By Renard Teipelke
In the past years, we could witness the increasingly strong presence of international corporations in downtown areas. Ranging from telecommunication and fashion to fast food and electronics, major brands have successfully invaded the centers of our cities. This is often discussed, for instance, with respect to McDonalds and (more recently) Starbucks stores popping up seemingly at every corner in the downtown area of (at least larger) cities. In the following article, I would like to address this latter aspect with a focus on the role of ‘international guests’ in global cities.
With ‘international guests’, I am referring to a heterogeneous group of highly mobile people visiting big cities for business as well as leisure travel. They could be in the city for only a couple of days, a few weeks, or even several months (examples: trade fairs, workshops, city tours, training programs, seasonal vacations, temporary work deployments etc.). Arguments for having those international guests coming to your city are manifold, ranging from expertise, money, and new ideas to a multicultural mix and atmosphere. What cities can hope for is that these actors are ‘exporting’ positive opinions, impressions, and local ideas from the visited city to other places, telling friends and colleagues about this city, and proliferating the city’s brand.
As it now normally happens, these international guests are going to Starbucks & Co during their breaks – they are inquiring locals on where to find the next fast food chain etc. City officials and elected politicians can foster the development of their downtown area (or parts of it) into a ‘global city’ space offering all those well-known corporate brands and their products. Totally opposing McDonalds & Co is often easier demanded than actually implemented, since it is not only international guests but also locals that are consumers and fans of these brands and their products. Furthermore, it is far too limited to just accuse Starbucks-goers of lacking the necessary will to experience alternative offers and local specialties, since a majority of consumers tend to cherish convenience in their daily routines, while consciously exposing themselves to new things from time to time.
The previous comments will play out differently in every single city; nevertheless, it is clear that a compromised path for the downtown area has to be found. Against the common understanding of mixing local and international brands on the main street in the downtown area (easier said than done), I would argue that even a high density of Starbucks & Co in one single part of the city center can be ‘manageable’ and indirectly beneficial for a city. The crux actually lies in connecting and interrelating elements of this ‘Starbucks universe’ and other parts with local businesses in the downtown area.
Signs, advertisements, pedestrian paths, maps, and other elements can invite any potential customer to enter a street with mostly local businesses. These businesses might even welcome a certain visible distance to Burger King & Co, since it can be extremely challenging, for instance, to present your local café to international guests right next to the well-established and dominantly primed Starbucks logo.
Even though zoning and planning should be cautious in the first place not to let a ‘Starbucks universe’ emerge in a single part of the downtown area, the current situation in many big cities is already a different one, where mistakes have been made in the past and urban policies need to be accommodated to this faulty setting. In such a situation, I cannot imagine many positive effects from waging an anti-McDonalds war in the downtown area with respect to its possible message sent to/impression on international guests. It might be more promising in such a situation to keep the space currently occupied by the ‘Starbucks universe’ limited and ensure the integration of this universe into the whole downtown area. This can be complemented by the introduction of new pedestrian zones (and multiple other instruments) which can facilitate the access to streets dominated by local businesses and invite international guests to enter these streets as part of their routine activities.
PS: Several examples came to my mind where this has been achieved, but I could not find good pictures illustrating it. Maybe you have examples?