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Tourism and Historic Towns: The Cultural Key

Image: Pier 39 San Francisco tourism elements

6th European Symposium of Historic Towns
Cambridge, UK: 20-22 September 1989

The key to successful tourism development in historic towns is suggested as cultural significance and the door that it opens can lead to successful community regeneration if the right steps are taken. The development of tourism can be the motivation for the key being turned.

Cultural processes are seen as either educative, producing knowledge, or entertaining, leading to enjoyment. The enjoyment of any place is a pre-requisite of the confidence to improve it. Knowledge and confidence create an ability to improve through an appropriate mixture of conservation and change. The social and economic situations must also be right, though that is not our prime concern here.

Tourism can, if developed sensitively, help the economy. Inappropriate forms of tourism will act against the capacity to improve. The measure of suitability for a historic town is dictated by the townscape with its various features and facilities, along with good promotion and management. Defining it as “historic” must mean that not only is its physical and social heritage cared for, but that it can communicate with people. It is suggested that three kinds of provision have to be made, and that these can be termed vectors, access points and venues. A strategy for a healthy community must provide for them.

Tourism and Historic Towns: the Cultural Key

History of a major dimension of human culture, and historic towns are arguably the most important expressions of the past that we possess. Reading the townscape of these places is not difficult, most people being familiar with the meaning of salient features like churches, commercial buildings and factories. Why and how they are significant in our culture is open to discussion by politicians and sociologists, and of course historians. But however they see them, people gain from buildings not only a view of who they are themselves but what they can do to improve their lot. Communities can build visions of the future on their sense of place.

It is the development of tourism that can motivate the key being turned. Historic towns are often not those to feel a need for radical change: Cambridge, Bath, York and Oxford are perhaps examples in England. Those that do perceive a need for major changes are, on the other hand, often those that are not attractive to visitors. If that Is because there are few environments worth promoting it is clear that creating the new environments must be done first. But there are also places full of history that have not been traditional tourist destinations, and these include many manufacturing towns. Calderdale, in the classic textile district of West Yorkshire, contains several such places, and has had considerable success in using tourism development as a way to unlock the door to community renewal. The mechanism by which it has been done is extremely interesting, and is based on making cultural life a priority.

Cultural processes are either educative, producing knowledge, or entertaining, leading to, enjoyment, or they are a mixture of the two. Tourism is a blend of both processes though entertainment is the prime motivation for visitors and visited alike. Yet that has been the case for only a century and a half, at least in Britain, with earlier tourism having had education as its main motive. Recently the growth of “special interest” holidays has swung the pendulum back, and the amount of educational day visiting adds to this picture. To support this growth there has been a huge increase in the provision of visitor centres, museums, guidebooks and information panels that can of course be used by residents as much as by tourists. The resulting enjoyment for at least a part of the visitor market has a parallel in the better self-awareness by residents. In Calderdale at least this has also meant a boost for self-esteem and morale.

The enjoyment of any place is a pre-requisite of having the confidence to improve it. There has to be a wish to be involved which is based on an empathy with people and their place. The residents will only stay on and take positive steps if they are - literally - at home with their environment. Given a knowledge of what to do and how, they will have the ability to improve their surroundings, through an appropriate mixture of conservation and change, being happy to retain some elements while creating new ones alongside.

The social and economic situations must also be right, though that is not the prime concern of this paper. Democratic, accessible organisations through which change can be discussed and initiated are needed. Tourism can, if it is developed sensitively, help the economy through its very broad base of earning-opportunities, but inappropriate forms of tourism will act against the capacity to improve as overcrowding of transport networks and town spaces occurs, litter and disfigurement of buildings happens, and cultural patterns are disrupted.

The measure of appropriateness for an historic town is dictated by the publicity, management and interpretative strategies, which all relate to the way that it is marketed. The first lesson must be that marketing has to be understood by conservationists and those trying to renew communities, because of its ability to reduce or control pressures as well as to increasing visitor numbers. Secondly, it can be suggested that good management and interpretation are served by a particular group of planned facilities, without which problems will arise. In this paper these are termed Vectors, Access Points and Venues.

Vectors are all of those features in townscapes that can be sensed - in other words, seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted. The most complex are the visual vectors ranging from whole street scenes down to details like carvings and signs. Aural vectors include sounds of people, animals and machines. Scent vectors might be flowerbeds, industrial smells, food smells from shops or the scents of certain materials. Pavement surfaces, grass, sand and clay, or building materials like stone and brick, are tactile vectors. There are fewer taste vectors, but those such as sea spray can be important. Blind people need these rather less obvious vectors more than sighted people do.

Vectors act as landmarks spatially and chronologically. Like a lighthouse helping seafarers to navigate, an old building gives a sense of the changes of history. Details of architecture give a context of changed fashions and reflect a little of the prevailing culture. The Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, speaks of church and state, education, architectural style, human emotion and effort. Its monuments and plaques stimulate thoughts about people and places long gone. These reminders are about differences as well as similarities. They establish a kind of historic distance and direction between themselves and their’ viewers which can be quantified, measuring how things have changed and in what direction. An analogy with mathematical usage gives the term “vector”. Of course meanings vary with the beholder, and every item of sensory information conveys something, however small.

The numerous features which Cambridge has give it identity and attractiveness, in sharp contrast to the relatively sparsely-featured modernist architecture that is now being abandoned in favour of post-modernism with its symbolic references. The lack of identity and language stems from a lack of the vectors which, it is suggested, are necessary to people.

Access Points are places where people can get access to information that is not instantly available as vectors. They include tourist information centres, shops, libraries and attractions like museums and period houses. Visitors to them have to take the initiative to obtain information, which they can then use for reference. Bookshops and newsagents supply local guide books but also books by regional authors and local newspapers. Most- shops have the potential to reflect the nearby character by the kind of goods they sell. Food shops will stock up on popular lines, clothing shops sell items priced for the town’s buyers, and all of them have staff willing to answer questions. Finally, while being quite different kinds of organisations, schools, theatres and religious buildings all give access to knowledge however objective or subjective they may be.

Venues are places where people can meet to discuss their community and how to improve it. Having gained knowledge and understanding they can decide how to use their new expertise. Streets, town squares, public houses, eating places, city halls, legislatures, workplaces, meeting rooms and clubs are all in this category.

Historic towns are well supplied with all these things and their communities are therefore full of cultural awareness: they may or may not- have dynamism for improvement. But towns full of modernist architecture with few social facilities are notoriously those with problems: they lack the kind of features described above. A strategy for a healthy community should therefore seek to supply the kind of architectural features, textures, sounds and smells which enhance a sense of place and a position in history. If urban designers need to understand how people relate to their surroundings through a range of features, it is suggested that a concept of vectors, access points and venues would be of help to them.

The key to successful tourism development in historic towns is in their cultural significance, and the door that it opens leads to community regeneration so long as the right steps are taken through marketing and townscape design.

Alan Machin
Public Relations and Marketing Officer
Calderdale Inheritance Project, Halifax, UK

[Photo: Pier 39, San Francisco - part of the city's range of tourist attractions]


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