After reading how a local developer had imparted the name “Lower East Side” to a stretch of east-end Queen street here in Toronto, I quickly realized that more and more the naming and branding of the City’s neighbourhoods has fallen into the hands of the real-estate developers and the snazzy creative agencies hired to provide a desirable context for their projects (interestingly, this is not a new phenomenon. Developers named Parkdale in the 1800s). Without pontificating too much about the implications of this, it does highlight that the use of place branding, that is an attempt at communicating a compelling and concerted story about a place, is now being applied to our neighbourhoods.
Should this be something we entrust to developers (no doubt important actors in city building)? Rhetorical questions aside, place branding is a great tool for our neighbourhoods. Sure, it’s important that cities have a strong brand but in this, so called, great competition amongst cities of the world to attract investment, talent, tourists and residents- neighbourhoods is where all of it will eventually end up and a great narrative can have a magnetic effect. Problem is, who’s navigating the ship and for whom? There is blatant inequality amongst Business Improvement Areas, cities should probably focus on the bigger picture, councillors often represent multiple neighbourhoods and other resident and business associations are too grassroots and wouldn’t likely have the budget to hire the right team.
So, with all that being said, it’s fair game for developers looking to give their developments a little more oomph! Nowadays, liveability ranks high and neighbourhoods are a big part of that discourse. However, if done properly, a strong place brand is crafted bottom up, engaging multiple stakeholders and, most importantly, conveys sincerity about a place. If developers are willing to go through that process and are willing to put up the money to do so, great! If not, our city will end up pocked with unimaginative and copycat neighbourhoods with fancy acronyms and all. So it’s all smoke and mirrors right now. Trendy names and swanky (read expensive) logos generally don’t have much staying power, let’s hope!