by Caio Esteves*
How do you start a place branding project in new real estate development projects from ground zero? Where do you find the identity that will guide such a process? How do you develop a place branding strategy with authenticity and not as a form of marketing, limited to “selling” a place?
In this article I’ll share an experience from a new real estate development project that involves place branding, placemaking and community engagement in São Paulo, Brazil, called Bairro da Gente/ Aeroclube (Our Neighborhood / Flying Club). The project takes place in Limeira, a municipality of a 300,000 inhabitants in the São Paulo state. This greenfield placemaking project has a unique feature: it is a project for a low-income population, otherwise usually limited to monotonous and faceless housing projects, that ignore differences between people and groups. This specific approach uses the cities-for-people thought, propagated by Jan Gehl, Kent, White, Jacobs and others. Bairro da Gente is based on three principles: mixed income, multiple purposes and cultural as well as housing diversity. The goal of this triptych is to create places of new centralities. The existence of income-generating elements inside the neighbourhood, (job and entrepreneurial opportunities, technical education, creative and solidary economy) resulting from an approach that encourages mixed uses, decreases the commuting of residents from the outskirts to central areas. This also contributes directly to people’s quality of life and indirectly to the region traffic.
Our team at “PLACES FOR US” had the opportunity to build the brand Bairro da Gente since day one, using an innovative methodology for the Brazilian context:
The first idea was to work with the population living around the new project. Here, the task was relatively easy, since the area we worked upon was an empty urban space surrounded by a reasonably dense housing area, and most importantly, with residents of similar cultural and income groups, very close to the future residents. We used a method that we call identity mirroring that works with the surrounding area residents to start the search for different identities and cultural profiles that we use as starting point for a project of place branding. For a place branding approach it was essential to understand how people related to public spaces, to their neighbourhood and the city.
We started with theoretical models and tested them using collaborative methods in a large number of workshops. In these workshops, we started by defining themes in order to understand the community’s wishes. The thematic axes were: work, outdoor activities, commuting, and retail. At this stage, we were armed with hundreds of post-its, harvested information from groups divided by life cycle and gender. The process was simple: large posters on the wall with the themes designed into a huge heart, where the participants put the ideas into post-its freely, without mediation, trial or discussion.
Almost at the same time, we launched a digital campaign with a single question: “I want a neighbourhood that …”, where people were invited to enter the digital platform and collaborate with the research.
After understanding what was desired by the surrounding communities we updated the theoretical model and created a series of stickers icons representing activities. In a new series of workshops, people were asked to place the activities icons on the map, which at that time was an empty space surrounded by existing blocks.
This time our goal was not so simple, as we wanted to understand how the community dealt with difference, how they grouped the activities in publicly used spaces – both private and public. This would be an important information for the development of a master plan. All these workshops have allowed us to better understand the cultures and identities of the people in the region.
This set of information gave rise to the first masterplan, which described distinctive cultural districts, reflecting what architect Christopher Alexander called “mosaic of subcultures.”
Thus it was possible to develop different scales of identity related to the neighbourhood: The closer the unit, the larger the level of identification , narrower and recognised with less noise; the farther the housing unit, the lower this level of recognition.
This approach has led not to a monolithic brand but a mosaic of small place brands, which we called Beta Places. These place brands were born from the theoretical model updated by community inputs achieved in the workshops series, and are named precisely beta because they need to evolve and change.
All these small sites bring the characteristics of Beta Places and together promote a common place identity.
My conclusion in this project is that even in situations where the place marketing approach seems to be more easy or efficient, like a new real state enterprise, we could always look deeper, work harder, involving the community and understanding the dreams and desires that drives them, and more important, understand the group of cultural, ethnic, social or behavioural characteristics that makes that group of people unique.
Here lies in my view the major difference between place branding and place marketing: the question of identity and how you work with it. I use the word “work”, because, like consumer branding, place branding is also a process that locates identities. In this case, place identity is based on inhabitant identity. This understanding is essential in the quest for a happy experience in public spaces, and, by extension, for a happier life.
*Caio Esteves is the founder and director of the Brazilian Place Branding agency PLACES FOR US.