Leadership and the Challenge of Making a City Visible

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Cities of varying sizes struggle with two related, but seemingly opposing, global and local forces. At one level, every city would like to benefit from the global flow of capital and the emerging landscapes of prosperity seen in “other” places. At another level, to be a recipient of such attention, a city has to offer something more than cheaper real estate and tax benefits.

What cities need is a sense of uniqueness; something that separates them from other cities. Without uniqueness, a city can easily be made invisible in a world of cities. In other words, without defining the “local,” there is no “global.” Here is where identifying a coherent message about a place, based on its identity, becomes crucial. One of the major challenges facing many cities, small and large, is how to make themselves visible, and how to identify, activate, and communicate their place identity – their brand – through actions.

The challenge of urban branding is that cities are not commodities. As such, urban branding is not the same as product or corporate-style branding. Cities are much more complex and contain multiple identity narratives; whatever the business and leadership says, there are other local voices that may challenge the accepted “script”. In fact, while city marketing may focus mainly on attracting capital through economic development and tourism, urban branding needs to move beyond the simply utilitarian, and consider   memories, urban experiences, and quality of life issues that affect those who live in a city. A brand does not exist outside the reality of a city. It is not an imported idea. It is an internally generated identity, rooted in the history and assets of a city.

Catchy phrases, logos, shiny booklets, invented cultural events, or the latest urban design schemes are not the answer. Copying tactics from other cities won't make a city recognizable; it will make it less visible and less unique. The challenge is, then, to ask what assets a city has that others do not possess; which of these assets can be seen as a city’s mark of achievement or recognizable characteristics; and how does one activate, elevate and sustain those characteristics?

This search necessarily starts with residents, who are best suited to answer the first question. And who can respond to the second question better than the collective leadership of a city, including its public and private sectors? Leadership needs to be inclusive of all stakeholder groups, as should the voice of the residents, which must include gender, race, class, and age differences.

At every step of the way, from collecting the diverse narratives to formulating and activating a brand, leadership and inclusive governance play central roles. But who are the leaders? As Robin Hambleton suggested at a recent Urban Studies Lecture at University of Washington Tacoma, leadership does not exclusively translate to political leaders, and governance is not the same as government. He identified four categories of leaders: political, managerial/professional, community, and business. He was careful to distinguish between predatory businesses that are typically place-less and care little about the future of a city, and producer businesses that are typically rooted and place-bound. His fourth category of leaders came from the latter and not the former group of businesses.

Based on his international observation of various cities, many of which suffered a post-industrial condition (e.g. Malmo, Sweden and Melbourne, Australia) the convergence and collaboration of the four leadership categories created an innovation zone that allowed them to turn their cities around and adopt a way forward. The example of Freiburg in Germany, a city of slightly larger than 200,000 residents, is instructive. With the persistence of the Green political party, the mayor, community activists and an imaginative public servant (the Director of Planning and Building), Freiburg was able to enact a particular vision that elevated its status regionally, nationally and internationally. The city is recognized today as a leading European ‘eco-city;’ its history, geography and natural settings at the edge of the Black Forest in Germany allow Freiburg to incorporate this brand with ease. The four categories of leadership converged on this issue and their innovation paid off.

The challenge before most post-industrial and mid-size cities is as follows: who are the leaders within each of these four sectors who can help convene, identify, and activate an urban brand, befitting of this urban region? Are these categories equally powerful? Do political and community leaders carry the same clout as the business and the managerial class? Most mid-size cities typically lack predatory businesses, but who are the producer businesses? More importantly, who are the leaders from that sector that could play an active role in the branding process? Is the leadership balance-sheet lopsided in favor of the managerial/professional class? With limited budget, can they carry forward a bold plan that could make this city visible?

To make a city visible takes more than a logo. The future of a city region depends on a diversity of political, managerial, community and business leaders who will participate and sustain a process that will lead to an inclusively created brand, followed by actions that embrace it. Cities without articulated identities will remain invisible, lamenting at every historical turn the loss of yet another opportunity to be like their more successful neighbors.

Ali Modarres is the Director of Urban Studies at University of Washington Tacoma.  He is a geographer and landscape architect, specializing in urban planning and policy. He has written extensively about social geography, transportation planning, and urban development issues in American cities.

Photo by FLickr user belem