But there is evidence that hotels are also responding to the shift in the market towards an “experience economy". Melbourne-based entrepreneurs responsible for a number of successful bars in the CBD have reconceptualised the hotel experience around “luxury camping.”

A one-night stay in a luxury tent pitched on top of an urban shopping mall costs A$450, roughly equivalent in price to a junior suite with bay views at a five-star hotel, and without the necessary infrastructure and overheads.

The camping experience gives weight to the argument that, despite the changing nature of tourism, our cities have not yet escaped theme-park status. Only now, the attraction is the accommodation, and it is becoming more elaborate in step with the desires of today’s more sophisticated tourist.

While both the camping hotel and Airbnb promise “unique” new perspectives and exploit temporality to their advantage, the Airbnb brand is one built on everyday authenticity, and a sharing economy.

But the company’s recent acquisition of the tunnels in the Parisian Catacombs for €350,000 in time for Halloween suggests that it could be moving away from this pitch, towards something truly frightening. This brings the revelation that Airbnb is not simply operating as a platform for the publicity of our private spaces, but are also doing the exact opposite: privatising our public spaces.

The acquisition might provide a window into the future of our “tired” global architectural icons – their death and rebirth as part of a privatised, consolidated approach to attraction and accommodation.The Conversation

Jacqui Alexander is lecturer in architecture at Monash University, Melbourne. 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”

In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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