Workshop | DISTFest – Friday, October 22nd 2021

Cities and Universities
Socio-spatial dynamics of a complex relations and their implications for urban policies

Organized by:
Loris Servillo and Samantha Cenere (DIST, Politecnico di Torino)

Jean-Paul Addie (Georgia State University)
Louise Kempton (Newcastle University)
Daniel Malet Calvo (Instituto Universitário de Lisboa)
Silvia Mugnano (University of Milano Bicocca)
Nick Revington (Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Montreal)
Antonio Paolo Russo (Universitat Rovira i Virgili)

The phrase “town and gown” once used to describe the relationship between universities and the urban context in which they are located implies an understanding of the two as separate spheres. However, it is increasingly evident that complex, indirect, and hidden entanglements characterised the city-university nexus within the global paradigm of the knowledge economy. Universities may be seen as urban developers whose action impacts substantially on the built environment. Their capacity to implement an attractive and competitive educational offer and research environment triggers the arrival of students and academics from other regions and countries, thus transforming the demographic profile of a city. Through the attraction of highly mobile, cosmopolitan, and skilled populations, universities indirectly contribute to activate new urban economies that span from a new retail offer to the transformation of the housing market. These and other examples of how universities have become one of the most powerful actors of urban transformations will be discussed at the workshop Cities and universities. Socio-spatial dynamics of a complex relationship and their implications for urban policies.
Through the contribution of various international experts, the workshop will offer a wide range of perspectives on the complex university-city nexus, showing how the urban effects of universities activity are not limited to their capacity to function as providers of skilled workforces and as research centres contributing to regional economic development. The massification and commodification of university education, the mantra of global competitiveness, and the imperative for cities of being attractive lay at the core of heterogeneous urban processes that Higher Education institutions participate in activating. These processes encompass the transformation of the housing market, urban renewal interventions at the neighborhood scale, changes in the retailscape of a specific area, and the opening of private student residences.
However, these processes may reveal another side of the coin, constituted by spatial, socio-economic and cultural inequalities, both on an urban scale and within those areas particularly affected by these transformations. These could emerge in multiple forms, such as conflicts over the use of public space between students and residents; the replacement of services of general interest aimed at the resident population with others designed for a highly mobile population; difficult access to affordable accommodation; displacement, etc. To what extent the production of urban spaces linked to the increasing relevance of universities within global knowledge capitalism and interurban competition may be balanced by the pursuit of inclusive, sustainable, and just cities?
These questions and issues resonate with the Sustainable Development Goal 11 and build a bridge between the workshop and a research project on the urban effects and exclusionary dynamics related to university student mobilities, conducted by the DIST team of the Horizon2020 project “SMARTDEST. Cities as mobility hubs. Tackling social exclusion through smart citizen engagement”

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Hindrances to Access to Housing in a Tourist City, pre- and post-COVID19: evidence from Barcelona

By Antonio Paolo Russo and Riccardo Valente, University Rovira i Virgili

This piece illustrates some of the early results from the study of Barcelona as an exemplary ‘overtouristed’ city in which access to affordable housing and its relationship with employment is at stake. Our insights seek to influence the debate about policy options for an inclusive port-pandemic recovery.

The SMARTDEST project (H2020 ref. 870753) focuses on forms of social exclusion emerging in the context of urban areas that are the hub of global mobilities, such as tourism.

Barcelona is one of the most celebrated examples of invention of a successful tourist city through urban planning, place marketing, cultural valorisation and innovative governance since the early 1990s; but also one that came to be subject to the highest level of tourism pressure, feeding a wide societal and political debate on social justice in the ‘overtouristed’ city. Besides, as a place increasingly dependent on tourism jobs and businesses (and especially so after the economic downturn of the 2008 financial crisis), Barcelona has been severely exposed to the next systemic crisis, that of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The key focus of the SMARTDEST case study in Barcelona is on housing affordability and its enmeshment with labour conditions in the tourist sector. The key assumption is that tourism growth produces benefits that are unevenly distributed across society and spatial scales, but it also entails social costs that affect long-term residents, for whom access to housing is becoming increasingly difficult, or tourism sector workers, that are more than others subject to precarious employment conditions and a high degree of ‘invisibility’ or informality.

Figure 1. Residential stability in the 73 neighbourhoods of Barcelona (2016-2019)

Our early results from a pre-pandemic analysis show how the progressive penetration of short-term rentals promoted via platforms like Airbnb is subtracting a sizable share of the housing stock from the long-term residential market. In our analysis, the spread of Airbnb accommodations during 2014-2019 period, as well as the levitation of housing prices and rental fees, were found to be associated with a reduction in the share of long-term residents (those who were living in the same neighbourhood for more than 5 years), an effect that is not significant in relation to the spread of the conventional accommodation supply. Discounting for other factors which may explain population change, we observe a high degree of residential instability in tourism-intensive neighbourhoods, with residents displaced to another neighbourhood or out of the city altogether (See Fig. 1).

We also looked at patterns of residential mobility among tourism workers between 2013 and 2019. Our analysis reveals that being employed in tourism-related sectors is associated with lower incomes and higher rates of precariousness compared to employments in non-tourism sectors. Such unfavourable labour conditions have a particular impact on female workers, that are more likely to be displaced out of Barcelona, while maintaining their main occupation in the city.

To conclude, affordable housing is a critical asset to ‘remain citizen’ in a tourist city like Barcelona, as is for many other cities that are studied in SMARTDEST. This seems to be increasingly a hindrance for vulnerable sectors of the population, and it is remarkable that the very model that feeds tourism growth also produces an engrossing share of precarious workers, those more likely to be affected by rising housing costs.

In the light of the above, pursuing the objective of reaching pre-COVID19 levels of tourism activity is likely to reproduce past exclusionary trends. If the global pressure on the housing market has only temporarily subsided (at the end of the summer season of 2021 evidence seems to point at a sharp reprise of the activity of short-term rentals), the situation of tourism workers and other vulnerable sectors has worsened substantially, because of high rates of unemployment. The post-pandemic future of Barcelona thus may a bleak one, in which social gaps are heightened and the very sense of social cohesion is at risk. In this sense, recovery efforts need to be based on a different approach to the planning and regulation of tourism mobilities and their local impacts, aligning with Sustainable Development Objectives like the reduction of social inequalities, which may imply steering away from a growth model which has shown all its limitations both in the pre-pandemic period and in its current developments.

typology of tourist regions

A typology of EU tourist regions facing social inclusion issues

By Antonio Paolo Russo, from Universitat Rovira i Virgili

As a first stage of the research approach of SMARTDEST, we have constructed a typology of European regions that illustrate different forms and degrees of attractiveness for tourists and related mobilities, and matched with a wide range of social indicators showcasing trends of social exclusion. The spatial patterns devised provide an interesting canvas to further examine how territorial structures, geographical specificities and policy regimes may play a role in explaining these variations, and inform postCOVID recovery towards policy reforms that bring forwards socially resilient tourist cities and regions.

As a first stage of the research approach of SMARTDEST, we have constructed a typology of European regions that illustrate different forms and degrees of attractiveness for tourists and related mobilities. This typology is then matched with a wide range of social indicators showcasing trends of social exclusion. The objective of this piece of research is to identify key inclusion challenges for groups of regions, having similar profiles in terms of their capacity and evolution to attract mobile populations. The spatial patterns devised provide an interesting canvas to further examine how territorial structures, geographical specificities and policy regimes may play a role in explaining these variations. This analysis refers to a context of steady intensification of tourism and international mobility that has characterised the last decades, to come to an abrupt halt with the sanitary emergency of COVID-19 in 2020, with an expected long tail of disruptions in global and local mobility systems. Looking into the near past goes in the way of understanding how tourism mobilities could have become enmeshed with social inequalities; the hindrances provoked by COVID-19 have been opening new relevant avenues of social exclusion, which the recent literature claims to be overlapping and heightening, and not substituting, pre-existing ones. Our analysis should therefore be informing the process of recovery, and underline the key policy challenges that are at stake in the debate as to whether tourism should bounce back to ‘business as usual’ and pre-COVID trends once the emergency is over, or whether this could be an important opportunity for reforms that bring forward social resilience in the face of the transformative and exclusionary power of tourism mobilities on places.

The indicators used to obtain this basic regional typology were selected from a wide range of measures of tourism and related mobilities considered in preliminary tasks of the SMARTDEST project. These include absolute and relative measures of tourism movement in space and in relation to the resident population (intensity and pressure indexes), for international and domestic markets. Whenever possible and relevant, these indicators have been stratified for areas that have different degrees of urbanisation. We also considered net migration rates for age groups, which the literature relates with different motivations for displacement; the mobility of Erasmus students; and a measure of the penetration of Airbnb supply in relation to the total population which is a proxy of the attractiveness of regions for visitors using this kind of platform-mediated  accommodation structures (generally not accounted for in official tourism movement statistics). All these indicators are calculated in stocks, taking 2018 as the most recent year for which there is an almost complete data cover, as well as in change rates, taking 2008 (the period immediately preceding the effects of global financial crisis) and 2013 (marking the start of the post-crisis recovery) as reference years. The technique used for obtaining the final typology has been 4-means clustering on a selection of such indicators after having eliminated redundancies.

The resulting geographical configuration is illustrated in the figure below. The first type, FAST INTERNATIONALISATION, includes only four regions in the European space (Iceland, Northern Ireland, the North-West of England, and the north of Serbia). These are relative newcomers in international tourism that have made a scale jump in the last decade, presenting themselves with an attractive destination profile especially for their rural and small and medium-sized towns. They have been experiencing a strong growth of tourism over the last decade and specifically of the share of international tourists, and are therefore subject to a relatively high tourism pressure (with low growth in cities and towns, high in rural areas). They are relatively unattractive as a site of migration for more senior cohorts but boast high crude migration rates for the younger migration cohorts.

The second class, LOW INTENSITY, includes 92 regions that are characterised as poorly attractive regions for tourism and other migrations but are subject to a rising tourist pressure in cities and towns, have a low and decreasing share of international tourism, and a moderate offer of Airbnb. This is a large set of regions across the core of Europe and stretching to its periphery. These regions are characterised by general low levels of attractiveness for visitors although they have been experiencing recent growth of the tourist intensity in cities and towns. The domestic market is the driving force of tourism development and wherever they have been experiencing some growth this has been mostly accompanied by an expansion of non-traditional forms of hospitality like short-term rentals mediated by digital platforms (as Airbnb). It is noteworthy that in spite of their relatively low tourist dimension, these regions can be moderately attractive for working age adults and senior migrants, maybe precisely on account of the ‘low pressure’ to which they are subject. The context of these regions varies to a great extent, from regions in the European core (as in Germany, France, Belgium and Switzerland as well as Southern Holland) to inland and predominately rural regions of Spain, regions in the Eastern periphery (Poland, Slovakia, Romania), the south of Finland, north of Sweden, the Italian South and Albania.

The third class, STEADY GROWERS, includes 53 regions whose profile is of being attractive and growing regions for tourism, with highest and growing pressure in rural areas, have a high foreign student population in relation to their size, a high and growing share of international tourism. These regions are mostly situated in the Mediterranean coastal and island regions (including almost the whole of Portugal), the Atlantic archipelagos except the Canaries; and extend to regions in Great Britain, the inner part of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, most Scandinavian and Baltic regions, and almost the whole of Greece, plus some ‘capital city regions’ like London, Prague and Bucharest. These are mature destinations for tourism that have not stopped growing and becoming more internationalised in the last decade, registering the highest pressure in non-urban areas, and are poorly attractive for working age younger adults, but moderately attractive for other migrations including under 25 and over-50-year-old workers.

Finally, the fourth class, TOURISM STARS, includes 15 regions that stand out as very attractive for tourism, especially urban, and all migrations, experiencing a moderate growth concentrated in towns and cities; they are subject to a large penetration of Airbnb, and experience a high share of international tourism but seeing a relative growth of the domestic market. These are some of the most visited destinations in Europe and at the same time preferred destinations for migrants of all age groups. Tourist pressure over the last decade has been mostly growing in urban and intermediate areas, and this has been accompanied by a high level of penetration of platform-mediated supply; yet in general the attraction of tourism (the international market in particular) is decelerating, for having possibly met some capacity thresholds. These regions include Catalonia, Madrid, the Balearic and Canary archipelagos, the Algarve region of Portugal, Paris and the South of France, the northeast of Italy, the whole of Croatia and Ireland, and two other capital city regions, North Holland (the region of Amsterdam) and Berlin.

The subsequent step of this analysis has been to calculate the average means of the score of a selection of social indicators in the four classes of regions in this typology, and test that these differences are significant. We have included in this exercise:

  • Health indicators (self-reported perception on health state by participants to the EU-SILC survey)
  • Housing indicators (self-reported perception on quality of housing, financial access to housing and rent values by participants to the EU-SILC survey)
  • Poverty and deprivation indicators (self-reported perception on conditions of dependency, lack of access to basic commodities and consumption, etc.)
  • Labour indicators proceeding from the Labour Force Survey and especially pointing at the dimension of regional employment in the tourism sector and at the characteristics of workers in atypical conditions or earning low salaries

The full discussion of results is available in the SMARTDEST Delverable 2.3, which can be retrieved at Here we only wrap up the most important insights.

A key aspect explored by the literature – but not in a systematic way and using an established metrics – is how positive and negative externalities from tourism development balance out (geographically and socially) and whether population change processes which could be triggered by tourism development may be shadowing an underlying process of social exclusion. In this sense, we have singled out the small group of FAST INTERNATIONALISATION regions as the most problematic to this respect: they present a profile of being places where access to housing represents a burden for women and a heavy burden for non-European foreigners and where a sizable share of the over-65 population lives in overcrowded households, and these hindrances do not balance out through the share of population that derive rents from property, which tend to be the lowest among the four types considered. They present the worst profile in terms of conditions of poverty and deprivation, the female population being particularly affected. They also have the large shares of workers in the tourist with elementary occupations (or others) having atypical work profiles and while they offer good opportunities also in term of salary to foreigners and women, they seem to offer them worse condition in terms of protection. The LOW INTENSITY regions present quite an opposite profile – though they derive much lesser benefits from tourism and other inward flows of migration, they show very little of the hindrances through which tourism growth may sustain pathways of social inequality and exclusion.

The other two categories, STEADY GROWERS and TOURISM STARS, are a mixed bag. The former group of regions have not reached a stage of development in which tourism pressure could be considered excessive (also on account of the relative spread of tourism activity out of urban areas), especially in relation to housing affordability, and they have some the best profile in terms of salaries paid. Their trajectory of development has been more paced, having had the opportunity to become embedded in new structures of institutional and social capital, yet the trends indicate that they may resent from an increasing specialisation in tourism, which makes them particularly vulnerable to systemic crises like the one that we are currently living with COVID-19. Finally, TOURISM STARS are in their majority characterised as places where the intensification of tourism in areas otherwise economically buoyant, of their very strong degree of specialisation in tourism, could have tipped some threshold which challenge social inclusion, for instance nuancing a high level of polarisation (for instance between homeowners and tenants), deprivation, and work conditions. That the already high level of concentration in urban areas has not grown in the last decade in average as much as in other regional types is not preventing the tourism economy to increase its dimension and lead to a structural deflation of employment conditions.

These findings may thus inform on some of the key challenges that should be taken into account in the European urban and regional policy agenda when the ‘tourist dimension’ and pace of evolution of regions is considered as a driver of social change, such as housing affordability, socio-spatial polarization, the casualization and precarious nature of tourism work or the effects that the reconfiguration of space brought about my global mobilities in their anchoring to place has on the most vulnerable segments of resident communities. These areas of concern will be the object of in-deep scrutiny in further stages of the SMARTDEST project both at pan-European and at case study level.


Transforming discourses on tourism

By Roos Gerritsma, Martine Roeleveld and Guido Stompff from Inholland University

Preliminary results of an extensive discourse analysis (2000 – 2020) on tourism and the impact on the inhabitants of Amsterdam reveal remarkably consistent, well known and opposing discourses. Smaller, transforming discourses emerged over time that attempt to solve the dualism and despite they are less in the news seem to have a large impact on policies.

The Amsterdam team of SMARTDEST gathered data from local and national newspapers plus other relevant sources that portray the evolving public discourse on tourism in Amsterdam. We expected that the discourse would be shaped by policy regime changes, while at the same time shaping local and national policies. Analysis is still ongoing, but preliminary results depict a remarkably consistent dualism between ‘growth’ and ‘liveability’ discourses. Besides two polarised  discourses, smaller discourses could be observed that seem to have planted the seeds for policy changes.

Starting with collecting thousands of media articles in the period 2000 -2020, the Amsterdam team of SMARTDEST team reduced the data set by strategically choosing  pivotal years in the development of Amsterdam tourism. Five years (2000, 2009, 2014, 2018, 2020) were chosen on the basis of a timeline in which policy changes and  major events were plotted. For example, 2014 was a jubilant year for Amsterdam tourism, including the reopening of one of its main attractions (the Rijksmuseum) resulting in extensive city marketing. While the public debate around excesses of tourists in the city can be traced back to 2000 (and arguably even before!), in 2014 that the debate hardened considerably. In 2015 a policy change attempted to rebalance the interests of residents, businesses and tourists and to enlarge the ‘liveability’ of the centre of Amsterdam, by means of a taskforce called ‘City in Balance’.

Over the course of these years the main discourses have proven to be remarkably stable, albeit the vocabulary and tone of voice and the spokespersons have changed. Although the numbers of overnight stays tourist in these two decades nearly tripled, the same dualism surfaces every year: between a ‘growth’ perspective versus a ‘liveability’ perspective. Whereas the first gives voice to economic considerations, the second voices concerns on the negative impact of tourism, although what is troubling residents changes over time. Whereas in the past pickpockets and small drugs related crime dominated this discourse, in recent years it has turned to nuisances in relation to AirBnB, stag parties, the city as a ‘themepark’ revolving into the qyuestion ‘who owns the city’.

In between these main discourses, several others emerge that attempt to transform the dualism, offering an overarching perspective that integrates opposing viewpoints. For example, at the beginning of the century the ‘tolerance’ discourse (e.g.: “Amsterdam is the gay capital”) offered such an overarching perspective, striving for both economic growth and tolerance, that is: more tourists and an inclusive city. Lately, the ‘reinvent tourism’ movement also offers such a transformative perspective, striving for an inclusive and sustainable kind of tourism, bringing tourists and residents together. Of particular interest is that these overarching, yet smaller perspectives seem to be influential on policy makers, offering a way out of opposing viewpoints. For example, the  highly successful ‘I Amsterdam’ city identity campaign that started in 2004 explicitly celebrated the diversity of it’s residents, arguably inspired by the ‘tolerance’ discourse.

Platform Failures – How Short-Term Rental Platforms Like Airbnb Fail Cities

The uneven relationship of short-term rental platforms like Airbnb with cities. A kind tourism that extracts local resources for the economic benefits of few, contributes to social exclusion of many.

A report written by Murray Cox, the data activist founder of Inside Airbnb, and Kenneth Haar, of Corporate Europe Observatory, provides insights on how short-term rental platforms have become one of the biggest exclusionary drivers in large tourist cities.

Report’s Highlights. Platforms refuse to cooperate with cities, fail to self-regulate and to comply with regulations to protect affordable housing for residents.  The report also provides insight on what the forthcoming Digital Service Act should deliver to support the legal capacity of cities to protect housing.

How Airbnb fails cities. In Amsterdam, Airbnb withdrew the ability to enforce a 60 days cap after the city tightened regulations; in Barcelona, Airbnb provides data but the 60-70% of the addresses of property on offer are missing or incorrect; in Berlin, the 80% of Airbnb listings are still illegal and the platforms refuse to provide data; in Paris, the 60% of Airbnb listings are illegal; 85% active listings are illegal; in Vienna, Airbnb refuses to remove listings offering hospitality in social housing.

What unequal consequences. Concretely, the report shows how many apartments short-term rental practices ended up extracting from the cities’ housing market and which effects that had on access to housing. In in some neighbourhoods of Amsterdam, this amounts to 1 out of 9 units rented on Airbnb; in Paris, 15,000-25,000 apartments; in Prague, 15.000 apartments; and in New York between 20,000 and 25,000. In Barcelona, the rise of Airbnb in areas of high intensity have determined a 7% increase of rents and a 19% increase of and property prices.

What could cities do to enforce regulations. 1) Mandatory Registration System; 2) Platform Accountability, 3) Platform Data Disclosure.

What is the best scenario for the new EU’s Digital Service Act. Exclude the digital platforms like Airbnb or Über from this act following decisions by the European Court of Justice in December 2017.

How could the Digital Service Act favour the right to the city. 1) Enforce the cession of disaggregated data to planning authorities; 2) Obligation to provide valid and certified data; 3) Acceptance of authorisation schemes for both hosts and platforms; 4) Full cooperation on the sanctioning of illegal listings; 5) Full liability where platforms operate. 6) No obstruction from the Commission in urban regulation of platform economy when it comes to protect fairly access to urban assets, like for instance housing.

Download the full report HERE.

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