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Building and Selling Community Identity

A recent article in Governing magazine examines the costs and benefits of municipal branding. The article highlights the work of a high-paid consultant that helps local governments develop slogans and campaigns to advertise those brands. The local governments profiled in the piece spend large amounts of public funds for these branding campaigns. Municipal branding proponents hold that their advertisement campaigns make communities more marketable. However, the campaigns are often based on carbon copy ideas of how to attract tourists and residents. Communities should spend their valuable resources on building local assets rather than on branding consultants.


Building Identities not Brands

Many of our successful communities have a trademark “feel” to them. When one visits Seattle, it is clear that he is in the land of Starbucks and Microsoft. Boston is known for its colonial heritage and institutions of higher learning. A resident of Savannah, Georgia can enjoy the community’s historic squares and antebellum buildings. A community’s identity is complex—the product of numerous economic, political, and social forces. But through their local development policies, communities can help build identity. In community development, we know what features help build identity. For example, amenities attract people to visit and live in communities. The urban researcher Edward Glaeser has constructed a wealth of scholarly studies demonstrating the magnetism of amenities. In one of these studies, Glaeser and his colleagues found that urban areas with high concentrations of urban amenities experienced greater population growth, compared to urban areas with lower levels of amenities. The City of San Antonio, Texas is a great example of the power of amenities in practice. The community has revitalized development along the San Antonio River by promoting the city’s river walk, which has served as an economic magnet of shops and restaurants.

Communities need a vision that makes them unique, gives them character, and increases their ability to attract potential visitors and residents. Branding is often when a community is told who they are by well-paid consultants. For instance, the Governing article details how a sleepy, fishing village in Alaska paid a consultant thousands of dollars to be told that it is… a sleepy, fishing village in Alaska. Those tax dollars would have been better spent on building local assets. Identity building is when a community develops strategies to build its assets and advertise them to potential visitors and residents. And many communities need help to maintain historical identity that improves development, as well as change their identity when development is hampered.

In the 1950s, Lexington, Kentucky, years before Portland, became the first city in America to implement urban growth boundary lines—a type of zoning that significantly restricts development in particular areas. What led a largely conservative city in a conservative state to adopt a zoning technique that is mostly associated with smart growth practices in Oregon? The community wanted to preserve its identity. Lexington’s large horse farms were being threatened by the prospect of sprawling suburban development.

Today, the city has consolidated with Fayette County and is split largely into two zones: an urban service boundary and a rural boundary. In the rural zone, the location of the city’s horse farms, industrial and commercial development is prohibited, and only limited residential development is allowed. Cookie-cutter subdivision development is not allowed. By using the power of zoning, the community has helped protect its identity, and it has also ensured the appearance of being a city where rural amenities are close-by. Robust comprehensive planning in conjunction with land-use tools are still used by the community to protect its identity and rural amenities. Also, the city has used its development tools to help build a multifaceted identity, including a mixed-use project in the community’s once thriving distillery district and a medical economy linked to the University of Kentucky.


Changing Identities

Local development policies can change a community’s identity. Walter Cronkite once referred to Chattanooga, Tennessee as “the dirtiest in America.” Today, the city has changed its image. Due to strong investments in information technology infrastructure, the community’s economy is creating well-paid jobs. This investment in local assets has paid off. Recently, CBS News reported that Chattanooga has the fastest Internet service in the nation—a powerful selling point to attract new businesses. Chattanooga’s identity now invokes images of economic success and creative class jobs, not dirty air.

Louisville, Kentucky has also reimagined its identity through local guidance. This revitalization has included amenity projects along the Ohio River and an urban bourbon trail. Both of these initiatives seek to take advantage of the community’s local assets, and the city’s strategies appear to be working. The travel magazine, Lonely Planet, named Louisville as its 2013 top travel destination in the United States. The magazine describes Louisville as the Portland of Kentucky. While not based on scientific methodology, Lonely Planet’s description of the city shows the power of local identity.


Selling Identities

Communities need to use local talent to build their identities and brand themselves. Amenities and infrastructure are key local talents. Developing a local identity based on amenities benefits both urban and rural communities. Similar to Glaeser’s work on urban communities, researchers have found that rural areas with more amenities have enjoyed higher levels of growth, compared to rural areas with fewer amenities. The notion that successful communities have character is self-evident. But many of our cities and counties are going about developing their identities in the wrong way. Outside consultants certainly have a role in development, especially in communities in need of novel ideas, but when it comes to developing and selling local identities, people in communities know best.


Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the department of government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be contacted via [email protected].

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