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City Branding: What Role in Placemaking? #TheGlobalGrid ...

City Branding: What Role in Placemaking? #TheGlobalGrid Pre-Chat Post

Cities around the world are competing to attract talent, investment, and business; the pillars of economic success and growth. The effects can be found in planning documents, economic development strategies and growth visions, which are more business-friendly than ever. Indexes ranking cities by livability, quality of life, opportunity and prosperity, or other indicators, are fueling

by Sarah Essbai February 13, 2018
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Cities around the world are competing to attract talent, investment, and business; the pillars of economic success and growth. The effects can be found in planning documents, economic development strategies and growth visions, which are more business-friendly than ever. Indexes ranking cities by livability, quality of life, opportunity and prosperity, or other indicators, are fueling this competition and have made cities across the globe concerned about their image. The ongoing bid for Amazon’s new second headquarters is one example of how fierce the marketplace is. Criteria such as sustainability, environment, mobility, and diversity are all on the line, along with tax incentives, grants, and infrastructure improvement.

In the face of the growing competition, an increasing number of cities are adopting place branding as an approach to develop a strong identity and position, locally, regionally and internationally. City branding builds upon the assets and values of a community to create a unified and consistent place narrative targeting residents, prospective investors, and visitors. But despite being part of place development practices, it is often associated with city logos and tourism marketing campaigns. Some might even find the term rather degrading as it implies the commercialization of cities as products rather than as soulful places.

Seen as a consolidation of the various efforts communities are deploying through dedicated organizations and agencies, such as visitors offices and chambers of commerce, to attract investors, new residents, and catalyze or boost economic growth, city branding is not that unfamiliar to cities after all. Beyond conventional marketing narratives and economic development policies, that often fail to distinguish places from each other, city branding aims to unveil a city’s unique character, define its identity and set it apart from its competitors.

Moreover, city branding is presented as a complementary tool to strategic planning. An integrated strong city brand acts as a guideline for the city’s growth, sets its priorities in the areas of capital investment, services, and urban development and is a vehicle for long-term success. The flexible approach based on a narrative rather than a set of objectives, actions, measures, budgets, and calendars makes it more likely to better adapt to the constantly changing realities and challenges that cities are dealing with.

A city brand is the result of a consensual effort and a collaborative inclusive process. It is a collective exercise of discovering or reinventing a city’s core values and developing a coherent image of the city, based on its current assets, including its diversity, economic base, niche products, cultural and historical landmarks, and its ambitions for the future. Creating an artificial city brand can be a very dangerous and risky enterprise. The brand needs to not only attract investors and visitors but should primarily reflect its resident's aspirations and communicate their pride. The community engagement in the brand development process is as critical to its success as a great visual identity and a sound strategic communication plan.

Cities like New York City, Paris, Hong Kong and other places that enjoy the notoriety of being “world cities” and the luxury of a great architecture and urban structure, have brands that have organically developed for decades, if not centuries. But many small and medium-sized communities, especially post-industrial, were also able to create strong brands that were critical to the success of their revitalization and economic development programs, and that have complemented their spatial planning and placemaking efforts.

Eindhoven, in The Netherlands, is an example of an industrial town that has rebranded itself into a center of design, research, and innovation. Despite years of decline and its lack of an urban core, the city, home of the technology company Philips, was able to reinvent its identity thanks to a triple Helix cooperation, an advanced collaboration between local universities, businesses, and government. It currently boasts one of the highest patent densities in the world.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, once declared “the city with the dirtiest air in the nation” has also suffered from the consequences of deindustrialization, but was able to leverage its assets to become one of the most affordable and livable cities in the United States. A waterfront development project, restoration of its historic bridge, and the construction of the Tennessee Aquarium downtown have all helped the city make a comeback. The city has, in the meantime, developed a strong brand and even established its own font.

Liverpool, United Kingdom, is home of one of the largest UK economies, of Liverpool FC and of the Beatles, of course. But it used to also be home to one of the highest unemployment rates in the country back in the 1980's. Before undergoing city-wide revitalization and development, Liverpool went through extreme racial tensions and has experienced the lethal effects of deindustrialization. The city was first rebranded in 2008 when it was designated as the European Capital of Culture. The Liverpool brand has been a work in progress ever since.

Along with investments in infrastructure and services, redevelopment and revitalization projects, placemaking plays an important role in engaging communities, changing their perception of their environment, and creating quality spaces; therefore contributing to a successful city branding strategy. Vibrant public spaces don’t only create healthier communities and generate economic benefits, they concentrate what makes a place special, distinct, attractive and unique; a sense of place that goes beyond physical planning and design.

Offline and off the pages of glossy magazines, public spaces act as the anchors of a city's brand. Some cities display sculptures of their logos, such as in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Lyon, France, while others commission unique public art pieces or buildings by star architects such as in Bilbao or Sydney, all in an effort to create physical landmarks that reinforce the city brand.

As urban planners and community builders, what role does city branding play in our placemaking approaches and planning efforts, and vice versa? Do they go hand in hand? Could city branding overshadow the practice of placemaking if the latter becomes merely a publicity stunt?

Join along with our co-host, the Institute of Place Management (IPM), with Louise Platt (Research Fellow at IPM) leading the conversation, and panel members: Malcolm Allan (PlaceMatters), Eduardo Oliveira (Postdoc at WSL-Zürich) and Thorsten Kausch (Thorsten Kausch – Cities. Brands. Impulses) on Wednesday, February 21st at 12:00 p.m PT, to discuss the role of city branding in the placemaking process.  

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Sarah Essbai is an architect, urban planner and independent researcher based in Zaandam, in The Netherlands. As of September 2017, she is leading the communications and marketing efforts of The Global Grid.

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