With London’s population set to top 8.6 million this year, overtaking the previous record set in 1939, there’s been heightened debate on the big challenges for housing, education and transport in the capital.
But relatively little discussion has focused on the crucial matter of how we help Londoners to connect with and develop a sense of belonging in this increasingly overwhelming city.
Most, if not all, major urban areas around the world face this same challenge. As our cities grow faster, bigger, wider, taller we are all being dwarfed. In 2011, there were 23 urban agglomerations across the world that qualified as megacities, with populations exceeding 10m inhabitants. That figure is likely to increase to 37 by 2025.
To meet this unprecedented urban growth, huge developments are springing up, from East London to Lagos in Nigeria. These overwhelming, faceless canyons of concrete often dwarf what we are used to, a sense of human scale, further compounding our urban alienation.
So how can London tackle this growing issue? The answer is to break these architectural jungles down to a scale that we can relate to and navigate the city by. There is growing demand for a more profound sense of territorialism in our urban environments, a new age of tribalism if you like. And in order to meet that challenge we must create stronger and more distinctive regions, territories, places, districts, boroughs and landmarks.
The rate of growth we’re experiencing is increasingly outstripping our ability to organically develop this local sense of identity. So, a more robust and civic approach is needed - here’s where the ancient art of place branding can play a crucial role.
Communities are often suspicious of attempts to rebrand neighbourhoods or boroughs, with some seeing it as cynical ploys by developers or estate agents to drive up the price and rental value of property. But place branding doesn’t have to be led by corporate aspirations alone. It can serve an important purpose for creating a distinctive local character that benefits both citizens and businesses alike.
And developing these local brands can go far beyond simply giving them a new logo or slogan. What really differentiates a place are the subtle urban details we notice as we walk along the streets: the benches we pass, the street lamps or directional signage. A strategy for creating and promoting a local icon can also be instrumental in securing long term success for a neighbourhood, something Borough is finding with its increasingly popular and globally recognised eponymous market.
Over time, these tangible elements become synonymous with a place and help to differentiate it.
And if it’s done in a thoughtful way, that recognises the provenance of an area, the design can blend with and ultimately enhance the organic character. It could be that the brands are co-created with the residents in order to get both local insights and buy-in.
New York is often held up as a leader in the field of district branding; most people in the world will be familiar with Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and East Village. Soho, probably Manhattan’s most fashionable area, was once called Hell’s Hundred Acres because of its sweatshops and history of fires. To counter this reputation, the area was gradually rebranded from 1962 to become the Soho it is today, an abbreviation of South Houston. Along with London’s Soho, it’s probably one of the most recognisable city neighbourhoods in the world today.
Another city renowned for the character and vibrancy of its districts is Barcelona. From the old charm of El Gotico (the Gothic Quarter) to the bohemian cool of Gracia, the city has more than its fair share of cool neighbourhoods. Even the once infamous inner city district, El Raval, is managing to create a distinctive identity with a rebrand designed to encourage local pride and attract tourists.
As London prepares to join the ranks of the megacities by the middle of this century, it’s crucial the city works to create an environment where citizens can feel a strong sense of urban connection and belonging. In the 21st century race to attract the best global talent, a strategy that recognises the importance of strong and distinctive boroughs and neighbourhoods should be front and centre of any long term city development plan.