Representing and repositioning

Arrival to and departure from a city matters. First and last impressions configure overall impressions and negative experiences impact more than positive ones. Airports, stations and entry roads are vital in telling the urban story. They communicate how the city sees and values itself. Philadelphia, a city with a strong identity, memorably welcomes you after arriving at its airport with a major rubbish disposal site. Singapore was one of the first cities to grasp and follow through every aspect of the experience of arrival. Friendly assistants help you to your taxi and a lush, green, tree-lined corridor with boulevarded streets make the ride into the city centre calm, so taking away the insecurities any traveller feels on arrival. Shanghai's elevated maglev (magnetic elevation) train, the world's only commercial maglev, connects the international airport to near the city's financial centre in Pudong district, a run of 30km. Passing similar tree-lined approaches, it creates a similar calming effect. Both send out messages such as 'we care for you', 'we are well organized', 'you are safe', 'we are modern'. Even though neither city is renowned for its sustainability agenda, the arrival experience also says 'we are green'.

Hong Kong airport is also in this top league, with a public transport system that is a delight and with porters for your luggage. Noticeably, it is easier to achieve complicated goals, such as a 10km entrance to the city, when an enlightened public sector is in the lead and in essence can overcome resistances along the way. Here the Nordic cities work too. Oslo airport is an intelligent building -alternative-energy-powered shutters open and close according to the weather. You feel the eco-awareness through the design too; there is practically no visual clutter and commercial aspects are downplayed. Civic values, such as consideration, safety and respect, imbue the atmosphere. Getting into the city is seamless. Contrast this with the Washington Dulles airport experience and the messages it sends out: no metro system to the centre, just a herd of taxis waiting for arrivals. This is sad because Washington's metro is renowned as one of the best in North America.

Train stations send out the messages too. Euralille in Lille projects modernity and the future - open heaters compensate for the cold chill that sweeps through it and that was perhaps a design fault. The grime of Bucharest, the chaos of Odessa or the human mass in Kolkata elicit other feelings. Adelaide is the only city in the world where two of the world's great railways stop - the Indian Pacific and the Ghan. This symbolic resonance is immense. Unfortunately they arrive at a shunting yard in Keswick. Adelaide is now changing that.

Getting these arrival termini right is key. This makes the Bilbao comment above on 'once in a generation opportunities' pertinent. Get this wrong, as, for example, Terminal Four at Heathrow, and we have to live with a bad building for a generation or more. Importantly, this is the opportunity to send out visible iconic triggers and not merely advertising hoardings. There is a huge opportunity to make statements that show visitors what is different about the city. The key themes should be embodied and reflected from the terminal or station or motorway entrances onwards to tell an unfolding story that links with the story in other parts of the city.

But using the city as a communications device to drive vision and aspiration remains under-explored and goes well beyond arrival and departure. The panoply of visual clues and activities promoted, from urban design, public art and signage to the temporary and whimsical, is there to be further explored. For instance, green buildings should be known to be green, perhaps employing a temporary sign that reminds people that the building next door uses, say, double the energy and costs more.

Cities often downplay their possibilities and self-perception is often the cause. The following may appear trivial, but has downstream effects on self-perception. In Adelaide we proposed that instead of thinking of itself as the 'smallest of the big' (Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney all being bigger) and losing out against them, why not think of itself as the 'biggest of the small'? We advised Helsinki that, instead of worrying about being on the periphery and 'on the edge', it might think of itself as 'at the cutting edge'. One sounds dull, the other more interesting. This changes the narrative a place tells about itself and can generate confidence. These switches have real life impacts.

The media is key to urban reinvention. Most city media disappoint. They are geared to complaining rather than helping to create. Cities are often projected as clich├ęs, with little sense of their depth or richness. There is much about problems, but little about achievement and aspiration. You hear above all about fears, crime, vandalism and disorder (important though these are). You hear about the effects but little about addressing causes. Places where courts are based always have a disadvantage. In Adelaide there are courts in the district of Elizabeth which deal with cases from a wider area than that of the district itself. Yet reports of these cases in the media refer solely to Elizabeth, so weakening the image of this area dramatically. How about dropping the references to the physical location of courts?

Just as it is good for any larger city to have alternative hubs where different lifestyles express themselves, so the media landscape for a mature city should be one of diversity. In contrast to Adelaide, which had one dominant paper, Melbourne's or Sydney's media provides a richer, more sophisticated story that reflects broader views. Without more media competition, the story of a place like Adelaide will be a narrow one. Most urban turnaround stories work in part because they have this diversity of media or -especially when they are small - a supportive local media that encourages the city to move forward. The British town of Huddersfield got lift-off as the 'creative town' only when the local press firmly helped create an environment in which citizens felt they could become part of the solution. Obviously in a 'hyper-mediated' age, urban politics increasingly responds to media messages. And this can also have a corrosive effect on politics as it begins to play more to the media than to the other big picture issues concerning the future. The media claim they are only responding to views rather than creating views, but these are large arguments about the role of the fourth estate.

Only a few cities, perhaps 30 in the world, have enough drawing power and recognition across a range of domains. Most people will know which these are. The list starts with places like New York, Tokyo, Shanghai and London. The mass of others need to increase their reputation and positioning in niche areas to sustain wealth creation over time. The strong niches a city decides to highlight are important, because if they inspire citizens they will want to stay and contribute, and outsiders will be enticed to come. Building a reputation is not merely a marketing exercise but a process of creating rich associations around these niche areas.

In projecting itself as having desirable attributes, such as creativity, dynamism or greenness, a city should not brand itself as 'Creative Anywhere' or give itself a similar accolade. It should simply demonstrate through imaginative action that it is creative and let others say of it 'you are creative.' As ever, there is the danger of sloganeering or vainly and desperately attempting to be famous for something.

Yet positioning is about creating the conditions whereby the wealth-creating capacity of a place can be sustained over time. For the mass of smaller cities, which can mean any of those not at the top of the urban hierarchy, the switch being attempted is to move them from being places to leave to being destinations to come to. This means increasing drawing power to various audiences. Foremost, this is targeted at the city's own citizens by providing an environment where they want to stay. In this way they become stronger ambassadors for their city.

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