Hamburgers and crossing borders: branding Maastricht

A view of Maastricht from the St John's church tower. Image: Kleon 3/Wikimedia Commons.

Which city can claim to be the birthplace of both the European Union and the world’s first synthetic hamburger? Where else but the Dutch city of Maastricht?

The city’s name probably rings vaguely familiar to many Europeans. During the early 1990s, people will remember hearing the city’s name frequently bandied about on the news, in the run-up to and aftermath of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which brought the European Union into existence.

Maastricht’s hamburger developments came much later, when the culinary wonder emerged from the laboratory in the summer of 2013. Unfortunately, McDonalds are unlikely to adopt the recipe any time soon, since producing the synthetic hamburger cost over $300,000.

A hamburger and a treaty are both excellent things – but latterly Maastricht has decided to carve out a new identity for itself, one that could help garner worldwide respect. Hopefully, achieving this goal would eventually result in increased tourism, inward investment, influx of foreign talent, and overall better recognition for the city on the increasingly crowded and competitive global stage.

City brand strategists working on Maastricht didn’t take long to conclude that the city’s main asset was its distinctive cross-border nature. Maastricht is capital of the province of Limburg, situated snugly between diminutive Belgium and mighty Germany. The province has absorbed characteristics from both countries, and many locals say they feel greater loyalty to Liège, Aachen or Düsseldorf than to the more distant heavyweights The Hague or Amsterdam.

“Historically this [loyalty] makes a lot of sense,” says Robert Govers, the scholar and place-branding expert leading the Limburg brand strategy. “There are many links with Belgium and Germany because of the Hapsburg Empire, and this region has been part of all kinds of weird constellations in the past. In culture, identity and behaviour, [the people of Maastricht and Limburg] are much more similar to Belgians and southern Germans than to the Dutch.”

Aside from its potent historical connections, modern Maastricht also displays a strong trend for innovation that the city leaders hope to capitalise upon. The Brightlands Campus, home to the famous hamburger-growing lab, is the source of numerous groundbreaking scientific projects in materials, nutrition and healthcare.

Brightlands is actually comprised of three separate campuses, all based in Limburg, and one in Maastricht itself, which attract large quantities of international researchers, students and entrepreneurs. As well as being a boon for the local economy, this kind of initiative stays true to the desired cross-border identity and helps reinforce the brand. In genuine city branding – not the logo and slogan variety – it is reality that creates perception.

“Knowledge crossing borders is something that Brightlands is constantly practicing in many senses – industries, disciplines, countries and so on,” says Bert Kip, CEO of Brightlands’ Chemelot Campus. “We have a specific niche and there are few like us in the world.”

Maastricht and its environs. Image: Google Maps.

As well as defining a clear strategy and getting major stakeholders on board, successful city branding also requires belief, commitment and active involvement from the residents of the city themselves. The people of the place should be “living the brand”.

Fortunately for Maastricht, the government seems to understand this, and its residents’ unusually international outlook is visible in the every day life of the city. As its mayor, Onno Hoes, says: “At our Friday Market, people from Belgium are doing their groceries side by side with international students and local people from Maastricht. It’s part of everyday life here. People are what make a city tick!”

That sounds wonderful in theory – but real life isn’t quite so easy. It may seem pretty straightforward for Maastricht to brand itself as a cross-border provincial capital city that specialises in innovation. But, as with every city brand journey, there are certain challenges that crop up along the way, again and again.

Bridging the gap in stakeholder understanding is one of them. According to Govers: “Private sector players often find it hard to understand how place branding helps improve their business performance. For example, in Limburg, some of them think that borders are irrelevant.

“We always have to explain that this branding stuff is primarily about building reputation and awareness, which creates an opening in people’s minds. Then you can start talking about your products and services. It’s a very difficult story to explain to people.”

Despite these predictable bumps in the road, the brand strategy is moving forward nicely. In 2014, a ten-year plan was established for the branding of Maastricht and Limburg as a whole. This has now been absorbed into local policymaking, and paying attention to the brand is becoming business as usual.

Hopefully, as Govers commented, ten years should be enough to shift the needle for the Maastricht brand. Hamburgers and treaties may soon be a distant memory.


Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.

Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook