‘T’ is for Tourist!

The term ‘tourist’ is usually not a term that some one wants bestowed upon them. How many times have you heard the term tourist, but heard it preceded by some colorful language? As in, “Sorry I’m late. There were a bunch of #!$@*% tourists blocking the sidewalk in front of the building…”. The answer is probably more often than you have heard it used in a positive light.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Seattle and be a tourist. Since we were only there for a few days, we stuck to mostly the ‘touristy’ sorts of things (Pike Place market, strolling along the water, the Seattle underground tour, the Central Library by OMA, the Space Needle, etc). Often, locals will rarely go to these places “just to check them out” or will avoid them altogether. However, when people are only in a city for a few days, they will, more often than not, want to see the highlights and do the tourist things.

As annoying as tourists can be to locals, there is another angle to view them that speaks to a larger urban identity. When only given a few days to see the highlights of a city, people will often be drawn to the same things over and over again. These highlights of a city are often what help to identify a specific urban setting and, therefore, act as a certain type of branding for a city.

For instance, much of the branding for Seattle is based on the waterfront and the history of the city as a logging town. Similarly, the branding and identity of Chicago is based heavily around the lakefront/river, Michigan Ave., and the mass amounts of skyscrapers and museums. People who live in these places will, undoubtedly, scoff at such claims. That is because they LIVE there and are exposed to much more of the city in their day-to-day lives that most people will never experience. The small amounts of the city that is able to be experienced by outsiders in a brief amount of time, therefore, becomes the primary barometer by which the city is remembered and judged,

Most people associate Denver with the mountains, but would be surprised upon arrival at the need to rent a car to get out to even the foothills. So where do tourists go when they come to this city? Some of the first things that come to mind are the 16th St. Mall, Union Station, Denver Art Museum, the mint, going to a nearby brewery, and generally just strolling about downtown. Most people will tell you that that is just a small portion of Denver and they would be right. That being said, all of these things can be experienced in a single day or a weekend at most.

Much of our history and character was wiped out of downtown in the 1960s and 1970s via the  DURA (Denver Urban Renewal Authority) movement (see images below). This incredibly unfortunate planning blunder marred Denver for years and the city has still not fully become what was envisioned (or it has and everyone is just underwhelmed by the result). Twenty-seven blocks (sic) of downtown were leveled and replaced with parking lots and office towers in order to turn Denver into a “modern” city. Today, this would cause an upheaval that would register on the Richter scale. But, the damage has been done. So where do we go from here in order to brand this city in a way that is memorable and something that takes more than a busy Saturday to experience?

downtown aerial - clocktower 1976     downtown aerial 1976

Above images: effect of DURA on downtown Denver circa 1976

There are no easy answers to this question; otherwise we would have already done them. We, as architects and emerging professionals, should take these issues to heart when we decide how our buildings are going to shape the urban fabric and affect thousands of people on a daily basis. I’m not advocating that we build our own Space Needle, but I do think it is important to see this city from an outsiders perspective every once in a while instead of some one that lives their daily life walking down 16th St. Mall and catching the light rail from Union Station. If we take the time to consider how others are experiencing our city and reflect on how we can be better hosts, we will in turn become better and more thoughtful architects and designers.

In the mean time, the next time some one abruptly stops on the mall to take pictures of the clock tower, kindly avoid cursing them under your breath and simply step to the side to avoid their camera.

*Steps down from soapbox to take selfie in front of Union Station sign*

2 thoughts on “‘T’ is for Tourist!

  1. As a suburbanite, I play Tourist in Denver quite a bit. But the thing they always bothers me is how hard it seems to be to get around. Visiting NY, Chicago, Seattle, etc. there is an abundance of easy public transportation that lands you within walking distance of those city’s Tourist destinations. IMHO Denver’s lack of brand isn’t the lack of great places to play Tourist, but the difficulty in reaching them.

    • While I totally see your point and agree with it, I would say that we might be focused on different things (which is probably my fault for not being clear). It’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” type of situation. The fact that things are hard to get to speaks to the lack of “public focused” design in the downtown area. If the urban fabric of downtown was more people friendly (my argument), people wouldn’t have to focus on how to get way out to where ever some sort of cool area was (your argument) because they would already be in one via downtown Denver.

      I would say that the lack of reliable methods to get out to certain areas isn’t the cause of the problem, but is CAUSED BY the problem.

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