A new role for maps in urban place marketing?

The Bünting Clover Leaf Map, also known as The World in a Cloverleaf, (German title: “Die ganze Welt in einem Kleberblat/Welches ist der Stadt Hannover meines lieben Vaterlandes Wapen”) is an historic mappa mundi drawn by the German Protestant pastor, theologist, and cartographer Heinrich Bünting. The map was published in his book Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae (Travel through Holy Scripture) in 1581

by Prof Gary Warnaby

In the first volume of the Journal of Place Management and Development in 2008, I wrote an article about why place marketers should understand cartography. In it, I argued that maps – as frameworks for spatial communication and representation – could be an important aspect of place marketing activity.[1]  The process of mapping can “symbolize, depict, portray, describe, present clearly to the mind” a particular milieu[2] and can, thus, arguably be part of a place marketer’s ‘toolkit’. Indeed, maps have been a long-standing element of place marketing ‘representation work’.[3]  The use of maps in this particular context is evident at two spatial scales: the inter-urban (where maps are used to emphasise location in relation to other places), and the intra-urban (where the purpose of the map is primarily to facilitate navigation around a particular locale)[4], and it is the latter that is the focus of this discussion.

In the past, perhaps the most obvious example of urban place promotion which incorporated cartography at the intra-urban scale was the town guide – a well-established staple of urban place marketing activity, which according to Burgess, had to “serve many functions at the same time – residential guide, tourist guide, commercial and industrial directory and planning handbook”.[5]  Narrowing the spatial focus further, a more contemporary cartographic manifestation is the town centre guide, which is one of the most commonly used promotional activities employed by (especially retail oriented) urban place marketing actors. In the past, I have analysed the content of how town/city centres are represented cartographically in such guides, in relation to graphic interface features of scale, projection and symbolisation, to assess their effectiveness as aids to navigation for place users.[6] 

However, in the period since that work, changes in how we find our way around town and city centres have led me to reflect on Monmonier’s statement, “…some maps are made to be read whereas others are made to be seen”.[7]  In other words, does that fact that we now increasingly navigate through the urban environment using our smartphones (with their Google Maps and Citymapper apps etc.) mean that the purpose of the town centre guide is changing?

It has been argued that using these digital technologies to navigate through urban space ‘smooths out’ the distinctive nature of the place (for example, because of a generic user interface that renders all places identical in visual graphic terms). Furthermore, these technologies also narrow the focus to the individual’s position (i.e. our sense of identification with the blue dot on the screen), thereby potentially losing the sense of the town/city as a whole.[8]  Is there, as a consequence – and notwithstanding the commercial intent behind many town centre guides (which often prominently feature sponsoring retail stores/tourist attractions etc. on the maps) – some scope for a more artistic and creative mode of chorographic (as opposed to cartographic) representation, which is more focused on representing the distinctiveness of an urban locale?[9]

Denis Cosgrove argues that cartographic representations are “much more than functional instruments, aids to fixing destinations or following routes, they are bearers of urban meaning and character”.[10] A good example of this in a specific town/city centre context is, I think, the Marimekko Map of Helsinki. Founded in 1951, Marimekko is a home furnishing/textiles/fashion company based in Helsinki, noted for its distinctive brightly coloured fabrics and simple styles. Its map of Helsinki (easily available by typing the relevant keywords into Google Images) is of little use as a navigational aid. However, as a way of exemplifying Finland’s contribution to the reputation of the Nordic countries more generally for good design (manifested, for example, in Helsinki’s designation as World Design Capital in 2012, with which the Marimekko map is linked) – the map does convey strong associations with Scandinavian design more generally, and more specifically, the Marimekko ‘style’. Indeed, highlighting Cosgrove’s contention that maps have a dual function of both creating and recording the city, there are certain urban amenities and landmarks highlighted on the map (with more extensive descriptions and photographic representations on the reverse of the map) for the reader to explore.  Furthermore, the text on the back of the map describing ‘Marimekko’s Helsinki’ hints at the commercial intent underpinning this three-way co-branding of store, event and place:

“This map takes you on a journey through Marimekko’s hometown Helsinki, to places where our colourful products bring joy to our friends, customers and passersby. It also takes you to places that have a strong emotional meaning for our designers – from cafes pulsating with urban activity to the nearby islands to enjoy the calm of nature. A city of fascinating contrasts, Helsinki offers unique experiences in any season of the year. Let’s explore the city for new favourite places and share our discoveries!”

Of course, this map is an example of what Cosgrove calls the “celebratory dimension” of urban mapping. This occurs “not merely in the banal sense of cities’ self-promotion through advertising or tourist maps and plans, but in the choice of scale, content, design and colour of the myriad cartographic devices (many today interactive) developed by public agencies and private bodies to communicate and regulate contemporary urban systems and processes”[11].

Whilst we can all think of mundane and undistinguished town centre guides, perhaps the Marimekko Map of Helsinki indicates that there is some scope for a more artistic, creative rendering of places through cartography that actually do try to (and perhaps succeed in?) capturing the essence of the place.  If anyone reading this has examples, I would very much like to see them.

[1] Gary Warnaby (2008) ‘Why place marketers should understand cartography: Future avenues for research’ Journal of Place Management and Development, 1(2): 214-226.

[2] Arthur H. Robinson and Barbara B. Petchenik (1976) The Nature of Maps: Essays Towards Understanding Maps and Mapping. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.

[3] For various examples of such place ‘representation work’, which include maps, see Stephen V. Ward (1998) Selling Places: The Marketing and Promotion of Towns and Cities 1850-2000.  E. & F.N. Spon, London.

[4] Gary Warnaby (2012) ‘‘Spatial stories’: Maps and the marketing of the urban experience’ In Roberts, L. (Ed.) Mapping Cultures: Place, Practice, Performance. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. pp. 201-215.

[5] Jacquelin A. Burgess (1982) ‘Selling places: environmental images for the executive’, Regional Studies, 16(1): 1-17.

[6] Gary Warnaby (2008) ‘Maps and the Representation of Urban Shopping Destinations’ International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, 36(3): 224-234. 

[7] Mark Monmonier (2000) ‘Map-reading’ in Johnston, R. J. Gregory, D. Pratt, G. and Walls, M. (Eds) The Dictionary of Human Geography (4th Edition), Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 475-476.

[8] See Thomas McMullan (2014, 2 December) ‘How digital maps are changing the way we understand our world’ The Guardian Available at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/dec/02/how-digital-maps-changing-the-way-we-understand-world [Accessed 2 January 2020]

[9] For a discussion of the concept of chorography in this context, see Richard Koeck and Gary Warnaby (2015) ‘Digital chorographies: Conceptualising experiential representation and marketing of urban/architectural geographies’ Architectural Research Quarterly, 19(2): 183-191.

[10] Denis Cosgrove (2008) Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World. I. B. Tauris, London and New York, page 169

[11] Cosgrove, ibid, page 182.