Ideas, Insights and Rambles.

A blog by Lindsey Fair


Growth Coalition vs the Commons: Who owns the city brand?

A picture’s worth a thousand words – Part 3 Methodology & Introduction to this Series >>

Place-branding is a concept that has a long history in the making of small-town settler Canada and the US. Investors in these towns embraced place branding in the late 19th and early 20th century as a way of attracting new colonial settlers to their towns with the aim of driving up land and real estate prices. The practice was particularly popular in the white settlement of the west. Its rise coincided with the rise of a more interventionist state, colonial planning practices, and the popularization of boosterism in an attempt to attract settlers. Boosterism was a form of place-branding popular in small towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was a time when many civic boosters used advertising to make exaggerated claims on how great their cities were to attract new investment. Civic “boosterism” took many forms throughout the twentieth century (Anholt, 2010). By the 1970s, boosterism was revived once again in the form of what David Harvey (1989) referred to as "entrepreneurial urbanism[1]", a practice embraced by many civic leaders during the 1970s when deindustrialization increased and inter-urban competitiveness heightened for business property tax dollars (Jonas, McCann & Thomas, 2015; Proctor & Matuszeski, 1978). Many urban actors were involved in the economic promotion of cities – from business leaders to government actors to newspaper barons. In an effort to capture the increasingly sophisticated nature of the coalition of actors involved in promoting growth in a city, Spain, Logan and Molotch (1988) conducted a groundbreaking study on “growth-machines”. Growth machines were a compilation of place-based urban actors who would otherwise have disparate interests but often came together to promote growth because of the structured realities of how North American cities were financed and governed. They argued effective promotion of a city (as though the city is a commodity and to be marketed as such) is thought to achieve a desirable development path for growth-machine coalitions – high wages, good jobs, labour attraction, tourism and industry investment (Florida et al., 2017; Harvey, 1989; Jonas et al., 2015; Sheppard, 2016). By using marketing approaches, growth coalitions often aspired to address urban planning problems to increase living standards for residents, and at the same time, enhance the city's character, relevancy and reputation in efforts to overcome inter-firm and inter-region competition (Ashworth et al., 1990; Briciu, 2020; Harvey, 1989; Kavaratzis, 2004). However, many cities' promotional initiatives actually went little beyond creating a vague awareness of place and produced an over-bearing sameness from city to city and were often contested by their residents (Ashworth et al., 1990; Zukin, 2011). Anholt (2006) suggests that city brand managers have become “confused about the distinction between the city’s outward signs such as slogans and logos and the complex underlying strategy and long-term behavioural change which ought to underpin such ephemera." In other words, brand managers and growth coalitions have neglected to look at what makes their city, community, truly unique, embodied and performed and have diminishing credibility because they are no longer connected to their local identities (Vanolo, 2015).

What is missing from the current literature is the intra-urban approaches to place branding. Neighbourhoods that can offer opportunities for cultural consumption, or at least can appear to through digital imagery and symbolic and social reproduction, become or can become marketable brands directly through a bricolage of what the next generation wants (Harvey, 1989; Nayak & Jeffrey, 2013; Zukin, 2011). Social disintegration occurs at the neighbourhood level where social systems and social capital are rooted, in part when collective efficacy is eroded due to such issues as declining or lacking social interactions or communication (Sørensen, T, Kleiner, R, Ngo, P, Sørensen, A & Bøe, N, 2013), it stems from disasters, poverty, cultural conflict, extensive transient mobility, exclusions from consumer lifestyles and other aspects of cultural exchange, and unemployment. When considering how a neighbourhood contributes to the local or city-brand, one must consider the level of social disintegration, the local actors, the networks and the social structure (Putnam, 2001). Traditional actors of place branding include the growth coalition of business associations, private corporations and government working together; however, there is a growing need to consider new actors contributing to the urban imaginary – residents and visitors. People experience the city at the street-level in real-time more than ever in our hyper-connected world (Jacobs, 1969).

So who owns the brand today? Well, that's a big question and this is a blog. So let's just keep it light and look at who owns the brand as told through Google Images.

By sheer numbers media wins the race with realtors next in line. And these two make up the top two sources for 2 of the 3 neighbourhoods as well, McBurney being the exception with a huge landslide for Media with subject-specific websites in number

two (I'll explain what those are in a second). Media is in the top two of all, but not for the city. Why not for the city you ask? It goes back to the last blogpost, the City is focused on outside investment, and in particular in tourism investment, whereas the media here is more inward-focused, what's happening within the city (crime, gentrification, local politics, e.g.).

If we separate those into the two buckets: growth machine coalition vs the Commons. It seems that the growth coalition wins. Government, commerce, realtors, tourism promotion are all clearly part of the coalition. Residents and neighbourhood associations on the Commons side. Social media has representation and potential from both sides, but on closer inspection, about 60% of the posts on social media reported here are from growth coalition members. Subject-specific websites are those sites that promote a single topic - marinas to use, tourism promotion sites such as Travelocity, history of my neighbourhood sites. Again, there is potential here for these to include strong representation from the Commons but in reality, about 80% are from the growth coalition camp.

If we look at it from the other side though, it's interesting that residents contribute to tourist attraction as well, in fact, it's one of their top themes. It seems everyone is supporting tourism growth?

Governments do tend to partake in 'greenscaping' but then again so does everyone else based on the trends above, well everyone minus realtors - they tend to focus on the house itself not the parks nearby - at least when it comes to the photo.

And one last observation, as much as people often lack trust in governments and media, this shows that the highest image to text dissonance is with realtors - never trust what your realtors showing you is the moral of the Google Images story as far as I can tell. Some of their images weren't even from Kingston, let alone the neighbourhood they were talking about.

I just scratched the surface here, there are so many more observations that could be made, but besides don't trust a realtor, even though digital and new media has the potential to help with right to the city movements, right now the balance of owning the brand message stills seems to be weighing heavily on the growth machine side... for now.

[1] Entrepreneurial City was a term given to cities by Harvey (1989b) operating in ways similar to the private sector by taking more risks and being driven by profit and therefore a reliance on promotion in support of profit.

Next up in the Series

  1. The neighbourhoods: Williamsville, McBurney, Portsmouth.

  2. A student town: No one would know.

  3. Changing the brand – where to start by looking at image sentiment.


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Anholt, S. (2010). Definitions of place branding-working towards a resolution. Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 6(1), 1–10.

Ashworth, G. J., & Voogd, H. (1990). Selling the City: Marketing approaches in public sector urban planning. Belhaven Press.

Briciu, V. A., Rezeanu, C. I., & Briciu, A. (2020). Online place branding: Is geography “destiny” in a ’space of flows’world? Sustainability (Switzerland), 12(10).

Florida, R., Adler, P., & Mellander, C. (2017). The city as innovation machine. Regional Studies, 51(1), 86–96.

Harvey, D. (1989). The condition of postmodernity (Oxford (ed.); Vol. 14). Blackwell Publishers.

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Nayak, A., & Jeffrey, A. (2013). Geographical thought: An introduction to ideas in Human Geography. In Geographical Thought: An Introduction to Ideas in Human Geography.

Spain, D., Logan, J. R., & Molotch, H. L. (1988). Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. Social Forces.

Procter, M., & Matuszeski, W. (n.d.). Gritty cities.

Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster.

Sheppard, E. (2016). Limits of Globalization: The Disruptive Geographies of Capitalist Development. In Limits to Globalization (pp. 583–605).

Sørensen, T., Kleiner, R., Ngo, P., Sørensen, A., & Bøe, N. (2013). From Sociocultural Disintegration to Community Connectedness Dimensions of Local Community Concepts and Their Effects on Psychological Health of Its Residents. Psychiatry Journal.

Vanolo, A. (2015). The image of the creative city, eight years later: Turin, urban branding and the economic crisis taboo. Cities, 46, 1–7.

Zukin, S. (2011). Naked city. the death and life of authentic urban places. Oxford University Press.

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© 2020 by Lindsey Fair