Struggling town gets tourism boost from art restoration cock-up

Borja's 16th century town hall. Image: Ecelan, via Wikimedia Commons.

We've spent a lot of this year pondering the vexed question of how to sort out the economies of struggling towns. Is it better transport links that they need? Better skills? Tax breaks?

One possibility we've never considered is that vandalism-based-tourism might be the answer. And yet, here's Borja, a little town in Spain whose only distinguishing feature is a fresco of Jesus, which an elderly local of great goodwill but limited skill attempted to restore to greatness. The results attained a measure of notoriety in August 2012, because they looked like this:

Before and after. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

At the time, the artist in question, Cecilia Giménez, was widely mocked for her attempts at restoration. And yet, according to the New York Times:

Grief has turned to gratitude for divine intervention — the blessing of free publicity — that has made Borja, a town of just 5,000, a magnet for thousands of curious tourists eager to see her handiwork, resurrecting the local economy.

(...)

Since the makeover, the image has attracted more than 150,000 tourists from around the world — Japan, Brazil, the United States — to the gothic 16th century Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mercy on a mountain overlooking Borja.

Visitors pay one euro, or about $1.25, to study the fresco, encased on a flaking wall behind a clear, bolted cover worthy of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa.

Let's think about those figures a moment. The portrait rose to notoreity in late August 2012, so roughly 850 days ago. That means roughly 176 people have been visiting the fresco every day. Assuming the church is open for 10 hours a day, that's about one every three and a half minutes.

And this, remember, is not in the heart of Seville or Barcelona or some such. This is a church on a hill outside a tiny town a 40 mile drive from the nearest major city. 

The fresco has been such a draw that:

...Nearby vineyards are squabbling over rights to splash the image on their wine labels... A comic opera is in the works in the United States, the story of how a woman ruined a fresco and saved a town.

(...)

In the economic crisis of the last six years, 300 jobs vanished, [the town's mayor Miguel Arilla] said, but with the tourism boom, restaurants remained stable. Local museums, he added, also benefited. The nearby Museum of Colegiata, housed in a 16th century Renaissance mansion, experienced a rise in annual visits to 70,000 from 7,000 for its religious, medieval art.

So, if you’re looking for ways of livening up the economy of your town, there's your answer: trash something. Just remember to call a press conference afterwards.

 
 
 
 

Five lessons for cities from a decade of Centre for Cities research

The view of Vancouver from Locarno Beach Park. Image: Getty.

With the government potentially facing years of “trench warfare” in Parliament, and Brexit set to dominate the national political agenda for the foreseeable future, local leaders have the chance to play a critical role in driving the UK’s economy in the coming years. However, it’s also clear that UK cities will face big challenges in the new economic circumstances outside the EU, and in responding to other issues such as globalisation and automation.

To meet these challenges and opportunities, local leaders will need to make the most of their existing resources and powers – and one of the best ways to do so is to learn from the experiences and ideas of other places.

That’s why the Centre for Cities recently launched a new, easy-to-navigate case study library featuring over 150 examples of good practice from cities in the UK and across the world. Drawn from more than 10 years of Centre for Cities research, the library offers examples of innovative and effective urban policy making in areas such as housing and transport, skills and employment, business and enterprise, and leadership.

In the process of compiling the case study library, five key lessons for cities stood out in particular:

1) Pooling resources with other local authorities can help places achieve more than they can do on their own.

Take Cambridge, for example. Its ability to deliver housing changed in the mid-2000s thanks to the establishment of the Cambridge sub-regional housing board.

By working in partnership with neighbouring authorities (as well as with development companies and a strategic planning unit), Cambridge has been able to reach a consensus on the importance of increasing density and introducing transport-oriented urban extensions.

2) Cities should also make the most of the support and initiatives that non-public sector partners can offer.

For example, Manchester City Council worked in partnership with NESTA and other agencies to launch an innovative ‘Creative Credit’ voucher scheme in 2010. Through this initiative, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the city region were given vouchers worth £4,000 to spend on buying services from creative companies provided they spent at least £1,000 themselves. The pilot was oversubscribed and its evaluation showed a positive impact on sales and the innovation capacity of participants.

3) Having a clear understanding of the needs of people targeted by a specific programme or project will be vital in its success.

This is demonstrated by the success of Blade Runners, an employment programme set up by the City of Vancouver to support 15-30 year olds facing multiple barriers from getting into training and/or employment (such as substance misuse, homelessness, transportation costs and legal issues).

Three quarters of the participants in the programme completed training and moved into jobs, a success rate made possible by the continuous, targeted support provided by Blade Runners coordinators. This included referring participants to appropriate resources, and providing them with breakfast and lunch, living allowances, travel tickets, tools, equipment and work gear for training.


4) Even when cities do not have formal powers to make a difference, they can still use their leadership role to influence and inspire positive changes.

For example, in 2010 the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson launched the London Apprenticeship Campaign which aimed to increase awareness of the scheme. Letters signed by the London Mayor were sent to CEOs of large businesses outlining the value of apprenticeships, and the potential benefits of recruiting apprentices. The campaign had a positive impact on raising awareness among employers and helped to boost the profile of apprenticeships in London.

5) Monitoring and evaluating projects from their early stages is crucial for their long-term success.

San Francisco offers a clear example of how long term policy making coupled with close monitoring can drive change and create jobs. In 2002, the city set itself the goal of a 75 per cent reduction in landfill waste by 2010 and zero waste by 2020. Thanks to close evaluation of the projects, the city realised its efforts were not enough to reach the target, and so introduced a further 20 laws to address these issues. The city is now ahead of its schedule in meeting objectives.

You can access the case study library and to read about these examples in more detail here. We are always keen to hear about new case studies, so please do get in contact if you’d like to share good practice from your city.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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