Place branding. Being intentional about what physical space is for, and for whom.

Emerging from COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures, we are seeing the places we inhabit anew. Whether reimaging the purpose of office space, or reclaiming golf courses as community space.

Spending so much time indoors made us appreciate the functional aspects of our private spaces. When we emerged for our ration of public space, we got to know the walking tracks and parks in detail – and meet new people from the neighbourhood, connecting over shared experience, finding solidarity.

With good reason, ‘intentionality’ seems to be the buzzword of 2022. We’re asking ourselves, ‘what is space for’? And being much more intentional about the time we afford activities at home, in the office and in the neighbourhood.

That’s a fantastic opportunity for community organisations, local and state governments, and private organisations that own space. Now is the time to engage community members, employees, and customers on the subject of place, to develop place branding.

Perceptions of place

We have strong opinions about places.

Some of them, like famous cities, we have never been to. Those perceptions are formed from popular cultural references, the opinions of friends, and marketing activities. We might associate those places with ‘landmark’ buildings, natural landscapes, or famous faces.

In our place identity work for Fed Square, Melbourne’s most prominent public space, research participants living interstate held strong views about the square despite never having visited it. Their associations were shaped by media coverage of major events, architectural taste and activities known to be hosted by tenants. They shared these opinions with friends, spreading and entrenching views that were not based on experience.

Perceptions of other places we have intimate familiarity with –  like a local cultural venue, sports ground or hospital – are formed by the people we see and speak to, the smells and sounds, the environments we walk through and sit within, and the transactions we make.

Despite actual familiarity, we feel the potential of place: what we can expect from it now, and in the future. And, place is defined by physical and social/cultural attributes, projected or known.

Being intentional about place

An important question an administrator of space should always ask is, ‘who is deciding perceptions and use of space, and are they aligned with the organisation’s strategy?’

Often, public and private space managers do not have a comprehensive definition of what they want a place to be for and achieve: what we call a ‘future state map’. That future state should define the:

  • Different groups of people who will inhabit the place, and the dynamics between them.
  • Physical attributes the place will be recognised by (both the intrinsic, and standout features)
  • The uses of the space, and the energy those uses project and create (for examples, convivial, peaceful or energetic)
  • Fundamental requirements now and in the future as communities grow and change

Playing into this, are factors such as the perceptions about the place, the extent to which long-term users would welcome change and define the place by its history, and economic constraints related to maintenance and capital works.

Once a future state is defined, activities can be roadmapped, and a strategy and plan developed.

Realising human potential related to place

Place identity development is transformative.

The journey of user engagement and community co-design always surfaces many a-ha moments, as well as some important issues to address (and how to address them).

Place activation workshops using creative, collaborative design thinking techniques produce a great range of gentle and bold ideas that can be further developed over time.

Activation also considers how place identity can transcend real and virtual worlds, with similar and distinct experiences that are still ‘on brand’. An organisation in control of its destiny is one that attracts attention, support and investment.

Perceptions of the place become controlled as the story of its future is communicated. That story motivates users and visitors to think differently about the place, speak differently to others, and behave differently when in it.

It also attracts partnerships more aligned with new and intended activity, including funding for new programs, technology and building features. Measurable economic and social value is created as a collaboration between social entrepreneurs, artists and workers happens incidentally or via structured programming.

Great examples of place identity and activation are Ellis Jones’ work with Abbotsford Convent and Ainslie & Gorman Arts Centres (managed by Arts Capital).

In both cases visionary leaders saw the potential of place, sought a means to define and communicate it, and embed it at the core of strategic planning.

People care deeply about the places they inhabit. Complex uses of space meant competing priorities could sometimes be a source of tension or conflict – between tenants, regular users, and visitors with diverse needs and preferences as well as municipal and state planning bodies.

The place branding process facilitated shared perspectives, established points of mutual benefit, and united participants behind a compelling vision.

The place brand also informs strategy and engagement with government and philanthropic funding bodies, securing a future for the organisation and, more importantly, the users (and voting public) it serves.

Who and how can place branding help?

Do any of these descriptions fit the organisation you work for? If so, get started with a workshop to explore the potential of place identity strategy and branding.

  • National governments developing a new identity for investment, tourism and education attraction campaigns.
  • State and regional governments reimagining the potential of capital and satellite cities, and suburban centres, in response to population growth and demographic shifts.
  • Major public institutions and authorities engaged in prominent public square and garden/park design, development and evolution.
  • Local governments managing public spaces with mixed uses including libraries, galleries, sporting complexes, local parks and community centres.
  • Property developers, landscape designers and land development consultants developing residential and commercial space that supports thriving communities with a product designed for and with the customer.
  • Hospitals, retirement living, and aged care providers creating spaces that support health and wellbeing.

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