Image is everything when it comes to global city brands – but who is this frenzied exercise in image-control actually for?
Tuesday 6 May 2014 12.51 BST
The Sydney Opera House has wings. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building in the world. Shanghai’s Pudong boasts a 21st century skyline of bubbles, crowns and globes. These buildings are designed to be instantly recognisable, a signature brand for both their city and their architect. But if every city has them – and they all hire the same elite group of architects to design them – how unique can cities’ images be?
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen wearing 'I (Heart) New York' T-shirts.
The slogan was created by Milton Glaser in the 1970s.
Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex
Yet uniqueness is the goal of city branding, which during the past few years has grown into a global industry connected to tourism and the media-sports-and-entertainment complex. Originally a promotional scheme meant to lure new residents, city branding is now a slogan tied to a public relations campaign to make the places where we live into “destinations”. As always with branding, image is everything.
But competition between cities accelerates the need for image-making so that no city can ever win. If the brand process begins with “a desire to be extraordinary”, as one place-branding agency suggests, then predictably, according to the so-called Lake Wobegon effect popularised by the US radio host Garrison Keillor – who satirises a town where "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average" – then every city turns out to be “extraordinary”.
So how did this counterproductive exercise in collective egotism begin? Cities have long had visual “brands”: from tourist photos to scenes in a film, our mental postcards of a city become the DNA of its essence; with endless repetition, this essence becomes a meme or a logo for the city’s brand. Think of postcards made around 1900 of the engineering marvel of the Eiffel Tower, or the fantasy pavilions at Coney Island, and the famous photo of the Flatiron Building by Alfred Steiglitz. These are powerful city images.
But city branding as a discipline proper was born in the industrial decline and fiscal stress of the 1970s. It was led by efforts in New York, which hit the limits of a diminishing tax base and vanishing bank loans in 1975 and was pushed to the brink of municipal bankruptcy. During the 1980s, with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan promoting an era of pro-business exuberance, cities became more entrepreneurial, too. They chased the mobile capital that was let loose by deregulation of financial markets and was concentrated in the sovereign funds of oil-rich states.
Cities didn’t have much choice. Abandoned by local companies eager to merge with much larger corporations and outsourcing production to wherever they could pay low wages and taxes and avoid government regulation, city managers turned to self-promotion. They pursued the “three Ts”: trade, talent and tourists.
But the old images, devised when cities were actively making products rather than consuming them, were no longer attractive, or even accurate. The slogan “New York, Empire City” reflected a time after the completion of the Erie Canal in the 1820s, when goods were shipped into New York’s port and then taken further west to Ohio by barge. In 1914 the poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago “hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat,” when the city’s stockyards and factories were the economic engine – and human cesspool – of the entire midwest.
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