Urban Branding and the Violent Ghosts of the Politics of Representation
City branding is a relevant issue among urban policy makers. In a nutshell, it refers to the promotion of the image of a city, mostly in order to attract tourists, investments, mega-events, such as the Olympic games, and new wealthy residents, such as the members of the so-called ‘creative class’.1  The concept of ‘creative class’ has been introduced by Richard Florida in the very influential 2002 book: The Rise of the Creative Class. And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, Basic Books, New York. This commentary will summarize some ideas I am developing in order to analyze the politics of representation triggered by the common, and apparently banal, everyday practices of urban branding.2  I am currently writing a book specifically on these topics; the tentative title is City Branding, Urban Imaginaries and Ghosts: The Politics of Representation in Globalising Cities, and it will be (hopefully) published by Routledge in 2016. With this purpose in mind, the metaphor of the ghost (or the spectre: both terms will be used as synonyms) will be discussed and mobilized.
In synthesis, it has to be considered that city branding consists of building optimistic representations of a city by over-emphasising and highlighting particular elements, spaces, stories or peculiar characteristics deemed attractive, and those elements, spaces, subjects or specificities which are not are removed or made invisible. But this operation of removal (where ‘removal’ may be thought of as a metaphor of psychoanalytical nature) is not perfect and absolute: very often, something remains ‘in the air’, palpable but invisible, absent but still, in some ways, present. These spatial presences will be called ‘ghosts’. Arguably, playing with these ghosts may also be quite violent, because pushing places and subjects towards a condition of invisibility or quasi-invisibility means putting them in the margins, excluding them from the realm of the problems of the city, reducing their voices to silence.
The premise behind city branding is one of the features of neoliberalism, that most local governments have been made responsible for funding local development projects and for the provision of welfare services. Putting it differently, central states today generally provide little, if any, economic resources to cities, and urban managers have to constantly search for money in order to finance local services and urban renewal. In the current scenario of globalization, and specifically of global flows of money and people, this quest for economic resources leads to the well-known idea of growing competition between cities.3  A classic article in the field is D. Harvey (1989), “From managerialism to entrepreneurialism: the transformation in urban governance in late capitalism”, Geografiska Annaler, v. 71B, n. 1, pp. 3-17. Cities are consequently branded much like commodities whether in the brochures that can be found in tourist offices, or the websites of tour operators. The mediums are crowded with sunny images of well-known urban landscapes and landmarks, together with stereotypical slogans such as ‘the city of passion’, ‘the global city’, ‘the city of the future’, and so on. These slogans are often similar, or ever identical: for example, the slogan ‘the world in one city’ has been used in the last few years in at least five cities; London, Liverpool, Toronto, Hong Kong and Nusajaya (in Malaysia). Even more vaguely, the metaphor of the ‘Venice of the North’ has been associated to a large number of North European cities, such as Amsterdam, Birmingham, Bruges, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Saint Petersburg, Stockholm and Wrocław.
The premise behind the formulation of promotional slogans and the development of attractive images and logos is that locational strategies and spatial behaviours – primarily in the case of tourists, but also in the case of residents and even investors – are largely based on irrational choices, obscured desires, myths, imaginaries, and so on. For example, Paris is supposed to be a romantic place and hence an ideal urban destination for honeymoons, but there is hardly something objective behind that claim. In this scenario of perceived global competition, every city tries to claim its place in the global mindscape of people; that is to become an object of interest and desire for global urban consumers, investors and real estate developers. There are a number of methods to employ to achieve that goal. Urban branding is not just an exercise in the production of slogans and logos and in the removal of undesired presences: other ways to get in the global loop include building the highest and fanciest skyscrapers in the world, as it happened in Dubai, or Sydney hosts the Opera House,4  See for example L. Sklair (2010), “Iconic architecture and the culture-ideology of consumerism”, Theory, Culture & Society, v. 27, n. 5, pp. 135-159. an architectural masterpiece designed by a global archistar,5  It has however to be considered that, in a certain sense, signature buildings are also kind of logos, acting as emblems and symbols in order to support instant public recognition. or by having the biggest religious building in the region such as in Yamoussoukro.6  A short description of the case is proposed in U. Rossi and A. Vanolo (2012), Urban Political Geographies. A Global Perspective, Sage, London.
There are a number of issues of great interest connected to urban branding. Scholars have investigated the logic behind the promotional strategies followed by cities; the global convergence of urban images and urban development paths (that is city centres, shopping malls and urban brands increasingly seem to look always the same); the neoliberal political culture behind urban branding; the commodification of city life and urban cultures in general; the credibility or the lack of credibility of the messages and images convoyed in branding materials; and the uneven social outcomes connected to the beautification of cities, which seem to produce spaces that ever more target the needs and desires of the medium and upper classes, and exclude the poor.
As anticipated, in this commentary one perspective is in focus, that is the issue of visibility and invisibility (and the in-between, ghostly semi-transparency) and the forms of violence involved in the production of optimistic representations of cities. Specifically, by introducing the metaphor of the spectre, one suggests that city branding may be imagined as an art, which implies playing with and managing ghosts.
The metaphor of the spectre is known to critical theory, most notably through the work of Jacques Derrida, whose later publications included Spectres de Marx.7  J. Derrida (1993), Spectres de Marx, Galileé, Paris; English edition Specters of Marx, Routledge, London, 1994. In the perspective of this reflection on city branding, the peculiarity of the spectre refers to its ambiguous aesthetical status. It is both visible and invisible, it exists in-between life and death, it is a sort of absent presence, and it imposes uneven gazes and perspectives, as it may watch or concern us without possible reciprocity, because although we can see spectres, we arguably do not see them as they see us. Spectres coexist with us. Think about the landscape of abandonment generated by capital when it moves away from a city, for example, when manufacturing activities are no longer profitable and factories move further afield where low-cost labour or other economic advantages can be exploited. The landscape that is degenerated when money leaves the city is definitely ghostly. Abandoned housing estates, railways and cinemas have sensorial, half-recognizable and imaginary qualities, which acquire an ambiguous status between presence and absence.8  A key author who developed this perspective is Tim Edensor; see particularly his 2008 article “Mundane hauntings: commuting through the phantasmagoric working-class spaces of Manchester, England”, Cultural Geographies, 15, 313-333.
This kind of ghostly status, in-between visibility and invisibility, or absence and presence, is palpable in many city branding representations. It seems obvious that the construction of an optimistic and promotional image of a place does not mean inventing from an advertisement from first principals. In order to be attractive, the brands have to be somehow credible and compatible with the actually existing conventional wisdoms concerning a place. In this sense, the development of a brand usually starts from the elaboration and development of ideas from of well-known symbols or stereotypes concerning the city. City branding may be hence imagined as an exercise of selective story-telling.9  The expression ‘selective story-telling’ has been used in L. Sandercock (2003), Cosmopolis II. Mongrel Cities for the 21st Century, Continuum, London. Certain landscapes, subjects, elements, spaces, discourses, facts, ideas and stereotypes are labelled, highlighted and over-emphasized, while others are simply made invisible. Put in another way, everything that may be attractive to a certain audience – for example wealthy tourists, transnational capitalists, multinational enterprise – lies within the frame of the promotional picture of the city. Everything that is not attractive or, more generally, everything that is ‘out of place’ becomes invisible. It disappears from the represented and projected ‘sense of place’, and this operation may of course provoke forms of social, physical and urban marginality which are ultimately violent, such as in the case where homeless and the poor are physically removed from city centres (using different means, including specific techniques of policing and surveillance) in order to ‘normalize’ and ‘beautify’ trendy neighbourhoods.
Consider, among the many possible examples, the case of Johannesburg, a city located in a country often associated with issues – real or imagined, it is irrelevant in this case – of insecurity and socio-spatial segregation and above all with the legacies of the apartheid regime. It is not a coincidence that most of the international films set in the city tell stories directly or indirectly connected to the apartheid, such as the curious science-fiction film ‘District 9’. 10  “District 9” (directed by Neill Blomkamp in 2009) http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/district9 (last accessed 28 December 2015).Given this well-known situation, the city branding campaign started in 2001 aimed, first of all, at hindering these negative associations in order to develop alternative imaginaries, particularly with the aim to represent the city as a global economic and financial hub. The designation of South Africa as host country of the 2010 football World Cup offered good opportunities. In order to take distance from its old heritage the city has been unofficially renamed ‘Jo’burg’, an expression already used as a colloquial appellation. Towers and vertical structures are commonly perceived as symbols of power, modernity and success and thus the Hillbrow Tower was chosen as the main symbol and landmark of the city and is stylistically portrayed in the city logo. The logo also displays a golden point, evoking the ancient connection of the city with gold mining: gold is surely a symbol evoking positive mental associations, although the same cannot be said for mining. Finally, in promotional materials, the problem of the racial conflicts has been somehow subverted by mobilizing the idea of cosmopolitanism, a keyword that evokes positive contact with different people, urban cultures, foods, fashions and so on.
The branding of the South African city may be imagined as a spectral play. Some elements of the well-known identity of Johannesburg are definitely ghostly, which in this case means invisible, and palpable at the same time. In fact, a number of people arguably still associate the city with ideas of racism, insecurity and crime. Despite the absence of these elements they are still present bound in a temporal flux of the past, present, and future. It has to be considered that social, affective and cultural relations are enacted not only around what is present, but also around what is not: humans die but do not fully disappear; things and histories are destroyed and dispersed but may persist in a number of forms, including traces, fragments and memories.
It is a dangerous idea to place emphasis on cities that do not have a singular and well-defined identity and treat them as though they did, as it may easily lead to conservative or even xenophobic attitudes. Identities are subjective, multiple and always in-becoming: even when a place is physically amplified, social and subjective perceptions change with time; symbols communicate different things and have a variety of meanings to people. Johannesburg may be a place of political activism for someone, a place for shopping for a tourist, a place of memory and sufferance for someone else and a place of love and emancipation for another.
The point is that the over-simplified, univocal and hegemonic representations at the basis of city branding leave little room for pluralism, reflexivity and multiple gazes.
Rather, they seek to impose a dichotomist dialectic of visibility and invisibility, celebrating some elements and removing others. It is, however, impossible to remove all unwanted urban presences and hence the production of ghosts.
It be should considered that the kind of ghosts summoned through city branding rituals are not necessarily peaceful; they are most probably violent, at least for some marginalized subjects. The representation of Johannesburg as a cosmopolitan city may be harmful for those who have suffered or still suffer from ethnic marginalization. The representation of a city as a vibrant hub of the new global economy may be violent for the unemployed, those fired from factories striving to find a job because their skills are no longer needed on the market. As a matter of fact, the representation of a city as a global hub brings with it specific gazes upon problems and solutions. Urban problems, as a simplified example, such as poverty or urban decay may become invisible issues, or barely visible problems (ghosts) attributed to the ‘lack’ of those elements which are the basis of the mainstream narrative, that is, the one of the global city. These can be elements such as airway connections, vibrant creative spaces, high-speed free wireless connections, instead of more banal interventions such as public hospitals and kindergartens, which are abruptly moved to the bottom of the urban political agenda. In fact, ghostly presences and absences are also scary: urban managers are evidently scared that some invisible spectres may suddenly become visible and tangible, obstructing their plans to sell the city.
Secondly, these representations imply the imposition of a certain way of thinking about the place where the inhabitants live, an aggressive idea that pushes some subjects ‘out of place’. For example, there is generally little room for the poor, the illiterate or the elderly in representations of ‘cultural cities’, ‘creative cities’ or ‘smart cities’. But of course the boundary separating the desired and undesired presences is not univocal and clear and many interesting counter-examples may be proposed: Florida, for example, has been promoted as an ideal place for the elderly,11  Schwarzenegger: Florida known for ‘old people’, NBC News, 2/3/2010 (last accessed 28 December 2015). and Sun City, near Phoenix in Arizona, is supposed to be a community just for the retired.12  Sun City Arizona (last accessed 28 December 2015). It is curious to notice that the promotional website patently targets old people, particularly by representing white, dynamic, well dressed and still attractive men and women, but in the promotional texts there is basically no use of keywords such as ‘old’ and ‘retired’. Put it simply, branding is social and political.
The point of these reflections is not necessarily to argue that city branding is evil. For example, it is possible for city branding to nurture a sense of community and pride among its inhabitants. It may help to foster economic prosperity and ultimately a more socially balanced local society.
The main idea is that there is nothing strictly technical in urban branding: it is a political tool and can be a violent political weapon in extreme cases.
Of course, we are mostly referring here to symbolic violence, but it should not be underestimated: symbolic and virtual elements, such as discourses and representations, may have real and meaningful effects and hence turn quickly into more tangible forms of violence. As discussed, the way cities are represented, and specifically the ways in which hybrid boundaries between the visible and the invisible are built, determines the ways in which problems, resources, priorities and goals are framed. Another reference are projects aimed at representing cities such as Rio de Janeiro or Beijing as rising global cities. Their hosting of sporting mega-events has produced discursive outcomes and very physical forms of violence connected to the displacement of the poor in order to free up space for the construction of new urban structures and infrastructure, the policing of supposedly insecure areas and the strict regulation of economic activities in the areas of these cities more explicitly devoted to tourism and global businesses. These violent forms of removal have been far from merely symbolic.
If we assume that the common practice of building promotional representations of our cities has a meaningful political dimension, then we should seriously think about our right to have a voice in city branding.13  This idea of a ‘right to brand’ strongly echoes the popular concept of the ‘right to the city’ introduced by Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book Le droit à la ville, Anthropos, Paris; English translation published in Writing on Cities, Blackwell, Oxford, 1996. In fact, since branding essentially modifies the place in which we live – on both symbolic and material levels – it hence influences the relationships we develop in our daily life; with the built environment, people, ourselves and our subjective identities. It is definitely too delicate an issue to leave fully in the hands of private marketing consultants. The empowerment of people with respect to place branding may take form through a variety of processes, including public participation, the subjectification of the inhabitants as stakeholders and active actors in the production of city images, or the promotion of branding processes fostering the inclusion of multiple (and even divergent) voices. There is not a single strategy, but there is surely the need to seriously think about the power of city images and the role of the inhabitants in forging and living place brands. We run the risk of being turned into ghosts if, or when, we are not desirable in marketing terms.