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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Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.