The art & science of building
cities that humans want to be from, immigrate to, and flourish in.
Cities are psychological
How many cities can you name? How many cities mean something to you? And the cities you recognize, are your associations mental or visceral? Do they include certain sights or smells? Do you have a sense of the people in a particular city, and what their lives are like there? Do you know anyone there? Or maybe you’ve been there yourself – your impressions are imagined, they are first-hand recollections.
What does (or might) it feel like to be in one these cities you’re aware of? What landmarks catch your attention? What’s it feel like to be there? What moods and emotions would the city subject you to? Tranquillity? Overstimulation? Boredom? Frustration? Elation?
Of cities you don’t know well, how much have you heard or read about them? Were these snippets intriguing, or off-putting to you? Foreign-seeming, or familiar? How much do you respect these cit- ies? Which ones would you like to visit, to live in, to be sent to for work, or – because cities can be objects of fantasy – run away to for a while? Why do you feel one way about City A and another way entirely about City B?
Significantly, when we say Rome has a stronger city brand than Rangoon, Rochester or Riga, all we are saying is that that Rome means more to more people around the world (the city’s outsiders; we’ll discuss the relevance of outsiders and insiders shortly). Simply put, a city with a stronger urban identity is more evocative and conjures more associations – and more positive, generally (but not always), and more specific ones – in people’s hearts and minds.
As an active verb, 'city branding' is the craft of shaping the meanings and associations people have with cities for the purposes of increasing quality of life or fostering economic development.
Cities don’t go out of business
‘Brand’ and ‘branding’ are words that come from commerce. People are most used to using them in that context. So it is worthwhile spending a minute comparing the ways in which these concepts are different in the context of urbanism.
To begin with, compared to corporations or products, cities can sustain very mixed and complex brand images. Corporations, if their reputations become too tarnished, may go out of business or be chopped up and sold off in parts.
But cities can and do persist for decades with tremendous black marks on their reputations and serious dysfunctions in certain areas. Cities, more than corporations, can be well-regarded and prosperous in one aspect while being condemned or poorly regarded in others; Rio de Janeiro is an almost exaggerated example of this kind of reputational dichotomy, being, in modern times, nearly as widely known for its flaws as for its strengths.
And unlike commercial businesses, cities never entirely lose their ‘customer base’: even when they go bankrupt, like Detroit, they do not just fall off the map; people may move away from a place (or resist moving to it), but hardly ever does a city’s population disappear entirely.
When it comes to brand and reputation management, cities and companies are utterly distinct beasts. Try as it might, a city can’t decide, in the way that a firm does, to focus on one line of business, or to position itself neatly according to market research. Any big gestalt idea that does circulate about a city – Paris and romance, for example – emerges over a long period of time; such seemingly simplistic ‘positionings’ really cannot, for practical reasons, be artificially constructed or shamelessly promoted (and for moral reasons should not be, anyway).
At the heart of the matter is the fact that the ability to alter corporate identity is concentrated in the hands of the company’s management. By contrast, the power to influence urban identity is distributed among many actors: mayors and city councils, urban planners, architects, property developers, transportation authorities, neighbourhood associations, airport administrators, tourism and investment promoters, major employers and exporters, universities ... and individual citizens.
To us, the distributed responsibility for urban identity is exciting. The fact that any number of actors, working in concert or independently, can choose to grapple with the issues of urban identity without asking anyone else for permission means that good ideas and transformative initiatives can come from many sources, and that these activities can be as grand and ambitious as the actor can manage.
A paramount example: Las Vegas, Nevada is home to a corporation that is currently rising to the occasion in grabbing the mantle of shaping urban identity. The Downtown Project is a $350 million programme led (and chiefly funded) by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappo’s, an outrageously successful US mail order shoe company. In 2011, Hsieh was looking to move his growing company away from its foundations in Las Vegas, to somewhere where Hsieh could create a self- contained compound for employees like the ones made famous by Facebook, Apple and Google.
Daringly, however, Hsieh decided he preferred to try to create the benefits of these campuses within an existing urban environment. He purchased blocks and blocks of real estate at the downtrodden end of the Las Vegas strip, and got to work, heavily influenced by Harvard urbanist Edward Glaeser’s ideas about the value of density and community. Hsieh believes: If you bring entrepreneurial and creative people from diverse backgrounds and networks together into a community that has a bias to share and collaborate, the magic will happen on its own... [and] rather than maximizing short-term return on investment, we maximize long-term return on community.
We applaud Tsieh’s efforts, and hasten to add that any city actor who wishes to take effective deliberate action to develop a city’s urban identity or ‘brand’ must take cognizance of a few realities intrinsic to cities.
Cities are massively influenced by pre-existing macro factors
Cities do not wholly determine their own brands; the game for cities on the hunt for better brands is to masterfully play whatever cards they’ve been dealt.
Above all, geography tends to be destiny. There isn’t a city on Earth that isn’t substantially the way it is because of where it is. How’s the climate? Is there an ocean nearby? A desert? Enormous mountains?
Nationality, too, matters a great deal. The biggest difference between Helsinki and Stockholm is that one is Swedish and the other is Finnish. The differences created by that fact alone – laws, culture, history, etc – dwarf any local urban differences, although there are plenty of those also.
As you’d expect, cities tend to take on the attributes of their wider society. Sometimes this is a hindrance to urban identity; sometimes it works out extremely well for the city. Toronto’s enormous strength as a cosmopolitan metropolis is entirely dependent on Canada’s immigration laws, which favour openness to the world.
Likewise, cities vary enormously in their power and fame in any given moment, era or epoch. Right now, surprisingly, a mere 100 cities collectively account for 30 per cent of global GDP. Indeed, as sociologist Saskia Sassen points out,‘The organizational side of today’s global economy [ie, the enterprises and people that pull the strings and wield the lion’s share of economic power worldwide] is located in what has become a network of about 40 major and lesser global cities.’
Indeed, some cities are what academics call ‘world cities’, whereas others, no matter how much land area they cover or how packed with people they may be, are not of great intrinsic consequence to outsiders. World cities are defined by their higher degree of connectedness to the international network of cities, and this registers in their economies if not their population sizes: nations that do not have at least one world city in them account for only about 13 per cent of global GDP.
Mind you, we are not attempting to reduce everything to economics. That would be folly, and tantamount to saying that a city doesn’t matter, even if it’s home to 20 million people, if it is not prosperous. What we are saying is that when it comes to doing city branding, serious account must be taken of a city’s prominence, relevance and clout, and of its existing degree of fame or notoriety. Just as good branding practice for a mega-company like Nestle is different from what makes good branding practice for a domestic-only Indonesian candy company, when it comes to city branding what works for Mexico City won’t work for Macao (and vice versa).
Smallness can be advantageous, though: were one single video to go viral about Lviv, Ukraine (for instance), it could put that city on the map in hundreds of thousands of people’s minds, whereas a wildly popular video set in New York City will probably have zero net effect on people’s views about New York; there’s simply too much we already know about the Big Apple for new information to ‘move the needle’ on how we recognize that city.
Cities have an eclectic mix of audiences and ‘consumers’
Normal commercial brands generally are created by one set of people (managers and employees) and ‘sold’ outwardly to a vastly larger set of people (customers).
City brands work in almost the opposite way. Firstly, the ‘external audiences’ of a city – namely, business people and tourists, students and temporary residents, and corporations (who have their own inhuman ways of reasoning) – desire a greater array of things from a city than a company’s customers want from a company.
And secondly, the ‘internal audiences’ – citizens – are arguably the primary beneficiaries of urban identity (they are sometimes causal agents as well, contributing to a city’s brand. Consider the way the immigrant striving of New York City has driven that city’s personality, or how the reputation Parisians have for being sniffy toward non- Parisians affects outsiders’ opinion of Paris).
We must also recognize that the way citizens perceive their own city is not always the same as the way outsiders see it. This is actually one of the greatest obstacles to effectively marketing cities and ‘doing city branding’, especially when a local actor (a mayor, for example) hires a foreign agency to assist in promoting a city to outsiders.
What happens is that a foreigners’ evaluation of what is interesting to outsiders about a city and how that should be portrayed almost never jibes neatly with locals’ self-perception. Compromises are then made, and the result is often dull marketing campaigns that bore outsiders and irritate insiders – the worst of all outcomes.
But the truth is, and has always been, that some of the best aspects of a city, the most endearing idiosyncrasies that make outsiders fall in love with it, are indeed ‘not featured in the prim official tourist hand- books’, as Ian Fleming put it bluntly in his 1964 travelogue Thrilling Cities. Cities, unlike commercial products and brands, absolutely resist being neatly packaged – and thank God for that.
Cities are the ultimate word-of-mouth product
Remarkability is the literal capacity for something to be remarked upon. Remarkability is the force that summons the power of word-of-mouth. The term was coined by Seth Godin, and in his book Purple Cow he provides an example of remarkability as it pertains to place identity: The leaning Tower of Pisa sees millions of visitors every year. It’s exactly as advertised. It’s a leaning tower. There’s nothing to complicate the message. There’s no ‘also,’ ‘and,’ or ‘plus.’ It’s just the leaning tower.
Put a picture on a T-shirt, and the message is easily sent and received. The purity of the message makes it even more remarkable. It’s easy to tell someone about the leaning tower. Much harder to tell them about the Pantheon in Rome. So, even though the Pantheon is beautiful, Word-of-mouth, amplified by social media, is a key success driver at every stage of the so-called marketing funnel, from ‘awareness’ to ‘purchase’ (or, in the case of a city, some other kind of action equivalent to purchase, eg taking a holiday there, or choosing to enrol in university there).
In Conversational Capital, Bertrand Cesvet, one of the geniuses behind the identity and marketing of Cirque du Soleil, explains: ‘Your reputation is the result of the relative proximity of who you are, who you say you are, and who people say you are. The closer these three are to one another – the more continuous and integrated – the more likely you are to enjoy great word-of-mouth.’
Cities aren’t particularly susceptible to being advertised. At least, advertising is very weak tool for city branding. Which is why nearly all of our recommended city branding techniques revolve around creating remarkability in the context of urban identity.
Levers for branding the city
In this section, we present our favoured branding levers as though they were separate functional categories from one another; in reality, they are building blocks that can be handled individually or in combination, but should always be understood to be interconnected. A fictional exchange between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino poetically explains the phenomenon: Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.‘But which is the stone that supports the bridge?’ Kublai Khan asks. ‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’ Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: ‘Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.’
Polo answers: ‘Without stones there is no arch.’
What follows are the stones of the arch of urban identity most worth paying attention to and most susceptible to being shaped.
The built environment
In Design of Cities, Edmund Bacon (famous for his work as head of Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission in the 1950s and 60s), explains the fundamental interaction effect between people and the built urban environment: One of the prime purposes of architecture is to heighten the drama of living. Therefore, architecture must provide differentiated spaces for different activities, that must articulate them in such a way that the emotional content of the particular act of living which takes place in them is reinforced . . . This is architecture, not to look at, but to be in [italics ours] . . . The designer’s problem is not to create facades or architectural mass but to create an all-encompassing experience, to engender involvement . . . Through the cumulative effect of various kinds of association with different part of the city, its citizens may build up loyalty to it . . . Much of Greek architecture was designed to infuse spaces with spirit.
And from spirit flows pride: architect Frank Gehry told the Financial Times recently: ‘If you live in Greece, you are proud of the Parthenon, if you live in New York you are proud of the Chrysler Building. Here in L.A. we have the “Hollywood” sign.’
The sense of place, and the spiritual uplift, that the built environment can provide has been understood for ages. Unfortunately, this knowledge of the power – or even the moral requirement – for the city’s built environment to have soulfulness is too often suppressed in the name of pragmatism, rapid development, or, some- times, honest differences of opinion about what type of architecture looks and feels good. Global fads and standardisation have, in our view, resulted in a cancer of architectural sameness. (This is all the more true now that achieving higher density is a high-order urban development goal.)
As well as answering to their own subjective intuition, architects should attend carefully to local identity. In that way their work will tend to advance the identity and even improve upon it and take it to new heights and into new directions, and avoid inadvertent homogeneity and sameness.
In China, on a regular basis, a lot of unique residential architecture from the past is destroyed. In many cases, it should be, because the old homes can’t accommodate sewage pipes or power cables or other features people need today. However, that doesn’t mean that the essence of these structures must be destroyed, too. Elements of the original architecture can be kept, such as the façade, and decorative techniques can be adapted to the modern context. Every site is different and by responding to the locality, a city can create a natural diversity and appropriateness – and a richer urban identity.
We’re convinced that the built environment is the greatest lever that can be pulled to make a city look and work better for insiders – and be better recognised by outsiders. For that reason, people whose sole role it is to be the champion or lobbyist for urban identity should be involved in all major projects; they should have a seat at the table when architectural and planning decisions are being made and executed.
Lighting and the night-time city
The night is half of the day, and it is one of the real opportunities a city has to strengthen its identity. Frankly, the reason to be in a city, it sometimes seems, is to be there at night. A complete transformation occurs to cityscapes as they become illuminated: from the external lighting of the streets, squares and parks, to the glow emanating from residences and businesses. Many great cities have great night-time environments where light and crowds merge to create a night culture, and a night economy.
Conventionally, city lighting has been regarded as a purely func- tional or technical feature. However, lately urban development and regeneration programmes have begun actively to incorporate lighting in order to humanize the built environment by making more engaging and aesthetically pleasing spaces. Doing so greatly improves urban life, and influences, consciously or unconsciously, whether we use and visit places after dark and how much we enjoy them.
Also, since lighting can be ‘superimposed’ on already existing con- structions, it can be an extremely feasible way of breathing new life and identity value into older buildings or neighbourhoods.
The East is generally ahead of the West when it comes to lighting. The Grand Canal in Hangzhou, China is a great example of where lighting has been hugely responsible for enhancing a city’s local identity.
Hangzhou has long been a water-orientated city, with a canal, and also the Tang Qian River and the West Lake, which is a big deal in China – it is on the back of the 1 Yuan banknote. However, Hangzhou is only a 40-minute high-speed rail ride from Shanghai, a city known for its spectacular urban environment. Therefore to differen- tiate Hangzhou, instead of grand spectacles, which would be more appropriate in nearby Shanghai, subtlety and softer touches were harmoniously embedded into the nightscape around the canal and lake. Great consideration was taken of local cultures and rituals in implementing this. Spring and summer is very warm in Hangzhou, so people wait until it is night and then they come out and gather on the banks of the bodies of water – they dance, practice tai chi, sing and stroll. Therefore people-centred design was embraced and the Grand Canal’s lighting was engineered to elegantly illuminate civic life with a soft touch that can be perceived and experienced by anyone, whether insider or outsider. ‘Our unapologetic aim was to bring life by light to the Grand Canal of Hangzhou throughout the hours of darkness and at the same time unlock the distinctive identity of the city,’ said Julie Tao, marketing director of Zhongtai Lighting, the company that spearheaded the project.
Streetscapes and street-level leitmotivs
Kidnap someone and take him to London. Remove the blindfold, and within five seconds he knows he’s in London. The same is true for New York. But very few other cities have this degree of pervasive recognizability at street level.
Many cities do of course have widely known features of some sort, which may or may not be unique. For example, Taipei, Taiwan is a city that teems with motorbikes, and that’s an authentic – and extremely visible – element of the city’s urban identity; however, a number of other Asian cities also have this hallmark.
But astonishingly few cities seem to lift a finger to create a low- amplitude, unmistakeable, one-of-a-kind, only-here sense of place on the ground. To our way of thinking, this is a missed opportunity, for a city’s streets are, along with the built environment, the most visible canvas for the expression of urban identity.
‘If we think of ourselves in Rome,’ writes Charles Landry, author of The Creative City, ‘we see ourselves in the Via Condotti – we don’t envision the abstract entity of “Rome.” If we think of our- selves in Sydney, we remember the view of the Opera House as we walked along George Street, the central artery that winds through the Rocks. The street provides the central building block of our place memory, reconciling a larger entity with the scale of human perception.’
Granted, many of the cities that have ubiquitous street-level recognizability have been very lucky or very clever: either they baked the recognizability in from the beginning, as in the layout of Washington, DC, or were given distinctiveness by divine providence, like the hills of San Francisco, or practical necessity, like the canals of Amsterdam.
Nevertheless, most of these cities do a good job of accentuating their distinctive, can’t-miss features, and trying hard not to lose them to entropy: DC’s strict building codes insist that facades run parallel to the street (even at intersections, resulting in triangular and semi- circular building fronts), San Francisco’s cable cars and wooden Vic- torian houses are meticulously protected amidst the inconvenience of the steep hills, and Amsterdam’s canals require constant and intense maintenance. Retaining a valuable urban identity can require both labour and vigilance.
There are many low-cost and ‘after-market’ approaches to creating streetscapes and recognizable urban leitmotivs. Street art has the potential to bring an enormous amount of character to a city, especially if well curated; it is an enhancement through which city brands can express themselves without high budgets. Or, why doesn’t Ulaan- baatar, Mongolia – the capital of a country whose chief deity is the great blue sky – paint all of its buses Pantone 292 sky blue? There can be a role for light-heartedness, myth and narrative in the construction of urban identity.
Vibrancy and vibe
AA Gill, a cantankerous restaurant and culture critic for the Times of London, has strong views about the relative importance of vibrancy as compared with comfort. In his inimitable style, he comes out very much on the side of vibrancy: Urban is noisy. It smells. It’s full of people who want to drink your claret, enter your wallet and stuff your daughter. Restaurants are more important to cities than you are, any of you. Having Tom’s Place down the road is an amenity that improves the neighbourhood. Next door, it makes the curtains smell, and takes £10K off the asking [price]. Well, tough. I know where this leads. The creeping countrification of the city; an infection of niceness . . . I’ve seen it in Manhattan; now, the city that doesn’t sleep pops a Xanax at 10pm and leaves at the weekend . . . everything that was exciting, entertaining and important and had a life, rather than a lifestyle, has been poisoned and pulled up.
Exaggerated? Definitely. But in his caustic, cautionary tones, Gill makes a valid and accurate point: while high levels of organization and decorum are valuable to a city, it’s possible to go too far with niceness. Some of the world’s greatest cities, and some of the best parts of the lesser cities, are noisy, smelly and adversarial. And that’s why they’re wonderful, or at least it is part and parcel of their wonderfulness, and their productivity. ‘Living in Greenwich Village [New York] is almost as exciting as war service,’ Jonathan Raban wrote of his home turf in Soft City. For cities, niceness is an altar upon which it is possible to sacrifice too much.
Landmarks and legibility
Landmarkability is a term we use to refer to buildings, structures and spaces which create distinct visual orientation points that provide a sense of location. They can be created by a significant natural feature or by an architectural form that is highly distinctive relative to its surrounding environment.
So much the better if the landmark is also a social object or social space that encourages people to take a picture in front of it. The giant mirrored bean in Chicago had a price tag of $23 million. But to purchase publicity, affection and recognition equal to that with advertising – an impossibility anyway – how much would that cost?
We believe monuments and landmarks can be devised with the express purpose of enhancing urban identity. That said, there is irony in the fact that some (if not actually most) of the world’s most famous urban landmarks were not deliberately intended to manipu- late a city’s brand. Nor were many of them rousing successes from the get-go. The Eiffel Tower, for instance, which was built for the first World’s Fair in 1889, was initially widely disliked by Parisians. One critic called it, in print, ‘a truly tragic streetlamp.’ Another described it as ‘iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed’. A third dismissed it as ‘a half-built factory pipe... a hole-riddled sup- pository’. Petitions against the tower were circulated, and signed by celebrities of the day (including Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo).
Monuments can be valuable not only as physical landmarks or urban reference points, but also by helping provide the city with what scholar Kevin Lynch called ‘temporal legibility’ – a metaphor- ical signpost about where the city has come from, and where it’s headed: Cities need a sense of history also. Legibility... [ought to] show how what is here now relates to the past, even if this means exposing the scars of history... It took Bristol [England] many years to acknowledge publicly its past as a slave trading port. Only recently have public monuments been commissioned and placed. Pero’s Bridge – a new pedestrian bridge crossing the historic harbour – is named after a slave boy who lived in the city. Though painful, this is an essential part of legibility and a symbol of future intentions.
Bottom line: you can’t fall in love with a city you don’t understand. So, helping people find their way around town, and absorb a sense of place, is crucial. (Indeed, ‘branding’ a city via its signage and way- finding system is a subject unto itself.)
Arrivals and first impressions
Jonathan Raban writes of the ‘mythology of initiation to the city’ and asserts the value of demonstrating to people that they have entered the city, that they have ‘crossed a frontier into a new world’: The architects of the city in the 19th century instinctively grasped [the] importance [of arrival]. They filled the outskirts areas of great cities with grandiloquent gestures and promises, signs, notices, and monuments, whose extravagant tone was in keeping with the heightened, self-mythologising emotional state of the newcomer. . . . [London] turned the Victorian railway termini into technological wonderlands [of] science and engineering. Until 1964, when it was knocked down in a typical act of official vandalism, you left Euston station under a massive, triumphal Doric arch. The city lay before you like an anticipated victory, celebrated before it had been won.
Contrast this with the banality and frustration that attends one’s arrival at most – but not all – international airports today.
First impressions matter. They seem to stay with us longer than secondary impressions. And they shade our later impressions by priming us to see more of what we think we’ve already glimpsed.
Public policy and problem solving
There are a lot of problems in the world and a lot of urban problems, particularly. If a city can solve one or two, in an original way, it redounds to the city’s brand.
Problem-solving cities gain recognition. Cartagena, Colombia first got famous for having a crime problem. Then it got famous for resolving its crime problem – and task forces form other Latin American cities now flock to Cartagena to learn how they did it.
Here Amsterdam is another great example: with its well-honed bicycle riding habits, it is influencing other cities’ cycle riding cultures and infrastructures. Importantly, the city is constantly strengthening its leadership, lately with an initiative to build heated bike paths which would extend the safe cycling season into the inclement winter months.
Far from being mundane, simply being highly functional can be a brand feature for a city. As Edward Glaeser writes, ‘Much of the world suffers under awful government, and that provides an edge for those cities that are administered well.’ Good governance is always good branding. Simply (although there’s rarely anything simple about it) solving the problems of being a city, and modelling those solutions to others, can work wonders for a city’s standing in the minds of insiders and outsiders.
People, culture and cuisine
A major job of city branding is to accentuate and enliven the things that are different about a place. As such, in our work we are always obsessed with identifying those differences. Unsurprisingly some of the biggest differences between cities arise from people and culture. City life is not remotely homogenous, and what people are like in one city can be nothing like what people are like somewhere else.
Prominent citizens or organizations may be well utilized as ambas- sadors for a city. Have you got a famous artist or composer among your ranks? Send him or her on tour. More than a handful of cities have an international awareness fuelled largely or even entirely by sports teams. How many Asians would even know about Manchester, England were it not for the famous football club?
Food and beverage are highly tangible forms of culture: you’ve got to try the Shanghai dumplings when you’re in that city; and how could you not have a lobster while passing through Portland, Maine, or fail to drink a daiquiri in Havana, Cuba? The panoply of culture- identity cuisine includes Singapore noodles, California roll sushi, Hyderabad’s biryani, Hangzhou’s loose-leaf green tea, New Orleans’s gumbo and Chongqing’s spicy hot pot.
In fact, Chongqing hot pot is a great case story of a local dish that was actively developed as a conscious branding manoeuvre. Although the dish original appeared at the time of the Qing dynasty (1644– 1911), it was only quite recently popularized by a female entrepreneur called Heyongzhi. She started with one restaurant, and grew it into a national chain. Here’s where it gets interesting: around 15 years ago, the city of Chongqing realized that the neighbouring city of Chengdu was also promoting a version of the spicy hot pot dish, and that this was distracting attention from Chongqing hot pot. In a very enlightened move to protect its brand equity in hot pot, Chongqing city government got Heyongzhi to form the Chongqing Hotpot Association to train and certify restaurateurs all over China – for little or no fee – in how to prepare authentic Chongqing hotpot and, furthermore, how to manage their restaurants. The result: the promotion of Chongqing and the nationwide triumph of that city’s dish over Chengdu’s rival version.
Rituals and experiences
One of the ways that commercial brands (or product categories) get under our skin is by associating themselves with rituals or occasions: the insertion of the lime wedge into the bottle of Corona beer, for example, or the use of champagne as the go-to beverage for celebration (why should it be?).
Often by accident of history, similar rituals or activities can become inextricably linked with cities, such that people can be heard to say: ‘Oh, you really haven’t been to X until you’ve done Y!’ And not only heard to say it, but made to feel it! There is at least a portion of foreign visitors to London, we can guarantee, who would not feel their visit were complete without seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace... or riding a double-decker bus... or posing for a photo in a red phone box... for these, according to legend, are the rituals that mark one as having been to London.
Rituals typically arise more or less organically. But they can also be concocted deliberately, and if that’s done cleverly, they can create a vector for authentically communicating and amplifying something of the soul of a place. The city of Key West, Florida, for example, throws a bit of a party down at the waterfront every evening in honour of the sunset; street performers and food sellers come out, and it’s become a well-known ritual. People go there just for that.
Not every ritual or routine will become world famous, but that doesn’t mean its not worth doing. You’d be astonished at how many ‘timeless traditions’ were actually begun a few decades ago! The main trick, as we say, is to be artful, authentic and identity-centric in designing it. The ritual should connect powerfully to the place.
Identity-embodying special events
A near cousin to rituals and experiences is special events. The best special events for branding purposes are designed from the begin- ning to have a strong urban identity component: they are created in such a way that they couldn’t really happen anywhere but in the host city. In actual fact, though, what mostly happens is a city starts out hosting an event and then over time – sometimes quite a long time – becomes closely associated with that event (the festival of San Femin, also known as the running of the bulls, in Pamplona, Spain, for instance, has been going for more than 150 years; SXSW [South- by-Southwest] in Austin, Texas started in 1987).
Sometimes it’s a little of both – an event isn’t held at a location in order to project that city a certain way, but it arrives there because the place is well-suited to that kind of event. In such cases, the event does have the effect of fortifying identity. An example of this is the ‘TT’ motorcycle races. These are held annually on the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Crown Dependency in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. The island is semi-independent; it’s parliament, the Tynwald, is the oldest continuously existing ruling body in the world and was established by the Vikings; it is not part of the EU and is low-tax regime friendly to offshore banking; its spirit is fiercely independent, and the island has its own spoken dialect.
Meanwhile the TT Races are famously dangerous, with riders going at extreme speeds on windy roads past stone buildings and cliffs. Since 1907, some 240 riders have died on the course (contrast with ‘only’ 15 deaths since 1910 at Pamplona’s running of the bulls). Such a race could only happen in a place like the Isle of Man – whose sense of freedom and laissez faire, and whose politically independent government, would permit it; any ‘normal’ place would forbid such an event – which makes it a strong and honest reinforcement of the island’s identity.
Branded consumer goods and city exports
Provenance (aka, MADE IN __________), or the place of origin effect – that is, the preference that consumers attach to where prod- ucts are made – was identified a long time ago as a factor in marketing and branding. It’s mostly been countries, however, that brands have chosen to align themselves with: French perfume, Japanese tech- nology, Italian fashion, and so on. Occasionally a region pops up; Apple products have been emblazoned on the back for a while now: ‘Designed in California by Apple.’
When place of origin is invoked, a product purchased becomes a souvenir from a locale you’ve never physically been to. It can help build an affinity between product and purchaser.
Another factor supporting development of city of origin brands is that countries are too big now as units of mental accounting. Okay, we don’t really mean countries – we mean China particularly, where more things are made than anywhere else. But ‘MADE IN CHINA’, although that label is gaining reputability, is a long way off from being a mark of prestige. We predict that luxury brands like Shang Xia, which is backed by Hermes and has recently opened a shop in Paris, will be thought of not as originating in the abstraction of ‘China’, but rather in the world city of Shanghai – a city with genu- ine sex appeal. Equally, we expect Chinese provinces to emerge from their present occlusion and begin to gain recognition for certain types of products, and for particular brands.
As commercial brands search for new ways to distinguish themselves, associating themselves with particular cities will quickly become a highly attractive option. Western consumers already are used to seeing LONDON – BRUSSELS – ROME – DUBAI – BEVERLY HILLS on awnings in fancy shopping districts. In 20 years, it will be a different set of cities listed on those awnings. We have already had a hand in one shop proclaiming, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland: ULAN BATOR – GENEVE.
Where is the explosion of city of origin brands? It’s coming. The rise of cities as the dominant ‘meta landscape’ of global geography in the 21st century practically guarantees it.
Conclusion and call to arms
How do we know how we’re doing as humans? We look at our cities.
Cities are the great human stage, playing host to a cast of characters, starting with you, us, and – at extrapolated growth rates – 75 per cent of the world’s population within a few decades.
And cities are themselves a cast of characters: fully fledged personae with lightness and darkness, opportunity and banality, tragedy and joy.
Cities are all flawed geniuses, driven by visible and invisible hands
through individual historical arcs, fulfilling or failing to fulfil their own respective destinies.
Undoubtedly – and excitingly – the destiny of some cities will be to foster the next transformation in human civilization. The futurist Daniel Pinchbeck, in Notes from the Edge Times, writes: Reality is becoming more improvisational and up-tempo... [meanwhile] it appears that successive transformations of human civilisation have happened at exponentially faster rates of linear time: while the agricultural revolution took thousands of years, the industrial age took under 200 years, and the Knowledge or Information Age required only a few decades. By this model... the next revolution in human society could happen in [a duration of] two or three years. This would be a revolution of wisdom, of consciousness.
Cities everywhere and at all stages of economic and social development have the opportunity to participate, in their own ways, in this great-wave transmogrification of human society.
Team City of Humans