by Ares Kalandides
It has often been argued that place branding and urban planning can be complementary. Actually, it is said that it is difficult to envision serious place branding that is not linked to planning. Yet, I find that in reality this relationship is rarely that simple – actually the one can often compete with the other and most of the time it does. These were some of the thoughts I had yesterday, before midnight, when a one-day conference on the future of the centre of Athens finally came to an end.
The conference was a very long one and I do not want to dwell on details. There was an interesting issue, though, that arose towards the end and it was on the priorities of planning – especially in these times of crisis. The two final presentations were about the transformation of two urban areas, exemplified by the main streets that run through them: Panepistimiou St. (s. photo above) and Phylis St. Now, you don’t necessarily need to know exactly what these places are in order to follow the discussion – you will find similar cases in any of your cities. Put simply, the former is a central five-lane-axis with 19th century ceremonial buildings (the old University, the Academy, the National Library), lined with large plane trees, banks, offices and shops ; the latter is a narrow street of several kilometres that passes through a poorly built and extremely densly populated urban area that has been detetriorating steadily in the past 20 years.
The approach to their transformation was as different as the streets themselves . Whereas there was a talk of turning Panepistimiou St. into a “European boulevard” that will link the two basic tourist attractions in Athens, the Acropolis with its Museum with the Archeological Museum, the latter would be the object of “mild urban renewal” with “careful, punctual” improvement of public space, simple renovation of some of the buildings etc. If the former was about thinking “big” the latter was about sensitive acupuncture.
Also, the transformation of Panepistimiou St. is obviously of a symbolic nature – and that is where branding comes in. It’s about re-creating a visible and attractive centre as much as it’s about the city’s image – Athens the metropolis, Athens the historical city, Athens the tourist destination. It would also create a new vision for its inhabitants, something to be looking forward to, maybe a new area of identification for the Athenians. The urban transofrmation of Phylis St. on the other hand would “only” entail a possible improvement of the residents’ everyday life, residents who belong to the new urban poor. Both areas are central – yet the first one is the commercial, ceremonial attractive centre, whereas Phylis St. is the place of the nitty-gritty of everyday life – with the immigrant children playing in the streets among a row of brothels.
In an ideal world, a city would do both: the large scale and the small, the branding project and the local improvement. But if you’re (practically) broke and you have to make sure you use the little money you have intelligently, which one do you chose?
This is a serious question I can not yet answer.