Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, Laos – Who is the City For?

August 2013 – As urbanization pushes forward through the 21st century and cities strive to adapt to the complexity of our evolving world, it’s important to ask – who exactly is the city for?

The diverse layers of globalization manifest within our cities to take on unique forms and produce interesting narratives. As this global-to-local interaction unfolds, we should ask ourselves, whose needs are being met? Who’s benefiting? Who’s left behind?

In the Laotian cities of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, tourism as a force of globalization has completely reshaped the identity of two cities and asks us to contemplate what’s at stake for the people of these cities.

Luang Prabang is a charming historical city nestled along the convergence of two rivers and beneath the gaze of a mountainous countryside. The formal capital has long ago traded its role of governance for a UNESCO World Heritage certification that has branded the city as one of the top historic destinations in Southeast Asia – and rightfully so. The city’s beauty and quaintness is inescapable as a seemingly timeless river scene intertwines with rolling mountains, traditional architecture and the tranquil presence of Buddhist temples.

Upon a casual stroll through the Luang Prabang, one will soon notice that nearly every traditional style building is accompanied by a sign reading Guest House, Boutique Hotel, Chic Resort or simply Tour Bookings. Suddenly, everyone on the street is noticeably a tourist or a uniform wearing Laotian working in tourism. The historical city begins to look more like a massive Laotian styled resort rather than a place for cultural preservation.

One must ride a motorbike out from the city center and into the city’s surrounding neighborhoods to encounter the potbellied, cigarette smoking, bocce playing locals of Luang Prabang. Normal Lao life seems to unfold more naturally outside of the heritage site. Gentrification has always been problematic but is this situation in Luang Prabang really so bad for locals?

Cities across the world accentuate their historical legacy to build a tourism industry and generate income. This enables a city to share its historical tale with the world and meanwhile preserve its historical built environment. By advertising itself as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang is able to create jobs for locals, preserve its architectural style, teach visitors about Laotian history and welcome an international population that can contribute its own interesting dynamics to the city.

It’s not always this simple.

Vang Vieng is a small city along the winding banks of the Mekong River. Jagged mountains along the riverside surge upwards toward the sky, towering over the city below. This incredibly town would be peaceful and calm were it not for its reputation among young backpackers as a wild and lawless party hotspot.

Bus loads of young tourists sporting beer sponsored tang tops check into Vang Vieng’s guest houses to begin a weekly routine of whiskey drinking, beer chugging, fist pumping action that plays out along the banks of the Mekong River each day. Back backers can rent inflatable tubes that slowly drift downstream towards an onslaught of informal bars managed partially by local entrepreneurs and partially by enthusiastic party goers. Electronic music thunders down the river basin as traipsing drunkards flip and dive off rickety slides and inadequate bungees. The combination of shoddy construction, strong evening currents and inebriated behavior causes numerous injuries and deaths each month.

Most restaurants along the main commercial road in Vang Vieng have flat screen TVs showing various episodes of the American sitcoms Friends and Family Guy because that’s what locals believe will draw in foreign business. Late night partiers stumbling back to their rooms can find street side food vendors selling pizza, burgers and other Western food variations.

The cultural exchange between Laotians and the international visitors is next to nothing in Vang Vieng. Visiting tourists learn very little about Lao traditions and the Laotian way of life while local residents witness the bad behavior and obnoxious lifestyles of the visitors.

Vang Vieng represents a tourism disaster. Locals have been displaced from their hometown, and worse yet, young Laotians are adopting the rowdy habits of the unruly foreigners. This distasteful party scene is corroding the local way of life. Even still, ask a local Laotian and they might tell you that the unhealthy development in Vang Vieng is worth the turbulence because it brings jobs, money and opportunity to a region that could easily be much worse off.

Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng took different approaches to the same issue. How can our cities create wealth and open to the beauty of  global influence but still preserve local culture and serve local populations?

Pittsburgh, the city where I earned by undergraduate degree, was once the top steel producing city in the world. Inevitably the forces of globalization caused the steel industry to collapse, leaving only a shell of the former city behind. Nowadays, Pittsburgh is hailed as an American success story because of the city’s ability to reinvent its identity.

Part of Pittsburgh’s successful resurrection is due to the city’s rebranding as a center for technology, healthcare and higher education. Pittsburgh is getting attention from national and international companies as well as students from across the country and around the world.

To help with the rebuilding process, Pittsburgh has invited educated populations into the city and supported industries that provide high level jobs to these newcomers. It would be understandable if many Pittsburgh natives appreciated the emerging stability but maybe also resented that their city is catering to the interests of outsiders.

This phenomenon is easier to see in my hometown of Philadelphia. Although Philadelphia is much larger than Pittsburgh, it’s also a city rebuilding itself after the disappearance of a strong manufacturing base. Philadelphia has long been home to many universities, providing an ample supply of educated workers who are equipped for the new economy. This college-educated population is committed to the city and is expanding central core neighborhoods, making them lively and more exciting. To these young people, Philadelphia feels like a city on the upswing.

On the other hand, Philadelphia public schools will open this fall with a dismantled budget that leaves schools without sufficient resources or necessary staff such as student aides, vice principals or guidance counselors. More students in the Philadelphia school district drop out than graduate from high school and those that have graduated are often without adequate academic preparation for college. This was before the budget cuts.

Neighborhoods in Philadelphia are gentrifying at an alarming rate. Local communities are being uprooted as young professionals from the suburbs are displacing those who are being priced out of their own neighborhoods. Although the city’s neighborhoods are indeed improving, it’s coming at the expense of the poorer residents who are being pushed out of their communities.

Philadelphia is feeling its way through the process of balancing healthy urban growth and supporting its local population.

It isn’t an easy balance to find. Each city has its own historical past and its own little nuances that create a unique situation when blended with the intricacies of globalization. As urban planners and local leaders search for answers, they have to continuously ask themselves – who is the city for?

Cities are a manifestation of human expression. They will evolve as we evolve so we have to remind ourselves that our cities are for us. Technologies and industries rise and fall as do urban designs and planning fads. We have to stay rooted and conscious as we pursue the latest global trends in urban development so that we have the space to make concrete improvements in our cities while also keeping a clear perspective on the core values of our urban centers.

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