Famous last words? Is this the beginning of the end for city slogans?

How do you sum up a city in a slogan? The simple answer is that you can’t. But that hasn’t stopped towns and cities around the world trying to encapsulate their essence in a few well-chosen (or sometimes ill-chosen) words.

For some, a slogan is a fun way to show that a town or city is a great place to live, work and visit. American municipalities that proclaim themselves to be “The Best Town on Earth” (Madisonville, Kentucky), or “The Toothpick Capital of the World (Strong, Maine) are doing so with their civic tongues firmly in cheek.

But for many towns and cities, slogan making is a serious business that requires considerable amounts of time, money and brainpower to come up with something that highlights communities as worth visiting and investing in.

And for some cities, a slogan can mean the difference between success and failure.

How a slogan saved a city

New York City today is a lively, attractive place that’s proud to trumpet its cultural, architectural, retail and culinary attractions to residents and tourists alike. Things were very different in the 1970s. Years of financial mismanagement and neglect had given New York a reputation for grime, crime, drugs and disrepair. By the mid-70s, the city’s image was in tatters.

The turning point came with a campaign promoting one of New York’s enduring strong points – its theatre district. A television advert featuring Broadway stars launched the campaign on Valentine’s Day 1978. Its message was short and sweet: I ❤ NY.

As Newsweek reported, the campaign was an overnight success:

“There were some 93,800 requests for the tourism brochure after the commercials aired. Hotel occupancy in New York City hit 90%, year-on-year earnings from travel activity shot up nearly 20 percent.”

Forty years later, I ❤ NY still has pulling power:

Walk around Manhattan today and you’ll find pretty much every store that caters to tourists is packed with T-shirts, mugs, keychains and more, all emblazoned with the iconic slogan. A 2011 report said the city still earns some $30 million a year through licensing the logo.”

Glasgow’s Miles Better

The New York campaign had a profound influence on another city whose image required a makeover. In 1984, Glasgow was making efforts to recover from industrial decline, and to regenerate its city centre as a retail and cultural hub. The city’s Lord Provost, Michael Kelly, wanted to promote Glasgow’s progress, and to show that the city was miles better than it used to be.

The Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign was one of the first of its kind in the UK, and – like its New York inspiration – the brand had important after-effects. The message was carried across the UK, appeared on London buses and was used to promote the city internationally. Arguably, the campaign boosted Glasgow’s success in becoming European City of Culture in 1990 and UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999.  Michael Kelly later summed up the impact of the campaign:

“The legacy was a permanent change in attitude towards Glasgow, exposing the reality rather than the rather distorted image people had outside. People began to look at it in a proper light and were able to make economic decisions based on that, so we got investment, we got employment. We turned the economy round, and that legacy is still being felt today.”

The slogan was finally dropped in 1997, but subsequent campaigns – Glasgow’s Alive, Glasgow: Scotland with Style – never enjoyed the commercial success of the Miles Better brand, nor did they win the hearts of the people.  Today, the city has another slogan – People Make Glasgow – which puts Glaswegians firmly at the heart of the city’s identity. The change recognised that in a city which still has significant social, health and housing problems, a slogan focusing on the strengths of its citizens is more likely to have credibility.

Slogan-free cities

But while numerous towns and cities around the world have embraced the power of a slogan, there are signs that city slogans may be reaching the end of the road.

In 2015, the city council of Edmonton, capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, voted to drop the “City of Champions” slogan. The Mayor of Edmonton contended that a city’s brand can never be expressed in a meaningful way by a single tagline. Other North American cities, including Moncton in New Brunswick, Mississauga in Ontario, and Cleveland, Ohio, have also been phasing out their city slogans.

Slogans with a smile

“The challenge of finding a slogan is handling the plurality of images and identities that the residents possess. The multiple and distinct identities supported by populations within a city should be included and coincide within the urban brand as much as possible in order to accommodate the resi­dents’ diversity.”
Championing the City

Faced with such a daunting challenge, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some cities and towns have given up on the idea of a civic slogan. But most are sticking with the concept, and some are hoping that even if they don’t greatly raise the profile of their municipality, they might at least raise a smile:

  • The Odds Are With You (Peculiar, Missouri)
  • It’s All Right Here (Dunedin, New Zealand)
  • It’s a Location, Not a Vocation (Hooker, Oklahoma)
  • Aha! (Suncheon, South Korea)
  • It’s Not Our Fault (San Andreas, California)

Going through the roof: could building upwards address London’s housing problem?

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The Ter Meulen Building, Rotterdam: 21st century residential apartments built on top of a post-war shopping centre

The housing challenges facing London are well documented::

  • London needs around 50,000 new homes a year, but housebuilding is running at around half that.
  • Between 2005 and 2015, private rents in London rose by an average of 35%.
  • Future projections suggest there will be 9m people in London by 2020, 10m by 2030 and 11m by 2050.

There are now serious concerns that the lack of affordable housing and rising rents risk driving key workers out of London, and may cause businesses to think twice about locating in the capital. But as well as triggering dire warnings about the future of London and the UK economy, the housing crisis has also prompted increasingly creative ideas on how to solve it.

Going up

Last year, Darren Johnson, who represented the Green Party on the Greater London Assembly, proposed five ideas to secure land for affordable homes. One of his proposals was to build additional storeys on top of existing buildings.

Johnson suggested that this approach has many advantages over demolishing existing properties and building new homes, including:

  • a shorter period of disruption for residents;
  • more environmentally friendly than demolition and rebuilding
  • an opportunity to refurbish the existing homes

He offered the example of the Ducane Housing Association in Hammersmith, which built 44 new homes on top of two 1970s buildings. Based on data from London’s Borough Councils, Johnson estimated that almost 50,000 new homes could be built using Ducane’s example.

One potential stumbling block is the difficulty of getting planning permission for intensive construction projects in the heart of active communities. However, in July 2015, the Treasury signalled the government’s intent to end the need to obtain planning permission for upwards extensions in London.

Building on public buildings

Another approach, on similar lines, is the idea of building new homes on top of publically owned buildings. In 2015, WSP professional services consultants conducted a survey to gauge interest in the idea. Among their findings:

  • 61% of respondents supported the idea of allowing private developers to refurbish government buildings, allowing them to make their money back by building additional housing on top of the refurbished building, which they could sell for profit.
  • Over 60% of Londoners would happily live above a library, while 44% would be willing to live above a government administration building, and around a quarter of Londoners would be willing to live above a school or hospital.

The WSP report went on to suggest that developing all available sites by building apartments above all available public buildings in London could provide over 630,000 residential units.

“Of course we acknowledge that not every building will be able to be redeveloped in this way, but even targeting one in every two municipal buildings could go a long way in solving the housing crisis, providing 315,000 homes.”

These homes, the report argued, would be most suitable for key workers employed by these facilities, or by students, older people and young professionals. Some may even house those working in the facilities below.

One landlord is already exploring the idea with several London councils. Apex Housing Group has experience of converting airspace above properties into luxury penthouse apartments. Managing director Arshad Bhatti believes the principle could be applied to affordable homes:

“We are working with a number of local authorities across London and expect airspace development projects will help bridge the gap between demand and supply of new homes in London – crucially with minimum lead times, and offering maximum value for property owners.”

The view from overseas

The idea of building up may be relatively new to London, but other densely populated cities have already been exploring its possibilities.

  • In Rotterdam, developers have been combining ultra-lightweight materials to build apartments on top of a 1940s shopping centre.
  • In New York, a developer is planning to construct a nine-storey condominium on top of apartments dating from the 1950s.
  • In Paris, three prefab dwellings attached to the rooftops of existing buildings were completed in January 2016.

The architects of the Paris project believe it has multiple benefits:

“Building on top of the roofs is not only an ecological and economical solution, it’s working against the urban sprawl that kills the social link. It’s also a contemporary way to discover new perspectives of the city, a new Paris above the horizon.”

But not everyone is happy with the idea. Residents in the existing apartments beneath the proposed New York condominium are concerned that the wear and tear of construction could damage their properties. And they’re also worried about the stability of the columns supporting the new building.

The only way is up?

Clearly, building on existing properties is not without its problems. But as the housing crisis in London intensifies, and spreads to other parts of the UK, it’s an idea that may no longer be regarded as pie in the sky.


If you liked this post, you may also be interested in other blog posts on suggestions for tackling the UK housing crisis:

Hitting the ground walking: how planners can create more walkable cities, one step at a time

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In recent times, walking has been enlisted as one of the key weapons in the war on inactivity. Planners and policymakers have taken note of evidence highlighting the benefits of walking for health and wellbeing. Meanwhile, local and national governments have taken up the challenge of embedding walking into policy, strategy and guidance. There are now national walking strategies for England, Wales and Scotland, and from Belfast to Bristol local councils have published their own plans to get more people walking.

Travel trends and their costs

During the twentieth century, there was a shift from work involving physical labour to jobs of a more sedentary nature. In addition, the growth of suburbs and rising car ownership has contributed to a decline in people travelling on foot. At the same time, the attractions of television and home computers mean fewer people are spending their leisure time playing sports or taking part in outdoor activities.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has put the consequences of these trends into stark perspective:

“Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety.”

  • Worldwide, around two million deaths a year are attributed to physical inactivity.
  • In the UK, physical activity contributes to one in six deaths, and costs £7.4 billion a year to business and wider society. It is the fourth largest cause of disease and disability in the UK.
  • In Scotland, inactivity contributes to over 2,500 deaths each year, costing the NHS £94.1m annually.

The benefits of walking

Efforts encouraging people to become more active have had mixed results, and there is now a recognition that turning the tide of physical activity may take decades to achieve. But there’s also a growing understanding that physical activity that can be built in to everyday life can be as effective as supervised exercise programmes. And, as we reported last week, the health benefits of walking can be demonstrated in unexpected ways, such as the emergence of the Pokémon Go game as an incentive to exercise.

A recent report from the Arup design and engineering firm highlights that walking is good for cities as well as for people. It details more than 50 ways in which the world can benefit from walkable cities, including:

  • Social benefits – health and wellbeing, safety, placemaking, social cohesion and equality.
  • Economic benefits – city attractiveness, urban regeneration, cost savings.
  • Environmental benefits – addressing air and noise pollution, improving liveability and transport efficiency.
  • Political benefits – leadership, urban governance, sustainable development and planning opportunities.

Making walkable places

Another key theme of the Arup report was the importance of planning for pedestrians:

“If we want cities to be more walkable, the way we design cities has to change. Walkable places are more compact, dense with mixed uses. Streets have to be well connected with more shade from sun and rain, green spaces, trees and public spaces. And, we must pay more attention to the quality of public spaces, not just providing quantity of walkable space.” Joanna Rowelle, Director at Arup

The report lists 40 actions that city leaders can consider to inform walking policy, strategy and design. Among the ideas:

  • Temporarily removing cars from a city can transform roads into public spaces, raise awareness around car dependency, reduce air pollution, and reveal the potential opportunities created by having more – and safer – spaces for people.
  • Financial incentives and disincentives, including subsidies and taxes like congestion charges, can be used to encourage behaviour change.
  • Use of shared spaces to create a pedestrian-oriented environment where people are aware of fellow road users.
  • Unused infrastructure – such as New York City’s High Line – offers major opportunities for facilitating safe and attractive pedestrian routes and activity spaces.
  • Urban regeneration creates the opportunity to redevelop small pieces of land into pocket parks or public spaces with a green character.
  • Rivers and waterways can be transformed from barriers into walking and cycling routes by creating green and accommodating waterfronts.

Best foot forward?

Many of the suggestions in the Arup report are not hard to implement, and needn’t be costly. But even when schemes have been enacted, they may face opposition.

Each weekend, for the past seven years, a busy thoroughfare in Bucharest has been cleared to create Via Sport – a safe space for leisure and sport. This summer, the city’s new mayor claimed Via Sport has been causing traffic problems. The scheme has now been closed for the foreseeable future.

Old instincts die hard. Those rethinking patterns and processes of urban design to stimulate walking (and cycling) will face a few bumps in the road. But the potential rewards will be great. As David Sim of Gehl Architects observes:

“The key strategy is about getting people to actually spend time out on the street. They become a part of the space, familiar with their neighbours, and are in tune with city life.”


Our previous blog posts on urban planning for pedestrians and cyclists include: