By Caspar Lundsgaard-Hansen
In March 2011, the small Swiss town of Solothurn (population approx. 16000) passed a regulation directed at the many small businesses operating in the historic old town. They are now obliged to select their outdoor furniture in accordance with a new official document bearing the charming name ‘Möblierungsleitfaden’ (manual for furnishing). Now I cannot avoid wondering: how far should efforts of place or destination branding go?
To be fair it has to be said that Solothurn is by far not the first Swiss city to pass such a kind of a city law; e. g. Zurich and the capital of the country, Bern, have known very similar regulations for quite some time. So, what leads all these towns to regulate the privately funded furnishing in pubic space?
The argumentation in the case of Solothurn goes as follows: the chief of city planning states that the historic old town of Solothurn is a cultural monument of national importance. From this he concludes that it consequently deserves (sic!) a notable protection – especially in terms of design.
Why exactly should this be true? The old town itself most probably does not care about the furnishing. At least I personally never met a building, which turned to me and whispered: “Please, move this awful plastic chair away – it makes me sick and hurts my feelings!” It is very improbable that the old town itself expresses such violent feelings.
So, one possible aim of the measures is place or destination branding. Because public space is important for a positive perception of the old town, it is necessary to assert a quality control for outdoor furnishing. City officials therefore claim that certain elements of furnishing can increase the attractiveness and enliven the old town of Solothurn – or the opposite, if the furniture is made of plastic and bright colours.
Hence, what we observe here is on the one hand a governmentally steered definition of what is aesthetic in public space and on the other hand a regulation of how people (in this case e. g. gastronomic businesses) shall design public grounds; all, I am inclined to assume, in the name of branding. What is next then? Will the city authorities soon try to force us to wear certain clothes and ride horses when we enter the old towns of Switzerland? Arguing that this is what these parts of cities deserve. And that this is what fits the baroque image of the city. I don’t know. But I do know that it might be worth discussing how far place branding should go.
And by the way: I don’t argue that this regulation as we see it in Solothurn is destined to fail. It may actually prove to be economically successful in picture-perfect little towns, whereas it would provoke riots and damage branding strategies in Berlin. Or can you imagine this sort of a regulation in Kreuzberg? Certainly not today, but maybe in a couple of years… who knows? Gentrification might pave the way.