(Still) Made Here: Eco and Ethics

More and more of the world's consumers are moving to cities in what is now being called -- by everyone including your grandma -- the "Urban Age," concentrating buying power at an unprecedented scale. As this process takes place, one of the great challenges that central cities face is how to market themselves. Die-hard urbanites and suburbanites aside, what can make the difference between city and suburb for many consumers looking to rent or buy a home in hyper-mobile metropolitan regions is the perceived "authenticity" of a neighborhood. This term means different things to different people, but in this case it usually refers to a high level of historic building stock, independent business, quality public space -- factors that create that ephemeral phenomenon we call "a sense of place."

Over at Trendwatching.com, the new buzz phrase for June is "(Still) Made Here." This most recent report (from one of the coolest sites on the web) describes "the comeback of all things local, all things with a sense of place, and how they're surfacing in a world dominated by globalization." The editors of Trendwatching (TW) break this economic phenomemon down into three parts; this week, I'll take a look at how each of these applies to city neighborhoods and the cultivation of authenticity.

The first of (Still) Made Here's subtrends is Eco and Ethics. The report cautions entrepreneurs to "expect consumers' desire to find out about the origins of a product to become a given." While TW's examples deal mainly with small-scale products -- especially food and clothing -- the concept can be used to market places as well. Life-story labels are the most visible manifestation of this movement, as they provide consumers with the backstory of how and where a product was produced, and how it got to the point of sale. In neighborhoods, then, the question becomes: how do we tell the story of a place in a highly visible and easily accessible way?

Many cities have already begun the process of branding their neighborhoods. Streetlight banners (like the one pictured above) have practically become a requirement for revitalization efforts. Some neighborhoods even have slick websites put together by merchants' groups or neighborhood associations. Neighborhoods in cities all over the world have succeeded in building reputations as attractive, livable places; but, when renewal and growth are based purely on economics, neighborhoods are highly succeptible to fads and changes in public opinion. Life-story lableling for places, then, is one way to increase brand longevity. This type of marketing maneuver could be achieved in a number of ways, from websites to community bulletin boards and everywhere in between. The most important part of the process, though, is to organize and present the neighborhood's history in a way that distinguishes the place as authentic and unique.

I have read, in the past, about suburban "town centers" (that even ickier name for lifestyle center malls) that fabricate entire backstories to create a sense of history (or, depending on your perspective, to justify historicist architecture.) Urban neighborhoods have a leg up on these places in that history is often a major factor in determining the authenticity of a place, and many cities are already bursting with it. This leads us to the concept of what TW calls "taking back production." Cities are incredibly vital, living things. They are constantly changing, so the marketing of a specific neighborhood must be a careful balancing act, promoting the history of a place while allowing the community that inhabits it to continue evolving in a way that encourages that urban dynamism. The only people that can properly brand and market a neighborhood, then, are the people who live there.

Neighborhood promotion has the potential to become a major asset-building operation as a way of bringing new people and investment to a place. More importantly, it has the ability to greatly increase community cohesion and cooperation at the same time (which, in an upward cycle, could also become part of the draw of the neighborhood.) Not only would the process of organizing a neighborhood history require neighbors to get together to share stories and skills, it would also get people thinking about the place that they live in different ways. It would put the public realm into very sharp perspective and, hopefully, draw communities together with the common goal of making their neighborhoods healthier, happier, more livable places to...well...live.

So how can all of this be achieved, in a practical sense? Even if a neighborhood's history and community are eloquently and concisely presented on a website, how does this translate to the physical landscape? Markers for local landmarks? Posters on lightpoles? Sidewalk chalking? These all seem like tired ideas, I know. What are some more innovative ways that a neighborhood could get the word out? I know this blog's readership is still small, but speak up! What are your ideas?

(Photo from Flickr user ashleyniblock.)

(Still) Made Here (Trendwatching.com)

Part II: Story and Status

Part III: Support

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