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.


Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.

Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.

What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.