Chris Wade, founder of the People & Places Partnership, brings a distinctive perspective to place branding and placemaking. His work focuses on enhancing town effectiveness through community-driven initiatives. Emphasizing the importance of local talent and collaboration among businesses, community groups and public authorities.
Chris actively contributes by applying the Revitalising Town Centres Handbook that he wrote for the English Local Government Association and as a UK Government High Streets Task Force Expert. Currently pursuing a Masters in Place Branding, whether working out of Cambridge or with family in Madrid, he seeks to refine his understanding of place shaping policies and communication strategies.
In our interview, Chris discusses the intersection of placemaking and place branding, the distinct challenges in branding living spaces, and the integration of sustainability in place branding.
Chris, can you elaborate on the intersection between placemaking and place branding? How do you perceive their relationship – as distinct concepts or a continuum?
I’d best describe place branders and place makers as looking at places from different ends of the same telescope. One is absorbed in the authenticity and the detail, while the other looks outwards and takes a broader, though perhaps simpler, view. So, for me, definitely a continuum.
In your experience with small to moderate-sized towns and city neighborhoods, how do you approach the identity and branding of these living spaces differently than those of tourist destinations?
I describe this as branding the places where people live rather than where they go on holiday. These are the places where we spend most of our lives and so the ‘look and feel’ that creates their identity is very important and is part of our sense of place and even our self-image.
I work by auditing the place, engaging with stakeholders to understand their perceptions and priorities and co-producing an action plan for revitalisation. More and more I focus on the journey to and around town; from ‘sofa to shop’.
For years I have been outcomes-focused tracking a myriad of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ outcomes. Now I tend to just say we are simply in the business of attracting more smiling faces to our town and city centres.
Considering your focus on environmental management and community enterprise, how do you integrate these aspects into the branding of a place, particularly in the context of addressing climate change and sustainability?
Yes, my career and studies have evolved across these three disciplines, and I think there is an intrinsic link. I guess the clue is partly in my consultancy’s name: the people & the place! We are rooted in an understanding of how communities work and the wider environment that they sit in.
My interest in place branding is about how we better communicate the components of place and especially portray positive practice in place-based solutions to addressing climate change and wider sustainability.
These are not easy issues to resolve or communicate, though narratives based on the realities of people’s experiences in places are more relatable. If we do not communicate sustainable development challenges and solutions more effectively, the naysayers will block progress.
What strategies do you find most effective in communicating the unique identity of smaller towns or neighborhoods, ensuring they stand out in the broader place branding landscape?
I guess I start from the perspective of making people feel better about where they live.
Recently in undertaking a review of progress in a town that had received lots of government funding, I was asked “Why when we are doing all this work, does the local community still think the town is sh*t?”
To answer their question and yours, strengthening the local identity needs to involve the community from the outset: in determining what matters; forming partnerships; developing solutions; organising events; restoring buildings; telling tales. Get that right and you would feel the buzz if you stumbled into town.
What placemakers need to get better at, is shouting about it, so more people can then experience the authenticity.
Could you share some examples where a combination of placemaking and place branding has contributed to tangible environmental or community improvements in the places you’ve worked with?
I like to focus on what I call the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of placemaking. A good example of the ‘what’ is my involvement in helping to develop and pilot a national scheme to encourage visitors to park, stride and ride in to towns. Called Park Active, my focus was as much on making it attractive, and so it was great that one of the pilots linked to a bike hire hub and a seafront ride that fitted perfectly with Brighton’s green credentials.
I am recently back from the Causeway, Coast and Glens area of Northern Ireland, where to facilitate the ‘how,’ we used extensive stakeholder engagement to develop and agree a framework for combining the talents of planning, regeneration, events, tourism and destination management teams to come together around place. This should help make connections between the new national Living High Streets programme and evolving, town-based partnerships.
What are the biggest challenges and opportunities in integrating sustainability into place branding, especially in the context of climate change?
I think it’s about countering the conspiracy that climate change will take the fun out of places. To do that, we need to value what can be seen through both ends of my figurative placemaking-branding telescope.
Place branding skills need to be involved from the outset to help placemakers and politicians better grapple with creating equitable solutions for climate change and create messaging about new experiences to enjoy in places.
How can platforms like TPBO contribute to the evolution of place branding, especially in terms of sustainability and community engagement?
It is thanks to me reading The Place Brand Observer posts that I realised that place branding is a fully-fledged continuation of placemaking and not an off-shoot to explore only when you have made the places pretty.
We need to create a belief among place professionals that sustainable solutions can add richness. So please continue helping placemakers and place branders see the opportunities and pool their talents to play a part in addressing these issues of our age.
Thank you, Chris.
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