Collective Community Branding

What did we learn from the last round of community development?

If you believe, as I do, that a brand is what people say about you when you leave the room, then it’s interesting to wonder how that applies to a neighbourhood. If you own your home, the answers to this question not only impact your property values, but the way people perceive your own personal brand. If you are involved in real estate development the answers to this question become even more vital. As we seem to be living through the beginnings of another building boom in BC (if recent stats are to be believed) the question gets more complex. What did we learn from the last round of community development? What can we do better this time around?

A community brand is a very complex thing. It’s made up of many facets, any one of which, when tarnished, dims the reflective quality of all the other facets. A community can be bursting with vital energy: independent retail, services, and a good mix of demographics, but if there is a problem with crime, none of the rest matters. Witness Gastown. Or, a community can include a thriving bustle of restaurants, shops and pedestrian friendly walkways, but if the bustle extends into the evening hours and becomes a noisy nuisance for those who call the neighbourhood home, it can make it a less desirable locale to live. Hello Yaletown. If you try to remove the noise-creation enterprises, it becomes dull. Too many towers and not enough street-level public spaces, mixed with too few full-time residents? Coal Harbour.

So what can we do?

Current thinking is that the most utopic communities are comprised of a nigh-on-impossible and very delicate mix of density and privacy, vitality and peace, retail and street-level residences, where a cross section of people can co-mingle, get to now each other, and collaborate to build a safe, secure and supportive environment. Everyone is welcome. Everyone holds hands and sings kum-bah-yah around the community firepit while children roast marshmellows. There are plenty of theorists and architects and urban planners who tinker with this recipe for the perfect community cake, and adjust the ingredients with each new attempt. The Woodwards complex is perhaps the most high-minded attempt we’ve seen lately to make this dream into reality. Will it work? It won’t be long now until we find out. There are other, larger-scale projects on the drawing board too. I applaud the efforts. We certainly need to keep trying. I have my fingers crossed that we are getting closer to getting it figured out.

As individual citizens and home-owners, we all need to be more involved in our community brand. It’s at least as important to our quality-of-life as a kitchen renovation or new patio furniture. Unlike these personal projects that we discuss and plan for with no little amount of fervour, however, we tend to let our community evolve around us, with only passing interest. What if we all got engaged? What if we all turned out for community meetings? What if we all donated two hours a week to changing those parts of our community that were less than satisfactory? The merchants in most areas are organized around Business Improvement Associations, but with small budgets and limited support the best most of them can do is hang some banners from streetlights and arrange for a few potted plants. But at least it’s something. Imagine if all the homeowners in Gastown organized, and decided to do something about the community brand? If everyone chipped in and donated time, what could be accomplished?

Call me a modern day Thomas Moore if you will. But I do think the idea of perfectly polished community brand is worth fighting for. Developers must continue to invest and strive (the good ones already do) and individuals need to realize the power of a collective effort. Even in the act of trying, we’d all get to know our neighbours, we’d at least chip away at shared concerns, and we’d end up with better and more appealing neighbourhood brands as a result.