ISSN 1108-8931


Year 7 - Issue 86 - Nov 06

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Professor Michael Romanos:
"Environmental and social justice are at the heart of sustainable development"

The ECOCLUB Interview
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Professor Michael RomanosMichael Romanos is professor of planning and economic development at the University of Cincinnati, in the U.S.A. The recipient of the 2005 D. Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest such recognition of his university, he has lived and worked in many parts of the world, especially Southeast Asia, where he has served as senior advisor to Indonesia’s Ministry of Economic Planning, was a Fulbright and Asia Foundation Senior Professor in Indonesia and Thailand, and lead a multi-year program of higher education reform in these countries. He directs the Summer Field School in Sustainable Development, which conducts sustainable development planning studies for tourism-oriented communities all over the world. A native of Crete, he holds architecture and planning degrees from the National Technical University of Athens and Florida State University, and a Ph.D. in Regional Science from Cornell University.

The University of Cincinnati was established in 1819 as a city institution, and later became part of the state of Ohio university system. With a student body of about 37,000, of which about 10,000 are graduate students, and a faculty of about 2,500, the University of Cincinnati is a Carnegie I research institution. It is a comprehensive university offering instruction in all disciplines except the agricultural sciences. Its School of Planning is one of the largest in the US, with a student body of over 300 in two undergraduate, one master’s and a Ph.D. program, and a faculty of seventeen. Known for its cooperative education undergraduate planning program, the School offers graduate-level specializations in physical and environmental planning and design, economic development, and international planning and development. Its award-winning Summer Field School has been operating since 1984 and has conducted student-faculty educational programs in Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil and Greece.

(The Interview follows:) As someone who has worked in many and vastly diverse corners of the planet, what would be the most valuable lesson you have learned in terms of tourism policy & planning and which you would share with aspirant planners in tourism and the environment?

Professor Michael Romanos: There is a perception in every corner of the world that tourism could instantly solve a place’s economic and social development problems. This is a dangerous fallacy which often leads governments to misallocate resources, raise unreasonable expectations among local populations, and “sell out” a place in order to attract tourism-related investments and/or achieve quick profits. Often local and regional governments do not realize that in order to have a successful tourism development, in addition to the natural beauty or cultural resources of a place, transportation, communications and environmental infrastructure must be at least adequate, the training of personnel on all aspects of the tourist trade is absolutely essential, and the education of the local populations on how to deal with tourism and visitors is imperative. When the impacts of tourism development have not been carefully thought out, the environmental, social and cultural implications of uncontrolled, exploitative tourism can not only destroy local cultures and lifestyles, but may also ruin the attractive characteristics of a place, thus also destroying the future potential of the place to support sustainable tourism. Does an expatriate or visiting consultant in your line of work need to know the issues, the politics and the people at least to a depth normally available to natives, or is it better to have an Aristotelian 'unscribed-tablet' (tabula rasa), to choose your own successful formula and apply it objectively regardless of local objections and special interests?

Professor Michael Romanos: A consultant must learn and understand a place and its people, their capacities, constraints, potentials, and aspirations in depth before (s)he can make recommendations for any kind of planning. Tourism planning makes this principle imperative, because by its nature tourism cuts into the very lives of the people of affected communities. Visitors go to a place in order to experience the local culture and resources. If planning for this kind of development does not understand the fragility, idiosyncrasies, values and attitudes of the local population, how could it ensure their protection and long term sustainability? Application of a “formula” would be a mechanistic way of dealing with people and ecologies; and it would assume that individual characteristics of the place and its communities do not matter. The plan that would be produced out of such a set of assumptions would be insensitive to the local people and their landscapes, and would either fail because it would not be accepted by them, or it would be implemented by government fiat but would be resented by the affected people.

Understanding the local politics is a different matter. Yes, you need to understand the local politics in order to be able to generate any kind of plan with hope to have it implemented. But if local politics are corrupt, and/or local politicians are self-serving, a good plan would stand no chance of being implemented unless major compromises were made to accommodate their greed. I have had more than my share of such experiences…. Cincinnati, were you teach, is an architectural gem, and historically important in terms of planning as the first American boomtown in the 19th century, and a border town during the American Civil war however it has since stagnated with population in the city having dropped 40% since 1950. What is the current state of urban tourism in Cincinnati and can it revitalize the inner city?

Professor Michael Romanos: Cincinnati in the nineteenth century was one of the great gates to the West, and for many years it was a major economic and industrial centre, thanks to its location on the Ohio river. It gradually lost its primacy as railroads gradually gained dominance over river and canal transportation, and eventually became part of the American ”rust belt” as its manufacturing base aged and lost its competitive advantage. More recently, the city has been making major efforts to transform itself into a modern economic centre based on the New Economy, with advanced technology, services, research hand education, and tourism as its foundations. The effort has been only partially successful. The regional economy is thriving (Greater Cincinnati encompasses a 15-county metropolitan region with 2.2 million people and steady population and employment growth), but the city has been unable to reverse its population loosing trends to date. The racial conflicts that caused riots in the mid-1960s and again in 2001 also gave a serious blow to the efforts of the city to cast a more tolerant and diverse image of itself. In fact, they have affected its tourism sector considerably, because after the 2001 riots, a number of African-American and other socially minded organizations from around the country cancelled plans to hold conventions or other public functions in Cincinnati, on account of its image as a racially insensitive city.

But tourism continues to be one of the anchors of the local economy. A few years ago the city and Hamilton County, the regional entity containing Cincinnati, made a long term financial commitment to the local baseball and football teams to replace their sports facilities. With an estimated investment of over a billion dollars, the Cincinnati riverfront now has two magnificent, state-of-the-art sports facilities, which attract large crowds from a wide region to their games. The city’s convention centre, recently renovated and expanded, is one of the most modern and largest in the Midwest and is constantly in use. Luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, and entertainment districts have been sprouting in and around the downtown on both the Ohio and the Kentucky sides of the river. And this year, the efforts of the city to radically change its image of a racially segregated place finally are bearing fruits as a young and progressive African-American mayor has been elected and a number of city groups have come together to address and resolve their social problems, which include poverty and unemployment among the majority African-Americans of the central city.

Whether or not the short term successes of these efforts indicate a longer term ability to solve the social and economic problems of Cincinnati’s inner city, is questionable. The vast area north of the downtown known as Over-the-Rhine has recently been designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the eleven most threatened historic urban areas in the country. Most of its 6,000 plus residents are poor, unemployed, and have few opportunities to get a job within the neighbourhood. Its housing stock is deteriorating, and its businesses are closing down at alarming rates. Tourism and entertainment developments in the area in the past several years have largely left the residents out. Further housing and commercial developments, unless coupled with an effort to include the local residents, may just produce neighbourhood gentrification pressures. On the other hand, if tourism and residential rehabilitation investments are expanded into the area, there will be no other chance of improvement for its population. This problem has been around for many years, and it is by now clear that fragmented development attempts by the private sector alone will not be able to solve it. Recently, a number of private-public partnerships have been established to implement an ambitions comprehensive development plan and program, in which tourism plays a role but is not the main emphasis. These partnerships are making serious efforts to engage the local residents, and are giving priority to housing rehabilitation, public space improvements, school enhancement, and social services expansion. Their priority is the improvement of local living conditions, the assumption being that a stabilized neighbourhood will better be able to attract and retain business, including entertainment and other tourism-related activities. Your native Crete, for which you also completed a study between 1998-2003, is a smallish island (250 km x 30 km) that receives some 4 million tourists annually, flown in by charter flights most in the course of the 3 summer months. The current government is pro-business, pro-tourism development, but surely, there must be limits to growth? Indeed, you have not lived in Greece for many years, but as an impartial observer with deep understanding, if you could fix one thing in Greece's tourism sector, what would that be and why?

Professor Michael Romanos: It is not “one thing”, but it is the bundle of actions, national government policies and local controls that would reduce the rampant growth of cheap tourism that makes international tourism agencies and large operators wealthy at the expense of local resources, populations and the environment. In Santorini, which is the latest of the studies I have directed in Greece, up to 10,000 visitors disembark per day during the high season, brought to the island by a number of large cruiser boats. These people are shuttled around in oversize buses, pollute the island’s air, congest its streets, crowd its beaches and archaeological sites, leave very little money on the island, and learn even less about local culture in the few hours they spend on the island. They do not benefit Santorini’s population, but they enrich the – mostly outside the island – business involved in these mass tourism excursions. In Hersonissos, one of the “hot” destinations in Crete, hundreds of young visitors go berserk every night from the use of alcohol and drugs, causing damage to local property, hurting people and themselves, causing numerous accidents, and creating such unpleasant conditions that chase desirable tourism away. The 2004 Olympics, a great urban planning project, came and went, and their legacy can be observed today in Athens, some of it good like the subway & the tram, some not so good like the creation of so many expensive stadiums for unpopular sports, the missed chance to create more green spaces and introduce environmental technology in buildings, and not the least, the Eur 8bn-10bn bill. As a tourism planner, and a tourist, could you name three measures to help finally take 2,600 year old Athens, usually avoided by most tourists, to its deserved place as a top spot for city breaks and sustainable urban tourism? Le Corbusier, a great admirer of the Parthenon, famously proposed the demolition of a vast part of central Paris - would you go that far (assumed it was ever possible)?

Professor Michael Romanos: LeCorbusier was a great architect but was a miserable city planner. He never understood the roles, functions and actions of the human beings and communities that constitute the city. To him, the city was a design artefact, and could be repaired by design or erased and be rebuilt. No one involved in modern urban planning today takes such ideas seriously. Athens is a great city, filled with all the opportunities of culture that make cities such desirable places to live. Architects and developers did their best during the last part of the twentieth century to destroy its character, demolish its old buildings, erase its neoclassical character, and fill its neighbourhoods with polycatoikies; and were successful in producing today’s impersonal, featureless city neighbourhoods. But time will change the city’s fabric. The city’s population is gradually leaving the urban core, and that will eventually reduce urban densities and create opportunities for redevelopment.

A city is a living organism, and has beautiful and ugly aspects. A city can be a tourism destination, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to provide quality of life to its residents. The characteristics that will make that quality of life possible may or may not attract urban tourism as well, and that is fine. But the Athens of today for visitors has such great museums, archaeological sites, and cultural opportunities, that the city can capitalize on them for its tourism. Visitors interested in these features will find Athens a very attractive place. The others can go elsewhere.

But there are things that we can do to make the city more attractive to visitors: Continue and complete the excellent plans for the unification of all the archaeological sites, and include in the network other cultural locations, green spaces, entertainment districts, and shopping areas; bring the marbles back from London; convince the government to be more generous to its people, so that they do not strike during the high tourism season; keep museums and archaeological sites open longer hours; educate taxi drivers, gate keepers, store employees to be polite and scrupulous to visitors; and keep the city clean, the trees watered, and the graffiti under control. You have recently completed a study of the iconic Mediterranean island resort of Santorini with the cooperation of the local Municipality, entitled "Plan for the Future of Santorini - Building the cultural centre of the Eastern Mediterranean". What were the main conclusions, and what is actually happening on the ground, following your study?

Professor Michael Romanos: We identified the following major problems with the development of the island, and determined their causes and ways to address them: Rampant construction and expansion of tourism facilities on the island eats up all the open space and agricultural land; The entire economy of the island is dominated by tourism; The development policies for the island favour hotel and entertainment development, but pay no attention to the island’s permanent population needs such as education, health, infrastructure, environmental conditions, cultural preservation and enhancement, or quality of life; The quality of tourism on the island deteriorates each year, even as the numbers of visitors keep increasing; The confluence of increasing supply of facilities and increasing demand for entertainment, combined with declining per visitor profits and a dramatic shift towards short-visit, cruiser boat tourism, are robbing the island of its quality of life, contribute to the decline of its environmental resources, are adulterating the cultural images and architectural character of its settlements, and are affecting the cultural characteristics of the native population; Nothing appears worthy of protection on the island, while everything is being sacrificed on the altar of tourism profits. Continuation of present trends will drastically and irreversibly alter the ecology and the architecture of the traditional communities of the island in ten years.

Neither the national government neither the local authorities have been able to address these problems. There is no political will to implement existing plans calling for land use controls, land growth management, congestion reduction, infrastructure improvements, enforcement of architectural standards, or building permits. None of the plans produced for the island so far has been implemented, because of lack of political will to act against the interests of large tourism investors. Our own planning proposals were developed over two years of intensive work, during which every single organization and professional group on the island was interviewed, participatory procedures were employed to define the goals and priorities of development, a number of international experts participated in technical studies to address every significant development issue, and every past study and recommendation was considered carefully. The proposals that were produced by these efforts were widely accepted to all the constituencies sand stakeholders on the island. The public acceptance and approval of the study and its proposals by the community during the public presentation of our work at the Nomikos Conference Centre in August 2005 was overwhelming. The municipal administration originally characterized the study and its proposals as excellent, reflecting the realities of the island, practicable and feasible, and worthy of implementation. Unfortunately, the study was later condemned by the same individuals as politically motivated and rejected. Hence my comment about the need to understand politics, in question # 2 above. Much is being made about the importance of ’stakeholders’ these days. What is your understanding of the role of 'stakeholders' in terms of sustainable development planning: Is the term undemocratic, revealing special interests & corruption, or an acknowledgement of how things are done since "all animals are equal but some are more equal than others"?

Professor Michael Romanos: The whole idea of sustainable development is to create a synergy among environmental, economic and social goals. Environmental and social justice are at the heart of sustainable development, so the concept, far from being undemocratic, is a vehicle to achieve more participatory democracy and more democratic planning and development. In this sense, then, stakeholders are the beneficiaries of the plans and the development programs, and since these plans and programs advocate resource conservation, resource management, controlled growth, conservation of land, nature-friendly life styles, and several other similar principles, their interests are not ”special” interests, but rather those of society as a whole. Now, special interests may intervene in the sustainable development/planning process in order to insert their own goals and priorities, but these are external agents, and the plans would not be partial to their concerns. If the process is carried out fairly, sustainable development planning will not favour these special interests but rather the stakeholders that who constitute the communities for which the plan is produced. It is up to the special interests to join the ranks of community stakeholders or not. In the Santorini plan, for example, most of the professional organizations participated in the planning process as stakeholders. But some special interests objected to the direction of the plans, because they were advocating limits to rampant growth, management of the land and other natural resources, protection of the landscape, and regulations for construction. These special interests could join the ranks of stakeholders, and be part of the planning decision process, but in this case they felt that their personal and business interests deviated from those of the rest of the community. Famously you left Greece and Crete to escape the 1967 -1974 military junta that had temporarily imprisoned you, but in the course of your planning career, in the 1970s and 1980s you had to work with authoritarian governments / juntas, then proliferating in the developing world. So is democratic governance or autocracy, from your experience, more conducive to planning? Some would think that state planning is by definition autocratic?

Professor Michael Romanos: Far from me to advocate for anything autocratic or authoritarian as even worthy of consideration as a planning tool! Urban and/or regional planning is done by free-thinking people for free-thinking people. Anything else is forceful imposition of an authority’s will on people, and that is not planning, it’s tyranny. We will not go there….

Good planning is done following sound methodologies, honest use of data, employment of social and environmental justice principles, and the active and continuous participation of those who will benefit or be affected by the plan. Only a plan that is widely accepted by the communities affected has a chance of being implemented. And plans are not supposed to be fixed overtime. What makes sense to today’s citizens may be considered unacceptable to younger generations five or ten years later, because the economic conditions, social norms, or ways of thinking about the future may have changed. An abundance of resources may make people ready to use them without constraint, while a shortage of them may trigger goals of conservation. But in all cases, in order for these goals and priorities to be viable, they must reflect the communal will of the affected citizenry, and that can only be accomplished with democratic procedures, the people’s participation, and ample and open communication.

Having said that, I must acknowledge that I have over the years worked in many countries where democracy was not the modus operandi. But I want to believe that the purpose of my work there was to establish democratic procedures that would ensure a more participatory planning and a better quality of life for the client communities. For example, my work in Indonesia during the 1990s took place partly under the Soeharto dictatorship. Working within the system with a number of dedicated expatriates and native planners, though, we were able to develop networks of regional development for the island provinces of that country that altered the ways by which funds were allocated to peripheral regions, and thus were able to enhance the infrastructure of the affected places through improved port facilities, more frequent sea connections with the main islands, better decision making procedures for the local communities, a stronger role of these communities in the regional and national development deliberations, and an elevated understanding and protection of their environmental and cultural resources. This is another good example of how important it is to understand the local culture and politics before you could embark in any serious efforts to change local decision making patterns and transfer power from the established domains to the affected stakeholders. University departments around the world, in particular those in applied topics such as Tourism and the Environment increasingly work as consultancies, mostly as a result of declining state subsidies. The positive impact is easy to detect - fresh, pioneering ideas applied in the -so called- real world, and in turn - there is a reality check for these pioneering ideas, while first-class academic experts can offer their services directly to the economy. Could there be a downside however, for example students getting too result & money-oriented & conservative at an early age, or professors getting distracted from their professorial duties?

Professor Michael Romanos: I think that university faculty and student involvement in the planning and development of communities which do not have adequate resources to hire professional consultants, both locally and around the world, is a terrific way for students to learn and gain experience in applied situations, for professors to test new approaches and methodologies and stay focused on the practical aspects of their field, and for communities to benefit from innovative, creative, fresh approaches to the solutions of their problems and needs. I am not sure that I understand what the downsides of such practices would be, especially your reference to the money orientation of the students. I cannot talk about other universities and programs, but I can tell you that the University of Cincinnati Summer Field School in Sustainable Development never receives any money from the places for which we conduct planning and development studies. We cover our own expenses, buy our own tickets, and receive no remuneration for our work from the host communities. Our students are not paid to participate in these programs. On the contrary, they pay the entire cost of the program as well as their own university tuition. In fact, they make major financial sacrifices to participate in these programs, because they forgo income they would have if they stayed home and worked, as practically all our students have part time jobs – up to 35 hours per week – that allow them to support themselves. Many of our students cover the cost of their participation in the summer program through student loans, advanced by the US government, and payable after the student’s graduation. The communities, for which we do the planning projects usually, but not always, provide us with accommodations, and occasionally some of the meals and the local transportation. All other expenses are the responsibility of the program. What are your immediate future plans, and how can interested readers keep up with your work?

Professor Michael Romanos: We are very fortunate to have received a lot of positive publicity for our international work over the years, and to have received many invitations for planning collaborations as a result. For example, the Santorini planning and development study we completed lat year was recently recognized by the American Planning Association as the best tourism planning study by a United States university team in 2005. In the last year alone we have received invitations to conduct planning studies in collaboration with local governments or academic institutions from three different municipalities in Crete, three islands in the Cyclades, and two states in the south of Brazil. However, our immediate plans are to spend the summer of 2007 on the island of Thirasia (see map), as guests of the Community of Oia and its mayor Mr. George Halaris, and conduct an ecological and cultural preservation and conservation study for this unique island, for the purpose of guiding its tourism development, land management, and traditional community protection under a general comprehensive plan. A team of twenty students and faculty are already at work at the University of Cincinnati preparing for this important project, which is unique for Greece and will be a model for small island development and preservation in the future. Thank you very much

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