What is the purpose of a city?
A city is place for people to live, work, socialize, raise their kids and more. A city is a home for the citizens, a place to do business and for those not living or working there a place to visit. But a city is more than just housing, offices, streets and industry thrown together. It is a place where people meet and interact not only in their homes and offices but also in public. A good city is designed in a way to facilitate interactions in public spaces.
But some cities fail in this regard. Some are just badly designed around the idea of car use. Others are economically weak and can’t afford to create and maintain public spaces. But today I want to to talk about tourism (rather overtourism) and how it destroys public spaces that would make a city livable for it’s inhabitants and visitors alike.
An outdoor museum
Potsdam has a rich history and a lot of historical architecture. It used to be the political and cultural center of Prussia and kept this significance into the German Empire when Berlin became the capital. Kings and Princes used this city to build their palaces, gardens and villas. Naturally people want to see this cultural heritage so they come to visit Potsdam as tourists.
The city itself and the trust governing these palaces and parks want to keep everything tidy and pristine. Which means that the parks are closed down in the evening. There is little in the way of getting a coffee or some snacks outside designated tourist areas. You can’t sit on the grass, play some ball, have your dogs run around, meet people or have a picnic. You can walk through the parks and look at things. It is an outdoor museum but it is not a public space.
A shopping mall
The other thing most tourists like to do is shopping and dining. This means every square inch of commercial real estate is geared towards tourism. Many shops cater to tourists. Restaurants and coffeeshops are usually offering mediocre fare for not so mediocre prices. Sitting in a sidewalk café means having slow moving tourists amble through looking at storefronts and your food. Going out for dinner means lazy service because tourists often don’t care. It gives the distinct feeling of being not quite at home even though you technically are.
It also means that the downtown area is often packed with tourists browsing through stores or sitting in restaurants. It is loud, busy and there is little space to sit down and relax or meet up with a friend. Because storefronts and sidewalk seating makes more money there are few spaces left for benches, small plazas and greenery. The few benches are just enough for shoppers to catch their breath for a few moments. You are supposed to sit down at a culinary establishment and pay money.
A place to drive through
Potsdam sits pretty uniquely over two river crossings leading into Berlin and the surrounding counties respectively. Many people have to drive through the city to go either way. Downtown is cut into parts with noisy thoroughfares. The city actually built a few benches and flower beds but who wants to sit next to a noisy road.
For political reasons that are beyond me a third river crossing bypassing the city never got enough traction. Instead of removing car traffic from the city to make it a calmer and safer place they still allow daily commuter traffic to enter the city from people neither living nor working here.
A lack of will
None of these problems are insurmountable. Traffic could be redirected, public spaces redesigned, not every inch of street space given over to tourism. But there seems to be a lack of will. Most Potsdamers live in the outer less historical districts, they don’t care much. Business owners care mostly about tourist money as does the city. There is a huge space right downtown that is could be a public place but consists of giant parking lots, dirty benches where drunks hang out and a park that has a lot of space for a beautiful playground but lacks one.