Recently I was scanning through an Old World geography book, a lap-sized cardboard thing published for children in the early 1990s. The world was split not into continents or nations but mid-sized regions, apparently dependent on the richness of their tourist iconography. Each giant illustrated map was a combination of cultural, political and national symbols: Wyoming gets a cowboy, Berlin the Brandenburger Tor and Parma, a wheel of cheese. The California coast, from North to South, reads: Redwood, wine, Golden Gate, computers, orange trees, the Hollywood sign and Disneyland.
The image pasted over Copenhagen is the Little Mermaid, a modest bronze statue of the eponymous Hans Christian Andersen character mounted on a rock that sits on the west coast of the city’s eastern harbor. It’s easy to resent the little half-fish girl: she attracts tourists like flies to a predictably smelly half-fish girl and her fairy tale symbolism is far removed from the urbane modernist sensibility that many of the other public venues cater to. Not that she doesn’t look nice, ruminating on her hybrid physiology, indifferent to the rise of the tide around her or the geothermal power plant’s smokestacks across the water. But why is she a destination? How is her presence indicative of the city, and what motivates that outsider compulsion to visit her?
What I am constantly trying to figure out is how a person comes to know a city. Regardless of the length of my stay or its purpose, or whether I pay taxes: what strategies do we use to understand urban places? What standards do we judge our progression through a city?
The answer can’t be academic. Historical and technical knowledge are not necessarily enabling, nor can they replicate actual experience: a robot chef is no judge of flavor. Tourism seems to offer a procedural type solution to the “know your city” problem: consuming the correct collection of commercially available stimuli (a building’s façade, this ice cream, a certain art exhibit) will render a city in a “Paint By Numbers” clarity. It’s easy to be cynical about this approach, as tourist attractions seem to turn individual foreign visitors into a gawking mass with a shutter-happy collective consciousness. They may be universally resented by locals but cultivated as economic cash crops. What is fascinating is how tourism industry can be seen as a necessary beast and a valuable activity in itself — how cities design, advertise and fluff themselves up for strangers and in turn how tourists form an impression of a given area.
What frustrates me is the blind compulsion that accompanies hardcore tourists. The city becomes a set of obligations, accompanied by a no excuses attitude to cultural appreciation. Such a framework also quickly physically sorts the tourists from everyone else, creating a type of doppelganger city inhabited by perpetual outsiders and visualized entirely by postcard photographs. But what is a realistic alternative? Can authenticity be made accessible, or should it?
I’m advocating for here is a reflexive tourism-urbanism where the local inhabitant learns to be aware of how a tourist moves through a foreign place. Not necessarily only to see a city with fresh eyes, but as a direct challenge to a context that is both familiar and perhaps underdeveloped.
Sometimes that perspective can provide radical change for a city’s own welfare as well as its world image. The Danish author Kaspar Colling Nielsen wrote a collection of short stories that all reference a 3.5 kilometer high mountain on the outskirts of Copenhagen. The imaginary mountain of “Mount København” is now an entrepreneurial project, billed as an iconic structure to be engineered along the lines of Gothic cathedrals or the Coliseum. Regardless of whether the thing actually gets built, it’s an exercise in urban invention and branding, of how cities dress themselves for the outside world.