Monday, May 28, 2012

Can destination character be designed when you're planning a new city?

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Suzhou China
SUZHOU » one of over 100 new Chinese cities now being built or planned 

I was recently asked this question by a planner when I spent some time in China.  His interest stemmed from a long line-up of master plans he was responsible for delivering, all for new cities.   He pointed out that it’s challenging enough to create a destination character for an existing city, let alone for a city of several million that hasn’t even been built yet.

This question thrilled me for two reasons: firstly, destination character is often overlooked by clients (and quite often their planners) in rapidly developing countries like China.  And secondly, when destination character is a consideration, it’s usually code for “design for me a new industrial / tourism / technology city that is progressive like other world-class cities.”  Although I understand the desire to be progressive, this only skims the surface of what destination character can deliver.

I believe that for a new city to take off and compete with other cities it has to be more than just modern – it needs to have a distinctive character unlike no other.  This should be encapsulated in the destination brand - designed at the beginning, and not at the end, of the master planning process.   And so my response to the question was that not only is it possible to design destination character for a new, unplanned city, but the fact that a city isn’t yet developed provides an enormous opportunity – to create your new destination brand from scratch, and to incorporate the brand into every design aspect of the master plan. 

Whilst there are many components to a destination brand (see the Gold Coast brand summary below as an example), there are two aspects of destination branding that I think have particular relevance to planners – Destination Personality and Destination Experiences.

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Gold_Coast

Destination Personality

If you want to be noticed at a dinner party, you need to have a distinctive personality.  People will be captivated by your colourful stories, your style, your attitude, and behavioural nuances.  Likewise, a city that wants to attract attention needs to have its own charming personality that sets it apart from other destinations.  Although destination character develops over time, a branding expert can help develop an appropriate personality from the outset which planners can incorporate into design aspects such as landuse mix, choice of recreational uses, signage, transportation modes, methods of activating open spaces etc.   Consider, for example, the differences between two iconic cities with completely different personalities – New York and Paris.
  • New York: exciting, provocative, slightly neurotic
  • Paris: romantic, stylish, authentic

Both cities share similar functional attributes, but the delivery of these functions reflects their opposing personalities.

Destination Experiences

Although a new city might have a functional theme based on a key economic driver (e.g. technology, industrial park, tourism etc), as planners we need to remember that it’s not what jobs people do in that city that define the destination character, it’s how people live their lives and how they interact with the city, and with each other.  Imagine you’re thinking of relocating to a new city.  Apart from the functional reasons of, say, a job offer, what are the key deciding factors?  More often than not, it’s considerations like:
  •  Are there enough things to see and do / places to visit in my spare time?
  • Are there many opportunities for making new friends?
  • Will I find enough interesting places to spend time with my friends or family?

As planners, we have enormous opportunities to creatively inject the destination brand personality into each of these touch points, so that the collective experiences of the city’s residents and visitors are reflective of a city with a compelling, exciting and distinctive personality.

To illustrate how the brand personality and destination experience can be delivered through specific design features, I’d like to showcase three examples which I’ll share over the next few blog posts.  The first example is outlined below.

Case study #1: GEELONG, Victoria, Australia

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Geelong

Description: Heritage seaside port town, known for being home to car manufacturer Ford Australia and also the Geelong Football Club, nicknamed The Cats.

Destination personality: Optimistic, relaxed, proud, unpretentious

Iconic destination experiences:  Geelong is popular for its historic foreshore.   Tourist and recreational facilities are clustered along the Waterfront Geelong (revitalisation project during the 1990s), and include: The Baywalk Bollards | Yarra Street Pier | Cunningham Pier | Steampacket Quay | the Carousel Pavilion | The Royal Geelong Yacht Club | popular swimming and recreation area at Eastern Beach.

Distinctive design features that reflect the destination personality:  What sets Geelong apart from other heritage seaside towns is not just the concentration of recreational foreshore facilities, but most notably, the famous local installation art known as the Baywalk Bollards.  Created by local artist Jan Mitchell in the mid 1990s, this themed series features over 100 colourfully-painted sculptures depicting famous local characters and events.   The bollards are cleverly sited in the most unexpected of places all along the waterfront, and are a highly visual medium for telling the story of Geelong.  Locals proudly identify with the artwork, and visitors are fascinated by these characters and the stories behind them.  Each piece is sculpted from huge wooden pylons, many recovered from the Yarra Street Pier which was destroyed by fire in the 1980’s and later removed.  

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Geelong

Some of the memorable historic characters featured include former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, explorer Mathew Flinders overlooking the bay he discovered in 1802, the historic Geelong Footballer near the old Hi-Lite Park site and various sea captains and the rustic fisherman at Fisherman’s Pier.

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Geelong

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Geelong

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Geelong

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Geelong

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Geelong

destination_development destination_branding destination_character Geelong

The popularity of this installation art series is a testament to the distinctive destination character of Geelong – a city that is optimistic, relaxed, proud, and unpretentious.

This is the first of a three-part blog, with two more posts to uploaded over the coming weeks.  Click on any of the “subscribe” links if you’d like to be informed of when the next post is uploaded.

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