Yes or No: Unlocking the Power of Place and Possibility

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.” 

Charles Dickens’ classic opening to A Tale of Two Cities goes right to the heart of the biggest place branding challenge of them all - what people believe about a place. Ideally, a successful place brand initiative will amplify the “best of” perceptions of a destination while mobilizing locals to tackle their “worst of” challenges with a sense of possibility and ingenuity.

But what ignites a collective sense of possibility? What does it take to unlock a place mentality that’s stuck in negativism? In our experience, answers to these questions can be far more critical to the long-term viability of a locale than sophisticated economic models or business strategies much loved by politicians and economists.

In Psychology & the City: The Hidden Dimension, Charles Landry and Chris Murray argue that, “understanding the psychology of places is a vital missing thread in urban thinking… The collective behaviour of the psyches of individuals and organizations when amalgamated and merged determine the spirit of the city, it’s atmosphere, its sense of soul.” As the authors note, the stories residents internalise about their place is an essential determinant of its future evolution. They are, “a big part of how we become us.” 

The narratives that dominate in a place speak volumes about its resilience and positive momentum (or lack of it) far more than backward-looking statistics. Landry and Murray distil this down to a simple, but powerful attitude: Does this place say “yes or no”?  Yes-centric places may have suffered difficult body-blows to their economy or social systems (from factory shut-downs to environmental disasters like a tsunami or drought) but they are steeped in an indomitable belief in their ability to prevail in the long-term. No-centric places are just the opposite. There is no collective belief that change is possible, despite any facts to the contrary.

We’ve seen these attitudes play out through starkly contrasting “yes” and “no” communities where the actual economic and social statistics belie the prevailing community narrative. The Congress Heights neighbourhood of Washington, DC has been economically marginalized for many decades, since the 1940s. Yet, the largely African American population of local residents and businesses have rallied around a positive community story of local, home town pride, empowerment and opportunity to counter the forces of gentrification as new development comes to the area. Residents are not naive about the potential impact of change on their community but they feel confident enough in the strength of their culture and heritage to absorb and welcome an influx of new residents without diluting the area’s sense of local identity.

The converse was true when we began work with a mid-sized Canadian city that had suffered through many boom/bust cycles of the steel industry. Despite the fact that the community was making great strides in diversifying its economy, revitalizing its downtown and building an enviable reputation for sustainable energy sources, the overriding local narrative was deeply despondent, bordering on defeatist. Some residents were actively encouraging young people to move elsewhere where there was more of a future. For a community whose self-image was deeply intertwined with its “steel town” roots, the potential of diversifying the economy with post-industrial employment opportunities seemed far-fetched to many. Positive initiatives by local civic boosters were often undercut by highly vocal naysayers. Through a series of citizen engagement initiatives, community leaders have recognised that the biggest barrier to future growth and development is an old, gloom-and-doom narrative that must be openly challenged by younger voices who feel emboldened to challenge the assumptions of what’s possible. A broad-based community consultation process identified changing the brand narrative and amplifying positive achievements as essential pre-requisites to the city’s future growth strategies.

The word 'love' made out of padlocks

For placebrand practitioners, the psychological realities of a locale are essential factors that will accelerate or hinder the impact of any placemaking or place marketing. The crucial question is what kind of future does the community want to create together? Every place brings its unique psychological makeup to the task. Landry and Murray offer some useful insights from human psychology in their City Personality Test that can help surface interesting discussion about dominant community personality traits… from introvert to extrovert, integrated to compartmentalised, idealistic to practical and many more.

The concepts of community psychology can inform placebranding work on several levels:

1. Reinforcing the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about our place. Is this a “yes or no” community today?

2. Facilitating conversations about what will it take to change a negative narrative to a more empowering sense of possibility?

3. Identifying specific interventions that can change skeptics to believers.

In the end, there is no substitute for a shared belief in the capacity of people to shape the future of their community in meaningful and lasting ways. For this to happen, place branders need to actively involve the widest possible spectrum of people in a community and focus on exploring collective aspirations for the future.

About this blog

The purpose of this series of blog posts is to share our collective experience (including working with each other) as practicing place brand consultants on developing and implementing place and destination brand strategies. Our purpose is to inform current practice and contribute to the debate among practitioners and academics about what might be effective and cutting edge practice in the field. 

We are:

  • Malcolm Allan – President, Bloom Consulting
  • Jeannette Hanna – Founder of Trajectory, Toronto
  • Jose Filipe Torres and Gonzalo Villar – Founders of Bloom Consulting, Madrid I Lisbon
  • Roger Hobkinson – Director, Destination Consulting | Global Development Solutions | Colliers International, Dublin

The Place Brand Portfolio is City Nation Place's searchable portfolio of Awards case studies from the past five years.