Interview with Greg Clark on City Branding and Urban Development: Challenges and Opportunities

Professor Greg Clark CBE in this interview shares insights from his distinguished career as author, speaker and advisor on urban development and city branding. His passion for cities and urban life has taken Greg around the world, as observer, analyst and consultant.

Every year we honor one professional whose deep understanding of place branding as a strategic measure, combined with a distinguished career and hands-on experience, has significantly helped move the discipline forward. Last year it was Bill Baker. Greg Clark is our choice this year. May free access to this interview benefit your city and inspire you.

Learn about:

  • What fascinates Greg Clark about cities;
  • Key factors for city competitiveness;
  • The ‘DNA’ of cities, and ‘location genetics’;
  • Key trends and challenges affecting city branding;
  • The emergence of cause-related city branding;
  • How branding can play a key role in the sustainable development of cities;
  • Best ways to measure city branding success.

Greg, how did you first become interested in cities and metropolitan development? What sparked your interest?

I grew up in London in the 1970s and lived in both New York City and Mexico City before going to university in the UK, and then starting work. I loved crowds, especially large crowds with a benign common purpose, like going to work, or school, attending an event, or enjoying a public space.  I was fascinated by the energy of cities, the tumult of human beings moving in concert and being together in a shared location. The way that cities enabled people to synchronise their behaviour amazed me.

I also loved the diversity of cities, the cosmopolitan character that meant you could literally ‘meet the whole world’ in one place. The sound of urban music, with its multiple roots, enthralled me. The food choices, different styles of dancing, colours, fragrances and smells all awoke my appetite for cities.

And I loved the systems that underpinned cities: water, sewage, waste, and energy, underground railways, bus networks, buildings, centres and suburbs, terminuses and public spaces all led me think, very early on, that cities are humanity’s greatest invention.

I visited many cities and started comparing them in essays and in diagrams when I was still a teenager.

At university I studied social sciences and became fascinated by cities as sites of conflict and innovation. I loved the idea of the cosmopolitan city as a safe haven for the unwanted populations of the world. The notion of an open city appealed to me.

When I started working, without any career plan, in the mid 80s, I moved unconsciously into urban development jobs in London and it just felt right. Before long I was organising and convening groups of cities from all over Europe to tackle shared challenges.

In 1995 I won a prestigious fellowship and toured the USA and Canada for 18 months, visiting cities and learning about urban and metropolitan development. When I returned to the UK I realised I had now visited and studied more than 50 cities and was just getting started. I enjoyed distilling lessons from the differences and similarities between them.

Over the 20 years since then I have worked as urban advisor through the OECD, World Bank, Urban Land Institute, Brookings Institution, and have now visited and advised more than 200 major cities. But my appetite remains the same as it was. I still love the colour, texture, smell, and feel of the city and its enormous size and complexity.

I have come to have deep respect for those who lead and run cities. I am motivated to support them, encourage them, and be an advocate for their work.

What key factors make up a competitive city in this Urban Age?

There are many different ways to think about the competitiveness of a city, but I am wary of ideas that assume that all cities are in a kind of zero-sum competition with one another.

Given that the majority of people now live in cities, and the vast majority of work and investment is done in cities, and more than 75% of carbon emissions come from activities in cities, I think we all have an interest in how all cities can progress and succeed, rather than how one city can beat another in a contest. My primary preoccupation is with improving how all cities perform, and how they are perceived.

However, it is certainly the case that high value activities and assets (talent, capital, firms, visitors, events) are increasingly mobile and exercise locational choices and preferences. They will usually seek to locate in the most productive and attractive places, where the return on their investment is highest.

Cities must be conscious of quality and cost considerations, and recognise that competition is a key feature of this modern era. Using competition to drive improvement and innovation is the key objective.

Much of my work identifies the core ingredients of how cities can be assessed on comparative competitive measures – like costs, regulation, efficiency, productivity, capability, connectivity, liveability, affordability sustainability, governance, investment, visibility, resilience – and I think these kinds of measures are all useful and contribute to ‘competitiveness’. However, I would stress 4 other points that are important:

  • All cities are different, and the ability of distinctive cities to deploy unique and uncopiable assets and advantages in the competitive environment is important. The cities that succeed in the long-term often play to unique strengths.
  • Life-Cycles and Time-Frames really matter to cities. In the very long-term the most competitive cities are often the ones that adjust to changing requirements and opportunities best. That can mean that there are tensions between short and long-term competitiveness.
  • In the current cycle, I would observe some distinctive groups of cities. These groups have some similarities in their paths and models even though the cities are all unique. For example, London and New York and Hong Kong are very different places but have extraordinary similarities in the roles they play and the challenges that they face. The same is true for Toronto, Sydney, and Stockholm, or for Barcelona, San Diego, and Tel Aviv. The similarities between the functions and success models of groups of cities are important to observe, they are source of learning and innovation.
  • Competitiveness is also a function of mindset and story/voice. It is a leadership function where strategic communication and alliance building becomes very important. It links to brand.

More about this here.

You write and talk a lot about the DNA of Cities. What does this mean? Do cities literally have a DNA?

The DNA of cities is a helpful way to observe some fundamental ingredients of a city, and to begin to understand its personality and scope for the future. There are multiple strands to a city’s inherited DNA:

  • The social biographies of the city, its anthropologies and peoples, and their distinctive reasons for coming there, being there, or staying there.
  • The origins, purpose, and past rationale for the evolution of the city. This often includes geographical and topological features and is only easily understood in a historical context. Archaeology helps to reveal and understand these.
  • The embedded physical structure of the city, including inherited and prevailing systems in infrastructure, land use, and architecture that have reinforcing influences on what is new and ‘added’ to the city.
  • The inherited assets of the city in terms of institutions, amenities, public spaces, facilities, business and social clusters that are endowed from one generation to another.
  • The key ‘catalytic moments in the evolution of the city that have defined its personality, orientation, and disposition. These are multiple, but there are often some that stand out as having ‘shaped’ the way the city responds to opportunity and challenge. They are the ‘forks in the road’ that the city has taken and they foster ‘instinctive’ reactions and the ‘learned behaviours’ that the city personifies.
  • The disruptions the city has faced and the ways that they have been dealt with adversity. The vulnerability and buoyancy of the city. The epigenetics of the city. How it recovers from stress.
  • The institutional framework of the city, the extent to which it is ‘locked in’ to paths that may be unhelpful or fruitful.

This is a somewhat different way to think about a city from the ‘factors of competitiveness’ approach. Whether we call this DNA in a literal sense is not the point, it is a version of ‘location genetics’ that helps us understand urban evolution. Please see  www.TheDNAofCities.com

Cities develop through multiple cycles of activity and understanding the idea of city DNA is good way to distinguish the permanent features of a city from the cyclical variations, and to recognize accumulated characteristics that emerge at one point and are then handed down.

This notion of DNA is very helpful for thinking about the future and about risks. It can make an important contribution to visioning and long-term planning. It is also very useful for building identity and reputation.

Most importantly, the concept of the DNA of a city can lend confidence to the current city leadership and citizens. We are living in a time when cities have to make many important adjustments as populations grow and economies change. understanding the DNA makes us more able to see change with positive eyes.

How would you define place branding in a city context? Which purposes does it serve?

I think about 3 things being very important to cities in the quest to differentiate themselves. These are:

  • Identity & Story
  • Reputation & Experience
  • Visibility & Responsiveness

I imagine that these notions are quite obvious to your readers. These are core ingredients of any place branding approach. Cities have to work hard on these three elements in order to be successful in the long-term. The challenge for cities is in really knowing what effect they are having and how they are viewed and perceived ‘outside in’.

I spend a lot of time helping city leaders to see and interpret how others see them, so that their efforts can be informed with an external perspective. This means knowing much better what citizens want and think, as well as what the perceptions of external players are. There are new tools and techniques to do this that really matter.

Many of the challenges that cities face, or the contests they enter, can be addressed by using ‘soft power’: influence, prestige, suggestion, allure, invitation, generosity, advocacy, and other inviting characteristics. Developing soft power helps cities to acquire trust and respect, and to be preferred.

I think city branding is really about building up soft power.

This is a critical ingredient, given the need for cities to win reforms and new institutional powers in order to achieve the promise of urbanisation. Most cities are locked in a power dynamic with higher tiers of Government that they must influence to succeed. They need to build trust amongst higher tiers of government. City branding can be a means to achieve that. They need to gain ‘the benefit of the doubt’ in negotiations and be able to translate it into reforms that increase their capacity. I invite you to learn more about the seven habits of highly successful cities here.

City branding is an important tool then in addressing 3 key imperatives for cities:

  • It creates a sense of belonging for citizens and can foster a sense of welcome for visitors.
  • It provides a means to communicate competitiveness and distinctiveness to external audiences
  • It encourages collective action within the city, and builds trust in other spheres. These shape how the city develops and the resources and tools it acquires.

Which examples of good place branding practice would you suggest to city leaders charged with improving the competitiveness and reputation of their city?

I have been lucky to see many and I do not think there is a perfect formula that works in all cases. Not all great city branding is a deliberate act, although some of it is. Whether a brand action is judged as successful depends upon what its intention was, of course.

My primary observation is that city branding is a coordination mechanism between otherwise disparate actors.

I have learned a lot from the conscious brand building efforts in Amsterdam, Stockholm, Berlin, Chicago, Singapore, Glasgow, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Melbourne, and Moscow. It seems to me that these cities provide legible models from which we can all learn.

I am struck with how renewed cities like Medellin, Santiago de Chile, Seoul, Nairobi, and Addis Ababa have communicated that they have redressed very serious challenges that were once part of their identities. These cities have overcome reputations for excessive crime, repression, inequality, poor health, and poverty. That is very difficult to do, and they have worked hard to fix what was wrong and to ensure that a new story is told.

Cites that have a cause tend to have great city brands but do not always leverage them. When Barcelona and Bilbao emerged after the end of the Franco Dictatorship as the means for Catalonia and The Basque Country to promote a new identity and renew their image, they developed their cities as an act of self-determination on the side of a new justice.

Venice and Rome on the other hand have huge advantages that are not fully exploited. Copenhagen and Vienna have recently made important strides in building leadership brand around climate change or liveability.

Cause-related branding is a big growth area for cities. For example, I think we will see at least 10 cities positioning themselves as cities of ‘peace and reconciliation’ or ‘zero carbon cities’  or cities of ‘gender equality’ in the next few years.

New cities that are taking strong brand positions include Oslo, Tel Aviv, San Diego, and Brisbane. These cities all have a clear model of how they want story-telling and reputation building to enhance their citizens’ lives, accelerate collaborative urban development, and build more opportunity. They are investing in a conscious branding effort to accelerate their progress.

Of course, I am in awe of the reputations that cities like Paris, London, Tokyo, San Francisco, and New York have acquired over many centuries. It seems to me that the challenge for those cities is to renew and reveal the new stories and edges, whilst reminding the world just why they are so confident, and to avoid brand damaging accidents.

Protecting well established prestigious city brands is a major endeavour.

How can strategic place branding support the sustainable development of cities?

My view is that almost all cities face deficits in the governance arrangements and fiscal systems that they have, just at the same time as cities are growing and facing challenges in social development, environmental protection, and economic renewal.

There is a huge gap between our expectations of cities and the capabilities of city governments. Cities are underpowered, even if many city leaders are doing a great job with the limited tools that they have. In a generic sense, all cities are underperforming against what might be possible if they had better institutions, more investment capital, and greater freedom of operation.

So, my view is that branding can play a key role in the sustainable development of cities if it does three things well:

First, there is an acute sense in which we are now seeking to rebrand all cities, to reposition the role of The City in the modern world. In all societies, cities need to shift from being seen as a source of problems: crime, Ill-health, inequality, congestion, corruption, and alienation, to being seen as sources of solutions: energy-efficient, socially progressive, economically productive, sustainable, innovative, experimental. In most countries, this shift is already in train, but it is slow and incomplete. We must complete the rebranding of cities as a global group.

Second, sustainable development requires integrated policies and plans, and the ability to deliver major change and shift to new ways of living effectively. This only happens when there is ‘joined up’ government, active citizens, and a pro-investment consensus. Those depend almost entirely upon attitudes to the city, its reputation, and its promise.

City branding is key to winning the confidence and creating the context for integrated development planning.

Third, experimentation is essential to make change possible in arenas such as house building, place making, water use, energy systems, waste management and transport choices. The behaviours of a sustainable city have to be learned through experiments. The context for this is trust. Trust makes experimentation possible. Trust between citizens and leaders is essential to becoming more sustainable and the work of branding is to increase that sense of trust as a condition for better city leadership.

So, in these ways place branding is a key contributor to sustainable development.

In your view, what does it take for a city branding initiative to count as successful? How to determine its ROI or effectiveness, from a city development point of view?

There is a risk in having only narrow or short-term measures of success, even if accounting systems prefer them.

I much prefer measures of co-investment and leveraged efforts to measures of input and output. I also think that measuring reputational change and visibility over time is more important that counting jobs attracted or overnight dollars spent. I am more interested in the longer term transformative effects of major events and investments than in their direct immediate economic impact. But it is necessary to measure and accountable for both.

In the end, I think that what matters most is whether the brand motivates people to make the city better and to drive that common purpose and sense of trust. That means that citizens feel a strong enough affinity to care about how the city develops, and leaders feel a deep sense of common stewardship of the city that expresses itself in collaborative action and co-investment.  These leaders should come from all sectors and not be solely governmental co-investors. These are very hard to measure.

So, a city brand is working if it leads to greater team working in favour of the city.

Can you share any trends you might think cities should be attuned to for meeting future needs of investors, residents, and visitors?

There are some obvious ones:

  • Most successful cities are growing fast and accommodating population growth is the key imperative.
  • New and emerging technologies are radically changing the way economies and societies work.
  • The climate emergency and its effects on weather, sea levels, natural disasters, is playing out before us and will become more urgent year on year.

These big trends will increasingly occupy cities and will encourage three other trends that will affect how investors, residents, and visitors can be served by cities.

There will be more cities that have the critical mass needed to be attractive locations for a wide variety of activities and they will be well-connected and attractive to visit. That means that mobile opportunities have more choices of cities to choose. In one sense this is more competition for everyone, but in another is a great opportunity for new alliances and networks.

To accommodate growth, cities will embrace densification. This will mean reforms in land uses so that more activities and more mixes of activity can take place in the same space. This will lead to more dimensions in the sharing economies of cities, and also a greater premium on public space and common amenities, like rivers and waterfronts.

Cities will engage in more fiscal innovation in order to pay for the amenities and infrastructures that help them to become sustainable and be attractive. New technologies will help them do this. We will see more joint ventures with investors, more levies for tourists or shoppers, increased funding partnerships for city centres, and greater ‘pay to use’ for roads, airports, venues, and other city systems.

Which are the main challenges, from your experience, preventing cities from improving their attractiveness and reputation internationally? And how can those be overcome?

The key one is scepticism about whether city branding is value for (tax payers’) money. This creates regular crises in many cities. Cities that already have strong brands often find it hard to secure support to invest in further brand building. There are important ways to overcome this, but what works in one city will not always work in another.

I think that three things can work well:

  • Define the real targets at the start. It is important to agree that there is a compelling issue that needs to be addressed. The recent Oslo Region brand project got it just right in terms of really defining the problem accurately at the start. Oslo was less visible and less well regarded than other cities, which were not better performers, and Oslo was losing its talented youth. Everyone agreed this needed to be addressed.
  • Ensure that costs are shared between all who benefit from city branding. That means that private sector partners are active in contributing to costs and taking leadership. Manchester has huge visibility at MIPIM in Cannes every year. Manchester’s presence there is supported by almost 100 corporate partners. There is no cost to the tax payer.
  • Stressing competitiveness is not always the best way to make the case for city branding in such contexts, or at best it is short-term argument. Other objectives, such as increasing citizen pride, gaining confidence for reforms, advocacy for Gov support, being open to change, deciding to make a bold investment, or undertaking a major experiment (such as pedestrianisation, or taking down a motorway) may be better rationales for a city branding exercise. The building of trust that enables reforms, and the fostering of a citizen sense of pride and belonging that leads to active and responsible citizens may be more important in the longer term.

Thank you, Greg.

Connect with Greg Clark on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter or learn more about his work as author, speaker and urban advisor here. His latest book is Global Cities: A Short History, which Greg discusses in a short interview here.


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Hi there, we hope you've found this article useful. Want to stay up to date on latest place branding insights, stories and examples? Sign up for our free email newsletter! You might also be interested in our services. Have a question or suggestion? Get in touch!