The promise of walkable urban tourism


Donald E. Hawkins
Donald E. Hawkins

Congestion and crowding problems in popular urban tourism destinations such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and Venice are undermining the quality of life for residents and creating negative visitor experiences. The sources of conflict range from inconveniences such as congestion, noise and uncivil behavior to a loss of cultural heritage or identity.

Unfortunately, the challenges posed by urban tourism have not been given adequate attention by city planners, developers and managers. Nor have urban development and place management generally been given a high priority by the tourism industry.

Obviously, this needs to change. A basic starting point is to recognize that the majority of tourism within cities is accessed by foot in places that should be designed to enhance "walkability," pedestrian safety and access for all.

A major challenge facing cities today is how to use walkability as a means to develop positive relationships between visitors and locals and to stimulate the co-creation of positive and enriching experiences. This will require a clearer understanding of the positive and negative effects of disruptive technologies, such as Airbnb's on hotels, Uber's on taxis and Pokemon Go on local places.

It will also require the gradual transformation from today's dominant automobile culture to more efficient urban mass transit, ride-sharing, biking, scooter and walkable options. That pivot also offers the potential to convert parking spaces and garages into tourist-friendly amenities, such as parks and open spaces.

But there is a missing level of governance that is urgently needed today in order to improve the quality of urban tourism.

At the local level, this will require expanding beyond simply promoting tourism to embracing a more inclusive approach to destination management. We are seeing a rise of decentralized neighborhood organizations and community associations focused on place management that can complement traditional tourism in downtown areas.

For example:

  • Downtown-adjacent places such as Dupont Circle in Washington and Virginia Highland in Atlanta.
  • Commercial, regionally significant walkable urban places such as H Street in Washington and Park Slope in Brooklyn.
  • Urban universities and colleges such as the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Kendall Square (near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Cambridge, Mass.; and Syracuse University in New York.
  • Innovation districts such as Oklahoma City; Fort Worth, Texas; the St. Louis Cortex; and Philadelphia's University City.
  • Suburban town centers such as Evanston, Ill., and Pasadena, Calif.
  • Redeveloped strip malls such as Bel Mar of Lakewood, Colo., and Tyson's Corners in Virginia.
  • Green/brown field redevelopment areas such as those found in Reston, Va., and National Harbor in Maryland.

A place-management model that has been successful in facilitating urban tourism is the business improvement district (BID), which has been instrumental in responding to this missing level of governance at the local level.

A BID is a defined area within where businesses pay an additional tax or other levies to fund projects within the district's boundaries. The BID is often funded primarily through the levy but can also draw on other public and private funding. BIDs provide services, such as cleaning streets, providing security, making capital improvements, constructing pedestrian and streetscape enhancements, staging events and marketing the area to tourists.

For example, Bryant Park, once labeled "Needle Park" for the junkies who hung out there, reopened in April, 1992, and is now a major New York attraction. It is located near Times Square and abuts the New York Public Library. The park serves thousands of tourists and residents who pass by its boundaries each day.

The Bryant Park Corp. was founded in 1980 as a not-for-profit and cooperating BID. Its stated mission was "to create a rich and dynamic visual, cultural and intellectual outdoor experience for New Yorkers and visitors alike; to enhance the real estate values of its neighbors by continuously improving the park; to burnish the park's status as a prime NYC tourist destination by presenting a meticulously maintained venue for free entertainment events; and to help prevent crime and disorder in the park by attracting thousands of patrons at all hours, thus fostering a safe environment."

Responding to these urban challenges, the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis and the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University's School of Business are currently expanding the metropolitan Washington walkable urban-place analysis, previously conducted in 2012. The current scope seeks to account for changes over the past five years in the metro area as well as to incorporate measurements that capture how walkable urban places bolster the regional tourism economy.

The university's methodology seeks to provide concrete evidence for how the design and management of walkable urban places can stimulate economic development and enhance the overall attractiveness of a city, thus leading to sustainable tourism growth.

We hypothesize that tourism activity and performance are highly correlated with the availability of walkable urban places and that the majority of tourism activity and business transactions occur in such parts of metro areas.

The data being collected and analyzed includes the following metrics:

  • Hotel supply, demand, revenue, occupancy, average daily rate and RevPAR.
  • Airbnb supply, characteristics, attractiveness and visitor satisfaction.
  • Tourism-related credit card expenditures.
  • Attendance at cultural facilities, landmarks, attractions and park/open spaces.

A three-day Executive Leadership Institute on the development and management of tourist-oriented walkable urban places will be offered at the George Washington University School of Business in Washington from Sept. 21 to 23.

It will provide a deep dive into how smart development transformed Washington into one of the nation's most walkable urban areas and a top world tourist destination. It will also introduce place-management tools and cases from leading cities throughout the world.

Field trips and experiential learning activities at the neighborhood level will focus on innovative governance approaches, including business improvement, creative and historic districts, shopping streets and learning/innovation centers.

For more information, please go to

This new vision for tourism in cities is linked to today's dominant structural shift in urban development toward walkable urban places as opposed to drivable suburbanism. This is taking place worldwide both in central cities and in urbanizing suburbs, and it has been clearly shown to result in increased price and valuation premiums for all real estate types in walkable areas: residential, retail, commercial and tourism-related.

Enhanced walkability in metro areas can create spatial dynamics for transforming the urban landscape through the rejuvenation of public spaces, enhancement of mobility and accessibility, development of heritage resources and expansion of tourist amenities.

This process not only safeguards and enhances the quality of life for residents but also contributes to the realization of quality visitor experiences, creating a "front porch" for locals to share their neighborhoods with tourists.

Donald E. Hawkins, professor emeritus of management and tourism studies at George Washington University in Washington, can be reached at [email protected].


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