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Archive for the ‘Tourism’ Category

View down a hill near downtown San Francisco, December 26, 2008

View down a hill near downtown San Francisco, December 26, 2008

I just wrapped up a vacation to San Francisco, where a friend from high school joined me to attend another friend’s wedding. We arranged to have an extra day on either side, so we could do a little vacationing in the city.  Our approach to sightseeing highlights two contrasting approaches to tourism — and to city planning.

One approach might be called “destination based”.  It assumes that, within a city, there are certain, distinct sites you want to see, or particular activities you want to do.  For example, you might want to:

  • See the San Francisco Opera’s production of La Bohème;
  • Visit the Exploratorium (a hands-on science museum);
  • Climb the twisting Lombard Street;
  • Take a boat over for a tour of Alcatraz; or
  • Look at the Asian Art Museum.

In the extreme form of this approach, all that matters is that the particular destinations get visited and the planned activities get done.  The in-between things — the trips from one activity to the next, and the spaces one must pass through to reach them — are incidental and irrelevant.

My friend and I took a contrasting approach, which we might call “place based”.  This approach assumes not only that the spaces between activities are relevant, but that they are actually the whole point of going to a place.  If you take a place-based approach, you are more interested in how the neighborhoods look, how the locals live, and what the “feel” is of a place.

Now, we did have a short list of things to do — eat some Italian food in North Beach, eat some dim sum in Chinatown, and look at the public library — but, with three full days in the Bay area, that left a lot of time in between.  And that was just perfect, because all we really wanted to do was walk around San Francisco: to see how people were dressed, to enjoy the architecture and public art, and to admire the almost obscenely rich variety of goods and services available.  (After Sunday’s dim sum breakfast, we passed a bookstore — sadly, closed — devoted to nothing but architecture.  I peered in the window, and it was huge.)

It wasn’t just our choice in goals that made this possible.  The places we visited — downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, the Tenderloin, and Nob Hill — were all worth visiting, independently of our particular goals.  They had their own distinct character, and they were all destination rich: that is, while they weren’t equally attractive, they offered plenty of reasons for people to be there.

In my mind, this is characteristic of good cities.  People want to be there — not just at their destinations, but in the spaces themselves.  This can only happen if the spaces are both useful and interesting.

Useful spaces are those that meet a variety of human needs: eating, shopping, meeting, socializing, playing, and residing.  They are robust: they don’t lose their utility after one need is met, but continue offering opportunities.

In a way, it’s their utility that lets them be interesting.  For a place to develop its own character, it needs a measure of insularity, just as a person needs a measure of solitude to develop his or her own character.  But this can only happen where a variety of life’s needs are met.  Otherwise, people flee their own communities and don’t pay them enough attention.  (My guess is that this is why Fairbanks is so much more interesting a place to live than Eagle River: when you’re a suburb of Anchorage, you don’t have to develop as many of your own industries, house your own jobs, or sustain your own culture.)

San Francisco got this way partly through historical accident: most of the city was built before private car ownership was the norm (the Presidio was founded about the time of the American Revolution), so people took it for granted that they’d rather live near their jobs, grocers, and other life business.

Fairbanks, founded early in the 20th century, did not have that advantage.  Most of the infrastructure of modern-day Fairbanks (and the Borough) was built after the advent of private automobiles.  We’ve managed to build it as though we were happy to drive everywhere we needed to go and the spaces in between meant nothing.  (Witness the Johansen Expressway.)  We have built a “destination based” town, with only a few pockets of places really worth spending time.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Of our Assembly and our city planners, we can demand a change from places only worth fleeing to places worth being.  But we must first share the value that not only are particular destinations worthwhile, but places themselves have value and should be nurtured.

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This weekend — from Thursday, February 28, to Sunday, March 2 — Fairbanks will be host to the Alaska Library Association annual conference. About 300 librarians (professional and paraprofessional) from around the state will meet, confer, and otherwise hobnob with their fellow information wizards at the Princess Riverside Lodge. In between sessions on library software, web technology, graphic novels, children’s literature, intellectual freedom, and online learning, they’ll get to walk around town and enjoy Fairbanks’s natural beauty and cultural amenities.

From their hotel.

By the airport.

Yeah, right.

The Princess is a fine hotel. (Although, in an environment that is so dark for so much of the year, painting a building gray is an assault against taste.) But it makes me sad that, when my colleagues come from hundreds of miles around, they will have no places to walk to and no chance to leave the confines of their hotel without the aid of a taxi. I want them to leave with the memory of having been someplace interesting and exciting, not of having been trapped in a hotel.

I went last summer to the American Library Association‘s convention in Washinton, D.C. (which, I grant, is situated far differently from Fairbanks). The Washington Convention Center, a very modern set of buildings, is located in central D.C., and is practically surrounded by historical buildings, restaurants, retail, parks, residences, and of course centers of national government. A convention-goer with an hour between sessions might have found several places within easy walking distance to get a bite to eat; with two hours, he or she might have walked to see some of our national treasures. And if that conventioneer needed something farther away, a subway station was located immediately outside the convention center.

Believe me, I have no desire to see Fairbanks become just like Washington. But a convention site, especially one expected to draw people from out of town or out of state, should offer visitors more than just the convention. It should be a gateway to the town, so that visitors have an easy opportunity to see the sights, get some lunch, visit local officials, take a walk, sit in a park, watch people, and — naturally — do some shopping. Convention-hosting hotels should view themselves not as islands of hospitality, but as integral contributors to the local economy. (I note one exception: the bed-and-breakfast in the woods, which is suited to the visitor seeking to be surrounded by boreal forest most of the time.)

The Vision Fairbanks plan for the revitalization of downtown calls for a convention center and hotel on Cushman, at the south end of the 1st-to-Airport stretch that is to be our “signature street”. A hotel and convention center combination in the heart of town would (1) make Fairbanks an attractive option for national organizations looking for a place to hold a convention, (2) offer our visitors something more memorable than their convention by the airport, and (3) give a needed boost to the local economy.

Our local economy needs that boost. And our visitors deserve some rich memories of our town.

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