Globalisation in a Snow Globe

Commodification (n.) the social process by which something or someone comes to be regarded and treated as an article of trade or commerce.

Edinburgh is the city in which Patrick Geddes did some of his greatest work, gifting the world town-planning, urban theory and civics, heralding kindergarten into the closes of the poorest communities and seeding the world with a legacy of ideas which is only now being fully appreciated. He pioneered ecological thinking and appropriate technology a century ahead of his time. It’s a dark irony that the Old Town that Geddes did so much to save should be the scene of such dereliction and crass commodification.
If “People make Glasgow”, as the saying goes, “Money makes Edinburgh”.
The city has been bought and sold.
As the Hogmanay hangover fades and the Christmas Trees come down, many people in the city are reflecting on the bruising experience of the council handing over large swathes of the city centre to a private company, Underbelly.
The argument has raged over the Christmas holidays as a procession of PR blunders came hand over (first) foot. The companies huge German Market covered the entire East Princes Street, apparently without the need of Planning Permission; residents of the Lawnmarket endured a through-the-night week long build for “Santa on a zip-wire”; memorial benches were piled high to make way for candy floss and burger stalls; the city’s Nativity scene was removed from the Mound to make way for Johnny Walker adverts; and people were told they needed permits to gain access to their own homes.
This is a tourism dystopia resembling a cordoned-off theme park surrounded by a series of outlying bantustan districts.
The company operating the theme park operates without regulations and is now extending the commercialisation of every activity to include swimming in the Firth of Forth.
This  is late-capitalism in action where the role of the city council is to administer the safe transfer of millions of tourists into the city by air and to contain the masses to the periphery.
The model, known as the Doughnut City is where the urban centre becomes hollowed-out. In Edinburgh’s case this is a case of hollowing-out people – inconvenient long-term residents who want amenities like nurseries and schools are replaced by high-spending short-stay visitors with their dollar and euro and yen. But it is also the hollowing-out of culture whereby any local expression is replaced by Mark Ronson and Bavarian Glühwein.
The great irony here is that Hogmanay was Scots gift to the world. Now it is owned by a couple of Etonians.
This is not a petty squabble nor another “stooshie”.
This is part of a profound crisis of overtourism found across the world. It is globalisation in a Snow Globe.
The City Fathers and Mothers are to blame not the avarice of private companies. City councils (and this is not just Edinburgh) have no other model in their heads: growth growth and more growth.
Overtourism of course feeds our climate crisis, but even as Australia burns, nobody’s going to do anything about that, because, well, what’s the alternative?
And so as cities become hollowed out, as overcrowded as they are culturally empty, they also merge into one big mush of sameness.

The irony and the tragedy that all these people on short-haul flights contributing to climate chaos will be making the journey to visit somewhere that’s very like where they have come from.   Edwin Heathcote, writing in the Financial Times observes:

“In the experience economy, global cities are interchangeable. So the events that take place in them assume greater importance: Edinburgh’s Hogmanay; the Venice, London and Rio carnivals; the ubiquitous Christmas markets that make everywhere a simulacrum of a second-tier German city. Meanwhile, the sublime is commodified: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the “Mona Lisa”, the Trevi Fountain and so on. Big, ugly signs spell out their names, locating weekend trippers in their Instagram feeds in case they forget. The city becomes a stage set for a certain kind of self-affirmation. If cities re-imagine themselves as global brands to attract tourism, they deserve what they get. A city is not a brand. And while we bemoan the pressure of mass tourism and the creeping privatisation of public space, we are complicit. There is talk of tourist pricing and gated entry to Venice: might the most beautiful cities become museums with admission charges? Might the city, once the epitome of inclusion, become exclusionary?”
This is a fundamental change to the governance and management of cities, which we forget, were the starting-place for democracy.
Many of the gains made in the 18th and 19th centuries are being eroded.
These range from schools, affordable housing, clean water, parks and public health facilities.
The city as a “place to play” rather than a place to live and work is noted by the American writer John Teaford (see The Politics of Bread and Circuses: Building the City for the Visitor Class).
He writes:
“Today the city as a place to play is manifestly built for the middle-classes who can afford to attend professional sporting events, eat in outdoor cafes, attend trade and professional conventions, shop in the festival malls and patronize high and middle-brow arts. Many if not al of these are visitors to the city, and in the view of local leaders, must be shielded from the city’s residents. The city is not regarded as a great melting pot, the meeting place of diverse classes and races.”
How ironic that most of the history and guidebooks steering the tourist down the High Street will boast that here is precisely the ‘melting pot’ of the Old Town that produced the thinkers and writers of the Scottish Enlightenment. The architecture and civic culture that brought you the likes of:  Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns, or James Hutton now brings you Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood.
Hume sits at the top of the High Street, just inside the security zone watching as Santa flies by on his zip-wire.
A city that has brought visitors for centuries has been sold out and bought off. In 2020 it’s time to change that, and reclaim a cities culture and common good land from the profiteers lining their pockets with someone else’s heritage.
“But a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time” – said Patrick Geddes the Scot who gave the world civics and urbanism and tried to defend the Old Town a hundred and twenty years ago.
But also: “Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins. Whereas the world is mainly a vast leaf colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: and we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.”

Comments (22)

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  1. Dave Millar says:

    Good article. Think things are coming to a head and decisions will have to be made. Nothing against tourists (I have been one myself elsewhere) – I live at the foot of the High Street and am well acquainted with them, although I wonder what the folk who lived in the Canongate 100 years ago would have made of it – but the hollowing out of the city is sad and it seems that the Council etc are blinded by $ signs.

  2. John S Warren says:

    I must ask you to indulge my new year, cranky pedantry; but Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and Thomas Reid all lived most of their productive lives and did most of their great work in Glasgow, at the glorious 17th century Old College of Glasgow University in the High Street, and would have lived in Professor’s Square. I write this ony because of this observation: “Many of the gains made in the 18th and 19th centuries are being eroded.”

    The Old College was demolished in the 1860s, to make way for – a railway goods yard. A few remnants of the Old College remain in two corners of Gilmorehill (Lion and Unicorn staircase, Pierce Lodge, plus some partial interiors), where the 19th century intelligentsia, led by Lord Kelvin in the van, fled from the disintegrating parody of Glasgow as industrial giant, which had reduced to slumdom the glorious civic development that was early 18th century Glasgow – the most beautiful town in Britain, according to Daniel Defoe.

    1. Malky Mack says:

      Well said and very accurate John. Edinburgh can’t claim all of the glory of the enlightenment or our history….Glasgow has a rich and ancient history and you can still see why De Foe was taken by it.

      1. John S Warren says:

        I am not sure I fully appreciate the “glory” that led to the demolition of the Old College; I was pursuing a slightly different agenda …..(!)

    2. Fair enough John.

      It was intended as an Edinburgh v Glasgow feud.

      1. MBC says:

        But there was constant movement between the two cities and their literati. Adam Smith was a founder member of Edinburgh’s Select Society, an Enlightenment debating society. He also delivered a series of lecture on Belles Lettres in Edinburgh, I believe, before securing his position in Glasgow.

      2. Wul says:

        No one expects the Glasgow V Edinburgh feud!

        1. John S Warren says:

          For the avoidance of doubt, I did not write this to point to a pointless feud between Edinburgh and Glasgow. I made the point principally to direct attention to the casual and indifferent destruction of the extraordinary pre-Enlightenment Glasgow, principally in the 19th century. The problem is not confined to the 20th/21st centuries. In Edinburgh large and important parts of the Old Town were casually destroyed around 1870. College Wynd virtually disappeared.

  3. Richard Easson says:

    The Council themselves are presumably meant to reflect high standards in planning and even basic house keeping when it comes to the fabric of the City, but I noticed the last time I wandered down Victoia Street that wherever road works had taken place , the original cobbles had not been replaced ( as I am sure they would have been in any Italian old square) but filled in with tarmac. Surely with their past record the Council could easily come up with a load of cobblers to put this right.

    1. Louise Sim says:

      Appreciated you are using it to make a point but not and never cobbles (rounded stones) but granite setts, or cassies in the Doric. Cutting setts from granite is a skilled task.

      1. Richard Easson says:

        Hi Louise
        I know what you mean but we used to call them cobbled streets in Dunfermline and Edinburgh. I lived near Culross where you have the rounded stones and the crown in the middle known as caussie but my point was not that they neede to be cut but just put back after the work below was done. I wouldn’t be surprised by their black nature if a lot of these things were actually basalt, more common in Edinburgh.

  4. Bill says:

    A good article Mike – more power to your elbow in tackling the problem with the group you have founded. I note that Glasgow council have indicated that they will not Disneyfy their city. There is much wrong in what was done to Glasgow, but hopefully things will get better.

    As a Glaswegian, who lived in Edinburgh for over 20 years, I have mixed emotions on the issue – could be churlish and say well you voted them in – but I do feel that people really need to tackle the council on the way ahead. One would not mind so much if the vast revenues being generated were put to good use in protecting that worth preserving and improving that which requires improvement. Also there could be provision of the desired services, schools, nurseries libraries etc in those parts of the centre that would benefit. a massive tourist tax on the AirBNB and Underbelly would go some way to curtailing the riotous excesses – although I am more tempted to give the two old Etonians a free night in the bottle dungeon in St Andrews – that could be a taster for the next tourist experience.

    It will be important that at the next council election, people come out to firstly express their views on the issue and then to vote in large numbers for people who will sort the problem and improve the situation.


    1. John S Warren says:

      Glasgow – “Disneyfication”?! What on earth does Glasgow think it has protected? Certainly not the work of the great 19th century Glasgow architect (no, not Mackintosh), Alexander “Greek” Thomson (1817-75). The American architectural critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock identified Thomson as one of the outstanding architects of the 19th century. Glasgow has allowed the demolition of his irreplaceable work over many decades, does virtually nothing to repair or enhance much of his surviving, work; while the outstanding “Egyptian” Halls in Union Street still faces an uncertain future, in spite of being allowed to reach the nadir, nearly irreparable.

      As for the general state of such an important thoroughfare as Sauchiehall Street, it has been allowed to sink lower and lower over many, many years into shabby, miserable, despondent disrepair: the outstanding exhibition space the McLellan Galleries, long closed and forgotten (and with the beautifully restored Mackintosh Willow Tearoom, sitting like a jewel in a rubbish tip). All they have done is plant some trees on the pavement at the Charing Cross end, and provide a fashionable, designated cycle-track; it looks like a race track to me. I could go on – endlessly…….

      So where does Glasgow find the gall to demean Disney? However superficial and trite, Disney represents a ‘dream’. Outside the activity around Gilmorehill, which is down to Glasgow University (I do not comment on the architecture, but the grand plan): what on earth happened to having a civic “dream” for Glasgow? I cannot see it, and I suspect Geddes would laugh – or cry.

  5. MBC says:

    Great article Mike. Thanks for this and all you do. Let’s hope we can do something to halt this in 2020.

  6. Wul says:

    Great article and spot on. Something will need to be done about this. Urgently.

    The recent events in Edinburgh show us how we are to be treated and managed in the future (if we don’t get up off our backsides and cry “Enough!”). Asking a corporation, owned by a wealthy, tax avoiding Etonian, for a permit to enter our own home (another permit if we want to have friends round) because the location of our house has become more valuable than our contribution to society.

    How long before locals are just told; “Eff-off. We need your street” ?

    Kind of reminds me of something that once happened in Scotland in the past.

    1. Wul says:

      A “Pass”!!? A fu**ing pass? To enter your own home?

      No way!

  7. Arboreal Agenda says:

    This is part of a kind of creeping take-over of public spaces in general by private businesses who wield the right to tell you what to do, bar and restrict you from places that either used to be or very much appear to be ‘public’.

    Edinburgh, like much of Scotland suffers from being ‘too beautiful’ as someone once said (who was it?), meaning that serious social issues tend to get ignored due to the endless celebration of that beauty. I hate this corporate take over and feel very sad that the local council seem so happy to embrace it: are there no dissenting voices with political power? It puts matters like independence a little in the shade since this kind of thing will carry on regardless of political autonomy.

    I hope the Citizen movement can prove effective. Direct action might be helpful but you are up against some very powerful forces indeed that work way above the normal structures we are used to dealing with. I love coming to the Fringe but feel quite concerned this year that I would just be joining in with the Disneyfication: is there a way to enjoy the Festival that can at least attempt to avoid this? Go to no shows put on by Underbelly?

  8. Maxwell macleod says:

    For me this process was crystallised in the development of the Tron.
    A few years ago over seventy. local artists were working from stalls,much of the over management being by a group with colourful backgrounds
    They were evicted for the current bland exhibition,diabolicaly written and an equally bland shop selling reproduction antiques. It was a craft emporium moniterised to an accountants brief.promises made to the crafts people were never kept. I wrote about it in my Artwork column.

  9. David Ross says:

    I was working during the holidays and made the most of being able to drive north to south through the city – up The Mound, early in the day. Empty of crowds it was the masking of Edinburgh’s aesthetics which horrified me. Screens, hoardings, gates and temporary barriers everywhere. Without the crowds to distract, the utter mess of the city was laid bare. It looked absolutely awful. You have to pity any ‘cultural tourists’ who arrive in Edinburgh expecting to see the beautiful city they’ve heard so much about and always meant to visit. That Edinburgh’s now only available a few off-season months of the year.

  10. John Ferguson says:

    Sustainable tourism should be the aim, the rush for this mythical ‘Tourist’ is an insane rush that brings badly paid poor quality jobs often seasonal. It the large hotel and shopping chains and individuals who put little back. It is environmentally damaging and blocks real development that cities require. It is not a completely bad process if done properly. I am not long back from being a tourist in India and before that European cities I have experienced some appalling tourist attractions but particularly in India, Berlin and Zurich real sustainable and enjoyable experiences that are rooted in the authenticity and quality provided by well paid and local staff as well as contributing to community development. I also want to stress there are sustainable ways to travel such as trains as I did in Europe and India at low cost but more people and cost friendly than our current public transport system. Yes flights were involved but only after a lifetime of avoiding aircraft. I am planning to see if I can reach India or China without flying in the hopefully not too distant future. Scotland’s greatest asset is not its scenery it is it’s people and we need to invest in people not crass unrestricted costly rip offs and Corporations.

  11. Gordon Benton says:

    Thank you … a most interesting analysis of this deathly case of ‘over tourism’. Answers have to be found now to set out new ground rules that respects the rights of the community over crass product commercialisation, clearly.
    There is no doubt that such as Edinburgh makes sackloads of cash from incomers which must benefit not a few local residents, and for a couple of weeks twice a year, this has been, as you have analysed, all too much.
    In town planning terms, Edinburgh is probably uniquely lucky in having a connected-up walkable space (Royal Mile-Princes Street +Gardens) capable of holding one million+ at any one time. Citizens through the vote can decide if, if limited to this zone, they would be willing to sacrifice personal inconvenience for a couple of weeks per year, twice – to help pay to repair potholes. Just prepare a less ‘exploitist’ business case … and thank your lucky stars you are not poor Venetians or Jakartaans – inexorably sinking below the waves .

  12. Julia Gibb says:

    Meanwhile in Scotland syphilis rates are soaring, we have three times as many drug deaths as England and 50% worse alcoholism. 750,000 Scots have left Scotland to go and live in better parts of the union while those of us too poor to live anywhere but Scotland are tottering around pigeon-tied from the clap.

    We must demand more English money NOW.

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