You are here

Why experimentation matters : lessons learned from the Small Scale Actions of the Tourism-friendly Cities URBACT network

Edited on

31 August 2022
Read time: 3 minutes

The Small Scale Actions (SSA) were a new element for Action Planning Networks (APN) to use in the development process of their Integrated Action Plan (IAP). SSA were informed by a logic of experimentation and implementation, complementary elements to the largely strategic focus of the APN work in general. Partially thanks to these elements, SSA proved to be highly valued and widely adopted by all TFC cities. This article explores the main lessons learned of TFC cities in the spirit of “learning by doing”.

TFC cities recognized that the Small Scale Actions offered both the opportunity to test ideas related to sustainable tourism and a much needed energy in the strategic planning processes they were conducting locally. With a general maximum budget of 10 000 euros, SSA implementation corresponded with the second half period of implementation of TFC and the relaxation of pandemic-related restrictions.

In hindsight, Small Scale Actions (SSA) were regarded by all partners as highly useful for the IAP development process. TFC cities described that SSAs had a core role to bring momentum to the URBACT Local Group (ULG) work, enabling ULG members to work together on implementation, and not only strategic planning. Also, for most partners, the SSA also meant a new way of working oriented around prototyping/ pilot projects. To learn more about each SSA, please also consult the TFC Manifesto , and our past articles dedicated to the topic.

Here are the main takeaways of the TFC cities that chose to implement a SSA and to reflect on how this experience informed their overall future action plan related to sustainable tourism:

1. Dubrovnik- using the SSA as a way to overcome scepticism of local stakeholders

As described in the TFC Manifesto, Dubrovnik chose to experiment with a new maritime route that had the potential of alleviating the traffic congestion of the few main roads in the city. In high tourist season, the roads are extensively used by tourists, generating tensions with local residents. The maritime route had been debated for several years in various city forums. However, because of the multi-level governance challenges with the national maritime authorities, the idea was never pursued so far at local level. In this context, using the framing of a “pilot project” and quick experimentation, the Dubrovnik ULG members managed to successfully test the potential timetable for a maritime route as part of public transportation in Dubrovnik. Moreover, for the months it was in use, several other qualitative factors were monitored: what is the experience of residents after using this temporary connection, what is the experience of tourism and future willingness to pay. Moreover, the SSA format proved to be a useful framing locally, as the municipality was able to pilot something before making big financial investments towards an idea. This was one of the main takeaways at local level from the SSA experience, alongside being able to show to Dubrovnik residents the idea in a “tangible” way. 

2. Venice- SSA in order to test new ways of communication around complex issues

Venice has its fair share of international fame in the international press. Sometimes, more negative aspects are being covered such as the over-tourism of the famous lagoon and the devastating levels of high-tide that the city experimented in 2019. However, the high-tide phenomenon is a natural yearly reality for Venice and the city wanted to test how it can effectively communicate around this aspect for a general public. If successful, this experimentation around new ways of public engagement, had the potential to inform other actions that the city and the ULG members were planning for supporting sustainable tourism: making tourists co-responsible for sharing the city’s beauties. After several co-creation meetings in order to understand how to best capture the technical and practical nature of the high-tide, a series of 5 videos resulted. This was actually one of the main takeaways from the SSA- the level of consensus around the idea at ULG level and the experience of working together designing the brief for the video team. Now, with additional resources from the city, the videos are part of a city-wide campaign and the results will be monitored for 2022/2023.  

3. Braga and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown - the SSA in order to introduce the culture of experimentation

Braga and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown both discovered that through the SSA they could guide their local stakeholders in an experimentation mind-set. As described in the TFC manifesto, Braga tested how to increase the local resident’s preparedness to experience themselves the city as a tourist. Dun Laoghaire tested how local urban design amenities can accompany the newly designed bicycle highway to support the business of local entrepreneurs. In both cases, several iterations were needed in order to test the effectiveness of the SSA. This was true especially because bad weather can significantly negatively impact the participation of local stakeholders and needs to be factored in when monitoring an action.

4. Krakow, Caceres and Genoa- testing new tourism products

Krakow, Caceres and Genoa all wanted to test new tourism products that were in line with the principle of sustainable tourism. Krakow managed to pilot new guided tours which made use of social media tools, while Genoa experimented with diversifying the tourism offer to include nature tourism and a mix of experiences from local entrepreneurs related to gastronomy and crafts. Caceres tested new uses for its UNESCO heritage central market, organising for the first time weekend bio local food markets. All pilot projects proved successful and they were included in each city’s Integrated Action Plan. The biggest takeaway of all three approaches was that having an SSA limited in budget and time helped to bring a sense of emergency in implementation, but also of scale. It appears that otherwise, given the diversity of opinions coming from the local ULG group, the decision-making process for considering these new approaches to touristic experiences would have taken a considerable amount of time.

5. Druskininkai – A SSA for bringing a user-centric approach to urban design and accessibility

As detailed in the TFC manifesto, the spa city of Druskininkai has undergone in the last two decades major urban improvements. As a result, the Lithuanian city has a good infrastructure for people with mobility impairments. However, until the brainstorming around an SSA theme began, most of the ULG members had traditionally focused on promoting the major assets of the city: the spa offer, the indoor winter sports arena and the natural landscape. The SSA brainstorming enabled a change in framing of what Druskininkai could offer: enhanced accessibility and a high quality of life. To verify however that this a true “sale”, not only for public assets, but city wide, the ULG group decided to organize a two-day experience for participants with mobility impairments who were asked to experience the city and in this way monitor its accessibility. The debriefing of this action brought a set of recommendation on the elements that could be further improved, but nevertheless confirmed that the city is accessible-friendly.

To conclude, the Small Scale Actions were a successful new innovative tool offered by the URBACT programme for the cities funded through the APN call. They provided a timely change of rhythm in the strategic planning process, one dedicated to action, fast testing and understanding the results in a given context. In fact, the success of an SSA is not necessarily measured in its future replication or scaling, but rather in integrating a lesson learned and saving spending future resources for an idea that for the given time may not work.

Article by Anamaria Vrabie, Lead Expert for the URBACT Tourism-friendly cities Network