How to sell your city: the birth of the urban tagline

Take that, soreheads of Fort Laramie. Image: public domain

Modern developers may chase the rising “creative class”, but how we write the story of places has long been big business. Milton Glazer’s I Love New York logo from 1976 was offset by a grim backdrop; at the time, the city had recorded its worst crime figures for 45 years, and had been declared bankrupt. The logo sold a dream.

In the UK we are good at dreams; Northamptonshire will “Let Yourself Grow”, Kent is a “Garden of England”, County Durham is “Land of the Prince Bishops” and Warwickshire is “Shakespeare’s Country”.

We can also do grit. Destination branding has become big business. It creates a narrative of renewal. “Glasgow’s Miles Better”, “It’s Happening in Liverpool”. The slogans simultaneously acknowledge pre-conceived ideas while also pointing to the future. Think again, they say.

“It’s Happening in Liverpool” was coined in 2008, when Liverpool was named European Capital of Culture. It pushed the story of the unforgettable night in Liverpool, a huge part of the city’s national and international brand. A previous tagline is “The World in One City”, which caught onto its 1990s ambition of multiculturalism and diversity.

Those taglines spoke to the people inside the city as well as outside of it, and were a vital part of the city’s communications.

It’s very different from the city’s tagline in the 60s, “A City of Change and Challenge”. It was hardly surprising Liverpool attracted a generation of radicals, ambitious urban planners and political firebrands.

Along the M62 you learn there can be a thing as too much honesty. In Calderdale, when the population adopted the strapline “Pretty Gritty” the council director told the local paper at least they weren’t being “vanilla”. You couldn’t, he argued, pretend this was a happy valley with no issues to be solved.


Who is your tagline talking to? Let’s rewind back to the 60s and the postmark slogan. The postmark slogans were written by local authority publicity teams and evolved into a way of telling people what was happening, and creating a sense of destination and local identity. The postmark was, in many ways, the forerunner to the urban strapline.

Before the 1960s these slogans were a national text messaging service via post – “Buy War Bonds”, “Post Early for Christmas”. There is more than a whiff of Scarfolk, the fictional North West England town that didn’t progress beyond 1979. “Trade Follows the Phone”, “Help to Win on the Kitchen Front”, “Grow More Food, Dig for Victory”.

After the war, these local postmarks became a marketing tool for municipalities. “1207 - 1957 Liverpool’s 750 years of progress”, “Bangor Abbey 1400 years exhibition June 1958”, “Cardiff Shopping Festival Oct 31st - Nov 9th” in 1963.

Local and regional identity postmarks grew up with a period of urban regeneration, post-war town planning and civic zeal. Urban identity mattered to cities and towns attempting to regenerate and rebuild.

Culture and destination became intertwined. Cleethorpes “East Coast Jazz Festival”, Buxton sells it “Festival of Music”, Shrewsbury promotes its “Musical and Floral Fete”. This particular advert ran from June to August and over a million items were postmarked with it. That’s a bigger reach than most council Twitter feeds. During the Blackpool Illuminations in 1964, over seven million items were postmarked with the Blackpool illuminations slogan.

Like the best marketing slogans, the strapline is all about drafting a quick and easy narrative for people to understand, with an obvious thematic. Hastings, for example, is “ready for your invasion”. Newquay sells itself as having “Europe’s finest beaches”. Many of these were pioneered during the 60s, a period of new towns, industrial expansion and influxes of workers and investors. So it’s “Teeside for Industrial Expansion” (1964), “Hartlepool’s for Factory Sites” (1963) and “Scunthorpe for Steel” (1963/64).

There are also, of course, the places that sell themselves with a joyous simplicity. “Oh Look Cleethorpes”, or “Yes, Crawley New Town” were delightful discoveries on the horizon to families arriving by car. The finest of all of the urban straplines was perhaps “It’s Called Cumbernauld”. The name of the place is all what’s needed to sell it.

Self-determination is as important for places as it is for people. We may fret about whether Richard Florida still believes in gentrification, but how we talk about our places matters, both to the visitors we’d like to attract, and to those who have already set up home.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.