Urban planning as branding

An article appeared in today’s Springfield Republican, by Azell Murphy Cavaan, about efforts on the part of the city (read: Finance Control Board) to seek proposals from real estate and marketing companies to analyze and market several high-profile properties "that have languished for years."

According to the article, requests for proposals will go out on Monday and will be due November 20. The properties will likely be wide-ranging; Cavaan’s article mentions as examples "the Chestnut Street School, the Gemini property in the South End, Court Square Hotel (PDF) and the York Street jail."

Too bad California-based design and marketing firm IDEO probably isn’t in the running. In a recent article in Metropolis by Andrew Blum, IDEO’s "Smart Space" work in Kansas City is described as something that "looks a lot like urban planning," but isn’t. Fred Dust, who leads the Smart Space Practice for IDEO, uses "innovative design methodologies" and applies them (PDF) to city and government planning issues. From the article:

Instead of doing massing studies or land-use plans, laying out infrastructure, writing zoning codes, or proposing blockbuster museums, IDEO’s Smart Space group articulates the spirit of a place but leaves its realization to the clients: developers, park conservancies, hospitality companies. …

The firm deliberately dodges all the “technical” parts of urban planning: arranging infrastructure, determining financing, and navigating the public process. Instead it practices urban planning as branding: define the spirit of a place and then let others articulate that spirit—whether in bricks, mortar, tax breaks, or billboards. IDEO claims accountability only for its ideas.

It’s not clear that works, mostly because it’s too early to tell—but also because the team at IDEO is messing with the DNA of the planning process. They’re changing it from a concrete process of infrastructure and building to an imagined one of narrative and identity; they’re exchanging the idea of a place for place itself. In an urban realm already threatened by privatization—not just by developers but by a broader trend toward place-making as marketing—IDEO’s approach could be seen to further erode the idea of city-building as a democratic process (if it ever was) because of the way it applies the shiny language of marketing to the gritty mixed-up world of the city. As IDEO emphasizes, its communication skills have been honed in the corporate world, and its “user centered” approach is often cast as a particularly empathetic version of market research.

IDEO’s approach could be seen as a desperately needed fix to the broken instrument of urban planning, a way to energize a public process that too often skews places to the lowest common denominator. Some leading planners are willing to give it a shot.

In the October 16 issue of Business West, George O’Brien published a summary of the Urban Land Institute panel visit to Springfield, including some unique statements from panelists Barry Elbasani and Lew Bolan. The city’s image—its "narrative and identity"—are emerging as critical to its stability. At this stage, it looks like it may partly be up to the "shiny language of marketing" to help us.

Author: Heather Brandon

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