Sunday, 24 June 2012

Destination Branding for Small Cities

I've just finished reading the recently published second edition of Bill Baker's book "Destination Branding for Small Cities". I've known Bill a good few years and, although we have never actually met, through his writings (the first edition and his insightful blog) I feel like I've got to know him well. And the man I have come to know is one of the most eloquent and accomplished ambassadors for, and advocate of, sensible place branding. By that I mean practical, common sense ways of creating places that work, places with discernible distinctiveness, places that you can identify with. What Bill writes about and practices is not the "fluff" of marketers called in to decorate a city with a logo and a tag line. Rather, he describes the hard work, the challenges, the complexities and the benefits of place brand strategy. Through an extensive array of case study examples and interviews with other practitioners in the field he has assembled a practical "how-to" toolkit for any city governor, mayor, councilor or planner thinking of developing a brand strategy for their place. My recommendation is to buy a copy even if you think you are well grounded in the field. Bill always has something new to add to my understanding of it. And if you live in a place which is obsessed with its logo or the need for one, then buy and send a copy to its elected leader to get her or him on the right lines.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Place East London - Where is that?

So what sort of place is East London and what sort of place do we want it to become? And, where is East London anyway? And I don't just mean geographically, I also mean in terms of its development and the quality of life that it provides for its residents and businesses.

Yesterday afternoon the first Place East London conference attempted to address those and related questions. Under the inimitable chairing of Jackie Sadek, CE of UK Regeneration, the new kid on the "live in a great place" block, approximately 160 people gathered in the Old Town Hall in Stratford to hear a variety of presentations on what is happening in this sometimes difficult to define area, what is being planned for it and what people would like to see happening.

For me the stars of the show were Robin Wales, the Mayor of Newham; Ian Lindsay of Crossrail; Emma Vandore, involved with the TechCity initiative, Liane Hartley of Mend, and Kelvin Campbell of Urban Initiatives, who were all, in their own ways, inspirational. And in contrast, my prize for ruining a very informative set of slides, that could not be read, through uninspiring delivery, goes to Edward Lister of the Greater London Assembly.

Robin is a great advert for Newham, and East London in general. He is so passionate about the place and you'd think he had been born there, but he is a "convert" Scot, like me. He engulfed me with a welter of statistics, stories and vignettes in a very engaging way but at a rate of knots that left me sometimes confused about just which initiative he was describing. Fast, furious and inspiring.

Ian laid out the full scale of the development of the Cross Rail programme and the astonishing changes it will bring in accessibility to the west end of central London , if not the "west", for people in East London, but equally, the improved access to the East End from the rest of London, changing it from what some still regard as a backwater to a place to get things done. Great stuff!

Emma described the initiative that is being taken to grow tech businesses in the City of London and spread their establishment through East London and spoke with a mixture of passion and concern about the need to spread the net of digital entrepreneur-ism to the kids creatively programming in their bedrooms.

Then we had our brains fried by Liane Hartlety of Mend (London) who argued for an approach to the development of the area that she described as "social planning" and the embrace of "comfortable chaos". I summarise this as the need to recognise that human life is essentially social and that daily life is essentially chaotic. We should stop trying to simplify it, sort it out, regiment it, and corral it and learn to live with a degree of necessary discomfort. We had under five minutes of this thoughtful lady and Place East London should bring her back and give her another platform to explain her ideas in greater depth.

I was struck by a comment made by Ralph Ward, a grand man of much experience in planning for the East End, that in thirty years he had not seen a single business development strategy for East London and when I asked the panel why their answers suggested that there might be no need for such another document; we need to "get on with the getting on" was what I heard. Well yes, and no! We do need to let a thousand flowers bloom, and some will die, but surely we need to keep track of what works and try to spread it throughout the area in some form of planned way?

And then there was Kelvin. His subject matter concened the metrics we use to assess and plan town centres. As usual his remarks were thoughtful, provocative and occasionally humorously anarchic. He thinks that we are currently measuring the wrong things - like gross rents, levels of vacancy, all things property. Instead he proposed metrics of a more human form - the number of people actively involved in a place, volunteering, making it work better; the number of social enterprises actively working there; the numbers of people attending events and the type of events; the level of digital activity taking place in cafes and open spaces; the number of community support services open for business in town centres; the range and number of businesses located there. And, entertainingly and anarchically, the number of people getting laid there!

I came away at the end of the afternoon still wondering if there really is a definable place called East London and asking myself the question does anybody want it defined, described or even promoted as a recognizable place, as opposed to just getting on with the creation of a better place, in all its constituent parts for the people who live there, wherever that is?

We shall see as this gathering is to be reconvened in about five or six months time after all of the balyhoo of the Olympics has died down, or at least quietened a bit. Which reminds me to comment that I was impressed by the independence of mind of Daniel Moylan, the Chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation, the closing speaker, who read out the a few  points from the notes prepared for him by his new staff and then promptly raised insightful questions about them.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Scots Debate new Architecture and Placemaking Policy

Hillhead Primary School Glasgow by jmarchitects

Last week I participated in the Scottish Government's International Design Summit at the Lighthouse in Glasgow. Held to kick off consultation on a new policy for architecture and placemaking in the country and the opening of an exhibition on this initiative in the Lighthouse, it attracted an international roster of speakers whose presentations, including my own, can be found by clicking on the address below:

                                               A panel from the exhibition

My contribution highlighted the role that place and destination brand strategy can play in improving the design, environment and management of high streets and town centres.

Of particular interest to me were the presentations by Tina Saaby, the Chief Architect of the City of Copenhagen, Andrew Dixon, the CEO of Creative Scotland, Mike Galloway, the Chief Planner of the City of Dundee, and Cilly Jansen, the head of Architectuur Lokaal in The Netherlands.

Tina described with great passion how the city of Copenhagen is focused on making it one of the world's best places to live and work even as it continues to grow by focusing on a strategy to improve the quality of life at a human scale. She described how the City is taking action to get more people walking and cycling, creating places for people to linger and the creation of associated active frontages.

Andrew spoke eloquently about the importance of cultural initiatives in redefining place and provided a number of examples of how sculpture (such as the Angel of the North) and arts centres (such as the Baltic in Gateshead) had helped redefine the identity and reputation of places, helping to generate tourism and economic benefits.

Andrew sensed that Scotland had yet to celebrate its cultural strengths as a key element of placemaking in the country and I agree with him; there is much more that can be done to do exemplify the culture as an active part of place.

Mike talked about the process of development, over the last fifteen to twenty years, that has resulted in a very successful new place and destination being created on the waterfront at Dundee. Here design is being used as a purposeful tool to change the image and perception of the old city on the waterfront, to grow the economy and create jobs. Through a linked framework of design briefs he has steered development of a number of major and game changing new buildings and attractions, chief of which is the development of the new Victoria and Albert Museum in Scotland. He stressed the importance of consistent civic leadership over time to ensure a project of this scale and importance is realised and the need for politicians and developers to take a long view.

Cilly described how her organisation, Architectur Locaal, had pioneered design education for local councillors in the Netherlands in order to improve its quality and the quality of their decision making, and how architecture was now seen as a key and principal element in her country's creative sector.

I also enjoyed the break-out session given by Amanda Reynolds of ar-Urbanism where she highlighted some of the many ways in which good design of facilities in public places can increase their attractiveness and their sense of place and arrival.

By far the most enjoyable and the most interactive session for me was the workshop on "Other Ways of Doing Architecture" run by Pidgin Perfect (Dele Adeyemo, Marc Cairns and Becca Thomas) who asked us to imagine a future different to today and to think about how architecture might be taught at that time, which produced a range of scenarios from the dystopian to the intriguing.

I also enjoyed meeting and carousing with Kevin Murray and liked his closing summing up of the key messages coming out of the summit, which can be summarised as:

  • There is a need to embed the design of the built environment in the wider policy agendas of government and to ensure public and private sector buy-in.
  • Architectural policy is not exclusively for nor primarily about architects. It is addressed at a broad church of interests and professions, all of whom have a role to play in making places better; with architects leaving behind their "Guild" model of education and organisation to become players in collaborative teams.
  • The policy has to address place liveability, place sustainability, place value and competition between places.
  • We need to simultaneously invest in long-term place infrastructure and short term animation of place and the experiences to be had there.
Kevin summed up the debate neatly when he said that "Quality of place is hard to achieve but worth it".

The draft Scottish Policy on Architecture and Placemaking can be found at