June 13, 2008

A World's Fair in Copenhagen?

After the American Century

To the uninitiated, it sounds like such a good idea. There has never been a world's fair in Copenhagen, so why not really put the city on the map? For that is what such fairs do. There was a time when the largest and most powerful cities held fairs, notably London(the first one in 1851, 1862), Paris (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900, 1937) Vienna (1873), and New York (1853, 1939, 1964). But beginning a century ago the more famous cities were less likely to host expositions, and the impulse to hold fairs became the hallmark of "wannabe" world cities. Typically, these were places that had grown rapidly and wanted attention, which in retrospect was appropriate for Sydney (1879) Chicago (1894) or San Francisco (1915). However, the aspirations for recognition now seem a bit laughable for such largely forgotten fairs as those held in Nizhny Novgorod (1896), Omaha (1898), Buffalo (1901), Liege (1905), or Knoxville (1982).

So as Danes begin to think about this proposal, they should ask themselves the following questions. What recent world's fairs are they aware of? Did they attend or take any interest in those held in Daejeon (1993), Lisbon (1998), Hanover (2000), or Aichi (2005)? Prior to this proposal, had they even heard that there is a world exposition taking place this summer in Zaragoza? I suspect that few Danes know much about these events, for the very good reason that such fairs simply do not attract as much attention, or financial investment, as the fabulous fairs of the nineteenth century.

As a historian, I love world's fairs, for they are rich cultural texts. But I would not recommend staging a fair just so future historians will have great material to work with. The economics of world expositions is daunting. They almost always lose money, and they always cost more than the original projections. Today's newspapers casually throw out the price tag of 20 billion kroner for a Copenhagen Exposition in 2020, which is the next open date. But just like the Olympics, in order to get the chance to hold a world's fair, cities and nations must spend large sums in competition for the honor. Denmark would need to spend several hundred million kroner to outshine potential rivals such as Brisbane, Houston, New York, and Manila, all of whom apparently may apply. The chances of success might be 25%, assuming the that a detailed plan, a theme, and lots of financial guarantees are in place by 2011, when the competition begins.

Fortunately for Denmark, the nation is so rich and has so few social problems left to solve that it can easily afford to dedicate 20 billion kroner (well, probably a lot more) to this project. Nor is there any reason to worry that growing fuel shortages may make it far more expensive to reach such a fair than today, reducing attendance. Nor should anyone worry about the practical abilities of the Mayor of Copenhagen to carry out the project, even though she has conspicuously failed to build the 5000 inexpensive housing units she promised the city, when running for office. It is obviously far more difficult to build practical apartment units than it is to organize and build a world's fair that can later be transformed into a new urban region.

This project is also a great idea because Danish life, politics, and culture are so decentralized, that the nation needs to make further major investments in Copenhagen. An exposition would also put some automobiles and trucks on the half-empty highways. By comparison, it would be a waste of money to develop anything on Fyn or Jutland, much less those little islands.sprinkled around the edges of the country. Finally, this project would almost certainly drive up real estate prices in Copenhagen again, which is just what the nurses, police, teachers, social workers, and other ordinary people are clamoring for.

Yes, it is a marvelous idea to burden the next generation with a white elephant project like this, and it would be an appropriate crowning achievement for the Mayor. It is just possible, of course, that she might not still be in office in 2021, when the final bill comes due.