The challenge of promoting the unique city

Zaragoza tourism promotion of the Holy Week

By Mihalis Kavaratzis

It is a common feature of city promotion to attempt a presentation of the city as unique. We see so many advertisements that describe the distinctive characteristics of the city in terms of the city’s unique history, its unique people, its unique cultural/entertainment offerings, its unique business opportunities, its unique function as a hub in a regional or world-wide network etc. As has been noted many times in relevant literature this attempt leads to a homogenisation of cities as re-presented in promotional material. What the audience finally encounters through this material is yet another city that is the perfect shopping destination, the perfect cultural centre in the region, the perfect entertainment (infotainment, artetainment, edutainment etc.) ‘playground’ for young and old. These are all understandable but desperate attempts. The problem is that they lead nowhere. There is no doubt that all cities are different; that all cities are unique. How does this uniqueness come about, though?

I think that the uniqueness of cities does not come about through the existence of all the relevant elements that are emphasised in city promotion. It comes through the notion of ‘the whole is larger than the sum of its elements’. Cultural offerings, business opportunities, all kinds of facilities, streets and squares, buildings and monuments, every-day practices, all the material and immaterial elements that make the city are there; and they are all important. However, the city is the whole that is more than the sum of those. The city, more than anything else, is a feeling. A feeling that is grounded in peoples’ interaction with all those elements. The city is its atmosphere. This atmosphere cannot be tapped into, cannot be expressed on paper, cannot be shown in a photo, cannot be transmitted in a sound, not even in a video. Certainly it cannot be captured in a slogan. For the feeling that is the city to be generated, for the atmosphere that is the city to be created, you need to be there. You need to walk the streets and squares, you need to stand in front of the buildings, you need to participate in every-day practices, you need to breathe in the city’s atmosphere. Only then can anyone get the unique city feeling.

That is the main challenge for city promotion. How do we recreate something that cannot be recreated? How do we communicate something that exists only in the unique place/time/person triad? I’m not arguing against city promotion. In our communication-overloaded society this would be going too far. Maybe a change of focus, however, is appropriate. Instead of directly stating the uniqueness of the city, an indirect attempt to have it exemplified through peoples’ stories or streets’ stories sounds worth trying.

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