Rebranding cities

I just came across The Londonist’s London Rebranded: The Capital’s Changing Names, Mapped:

80 years ago, the word Fitzrovia was yet to be coined. 70 years ago, nobody talked about the ‘South Bank’. 50 years ago, Chinatown would conjure images of Limehouse. 40 years ago, Canary Wharf was little-known outside the docks. 10 years ago, nobody said ‘Midtown’. Today, nobody says Midtown.

Nothing is eternal in a city like London, and that includes the place names. New Cross was once known as Hatcham. The village of Garratt, famous for its mock mayoral elections, long ago vanished into the sprawl of Wandsworth.

In recent years, the pace of change, or proposed change, has accelerated. Neighbourhoods right across the capital are looking for pseudonyms, as property developers, business improvement districts (BIDs) and the occasional cultural or residents’ group seek swankier names to attract attention. The most egregious example is Midtown, coined a half decade ago by the local BID to encapsulate the traditional areas of Holborn, Bloomsbury and St Giles. Many more examples are competing for recognition, from Tyburnia to London’s Luxury Quarter. Some areas are pluripotent with possibilities. Londonist’s office, for example, might be located in Tech City, the Silicon Roundabout, SoSho or Hoxditch. Or maybe just plain Old Street.

A March 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible covered similar ground:

In San Francisco, the area South of Market Street is called SoMa. The part of town North of the Panhandle is known as NoPa. Around the intersection of North Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, real estate brokers are pitching properties as part of NOBE. An area of downtown Oakland is being branded as KoNo, short for Koreatown Northgate. But no one actually calls it that, or at least, not yet.

There is not really a name for this naming convention. They are not quite acronyms, not quite portmanteaus, and not just abbreviations. We at 99% Invisible have been calling them acronames, or if you want to get in the spirit of the thing: AcNa’s for short.

These sorts of rebranding and renaming activities are signs of gentrification, plain and simple. In 2011, New York politician Hakeem Jeffries proposed the ‘Neighborhood Integrity Act’ to restrict developers from concocting new names without community involvement:

The bill wasn’t successful.

Looking back over history, different places are more or less open to this sort of change, but it always happens incredibly slowly. In the case of London, place names only tend to change (or at least catch on) with the arrival of a new Underground station.

I wondered about the cartographers’ role. How do they label areas? Where are the boundaries when talking about places commonly referred to only by compass direction (e.g. SoHo in Manhattan is short for South of Houston Street)?

In the UK, the neighbourhood/city/county boundaries are of differing levels of importance. I live in Milton Keynes, and the neighbourhoods here are very clearly defined by the grid system of roads. There is no confusion where, say, Heelands ends and Bradwell Common begins. As made clear in the links above, other cities don’t have this clear definition.

The boundaries of neighbourhoods have have partial influence in terms of some public services, like waste collection and school catchment areas. But most key services (police, fire, ambulance) go on county lines which tend to be more established and agreed.

If we were to engage our neighbourhood residents on boundaries and names, a participatory and democratic approach might be to:

  • Consider historical information. Who were the settlers or early established populations living in the area, and what terms did they use? (In fact: what languages did they speak?)
  • Take into account plurality of voices. Some locals will side with property developers and want a new place name if it means their properties increase in value. Others may focus on status and/or self-identity and will disagree. What other groups exist? Which are the largest?
  • Consult user-generated content and ‘consensus’ sites. Asking 100 people to define their neighbourhood is likely to result in 100 different answers. How has Wikipedia been updated over the years? Who has been doing it? What maps have been created using Google Map Maker? (Not that this approach is immune to error.)

In any case, things in cities do not change quickly, and anyone who hopes they will (like overzealous property developers) are kidding themselves. Designer Mitchell Joachim, in this conversation with writer Darren Anderson, is talking about the slow progress of cities through changes in their architecture, but I think the same thinking is applicable to these sorts of name and boundary changes:

When we think about cities, it’s the same level of thinking. It’s not as difficult to think about cities as it is to create the Apollo mission, because we don’t have to invent a lot of the engineering from scratch. When you talk about changing cities, the actual city morphology doesn’t shift overnight. Take, for example, my iPhone. From a napkin sketch to an actual device you can purchase, it’s a five year process. So if I said, “holographic smart phone,” which by the way I just pulled out of my ass, someone in Apple will have an okay version of the technology required, but it’s five years before you have a pretty shitty but working model. That’s the scale to change a telecommunications device.

Architecture is forty years before you see a paradigm shift. You can see all these experimental buildings with unbelievable forms, but that’s not the everyday act in architecture. Doors and windows and roofs and boiler heaters take a long time to change. I’m not going to buy a super-sustainable boiler until the current one I have utterly fails or simply costs me too much money. So that’s when you see replacements in architecture. And with cities it takes a hundred to 150 years before all of this discussion and all of those different scales rationalise themselves and become everyday practice in city design. To be a really good city designer, you need multiple hats, bridging multiple disciplines, looking at all facets of technology and how society evolves at their timescales before you find a new city.

Joachim goes on to consider the last time this sort of city branding worked—the creation of garden cities:

Thinking of historical cases that have worked. One is Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. That worked because it was a meme. It had a great title. Who didn’t want to live in a garden city? How do you argue against that?

But that’s one too many threads pulled upon for now.