Article Round-Up: Is Airbnb Good or Bad for Cities?

A collection of excellent articles and exhibits that made us ponder on the pros and cons of Airbnb.

Airbnb’s Tokyo office, designed by Japanese firm Suppose Design Office.


It feels like every other day, a new think-piece about the potential perils of Airbnb, and indeed the sharing economy more broadly, graces our social media feeds. And yet, the reality of AirBnB is incredibly nuanced and, ultimately unknowable. The following are a collection of articles and exhibits that depict multiple sides of the Airbnb debate: the good, the bad, the complicated.

On the one hand…Sameness.

Writing for The Verge, Kyle Chayka condemns Airbnb’s part in spreading homogeneity around the world, by helping to proliferate an “AirSpace” that only a certain subset of privileged travelers can inhabit, anywhere at any time:

We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless […]

As the geography of AirSpace spreads, so does a certain sameness. […The] phenomenon recalls what the architect Rem Koolhaas noticed in his prophetic essay “The Generic City,” from the 1995 book S,M,L,XL: “Is the contemporary city like the contemporary airport—‘all the same’?” he asks. “What if this seemingly accidental—and usually regretted—homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity?”

Yet AirSpace is now less theory than reality.

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg for The Verge

On the other hand…Do-goodery.

In the wake of severe flooding in Louisiana and Mississippi, Airbnb stepped up by offering an “urgent accommodations” page on its website where hosts can list their homes for free (Airbnb has waived the typical fees). It’s a tool the company first deployed after Hurricane Sandy and has since deployed around the world; there’s no doubt it will come in useful again, wherever natural disaster next strikes.

On the one hand…Community commodification.

No one denies Airbnb’s potential for good, especially on a small-scale. The problem, Next City’s Pete Harrison writes, is when Airbnb scales up:

It’s one thing to help travelers and hosts in a limited setting. It’s another to predicate a multibillion-dollar business model on the income insecurity of its users or on the professional arbitrage of the rental housing market. The “sharing economy” has always been a misnomer hiding a problematic economic shift toward outsourcing responsibility/liability, undermining employment stability and erasing consumer protections. Airbnb has disappointingly drifted further into this world and the consequences for many neighborhoods and long-term renters has started to become apparent. [. . .]

The host has chosen to disengage from their home by turning it into a commodity. Whether or not they have the right to is almost beside the point. The more salient point is that they are also forcing their neighbors to make that choice by turning the neighborhood into a commodity as well.

On the other handRural revitalization?

Airbnb recently launched a new “ideas” division called Samara. Its first project aims to revitalize Japan’s rural towns (whose populations are both aging and waning as younger citizens move to cities), by providing community centers that also serve as tourist hubs for Airbnb’ers. Fast Company‘s Cliff Kuang explains that, as Samara scales up, so too does its potential for good:

That model isn’t meant to be a one-off. After this project, Airbnb will look to scale it to other declining small towns across the world. The idea is that Airbnb could become a force not only in sharing homes, but in urban planning.

On the one handMarketing doublespeak.

Airbnb has also become a subject of intense interrogation among curators and tastemakers. Both the Berlin Biennale and the Oslo Architecture Triennale have taken on the apartment-sharing service with pointed, satirical critiques. In Berlin, the architecture collective åyr has mounted ARCHITECTURE, an exhibit that questions the extent to which Airbnb truly encourages human connection. It interrogates how, like the Berlin Wall before it, which similarly transformed the city’s urban grid, the Airbnb phenomena could instead serve as a device of division and exclusion. For After Belonging, in Oslo, a collective of New York–based architects and urbanists have pointedly taken Airbnb’s sharing model to extremes, releasing a quasi-satirical app called Cher, “a new digital platform for sharing objects by the minute.”

On the other hand…Pretty, local things. 

Airbnb invests in good design, hiring talented local architects to help them design their global offices with local materials/influences. (See Dezeen’s coverage of Airbnb in Japan and around the world).

Where do you lie on the Airbnb debate? Let us know in the comments below.

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