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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.