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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Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.

In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?