Guest article by Aleks Vladimirov*
SHREWSBURY – The Birthplace of Charles Darwin
What does Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and adaptability to the outer environment have to do with place management? With uncertainty being the new normal, an evolutionary perspective on place management can help move from static and isolated plans to a process mindset. What better place to test such a perspective than Darwin’s home town – Shrewsbury in the United Kingdom.
Shrewsbury is a medieval town where Charles Darwin was born and spent nearly 30 years of his life before attending Edinburgh and Cambridge University and sailing on the HMS Beagle. Geographically, Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire is located in the Middle of England, but not in the West Midlands and on the border with Wales, but not in Wales. This relatively central location on the map of England has potential as a hard condition but those outside do not have Shrewsbury on their mental maps as the soft links with other places have not been boosted for a while. The local economy is defined by having more independently owned and family run businesses than national chains and a community that is defined by having one of the lowest densities of population in the UK. This location (a medieval town with a long history) and locale (a community of under 100,000 that has strong ties) have contributed to the independent sense of place here. This independent, welcoming and historic essence of the town has been brought to the fore by the place branding efforts over the last five years. To boost the attractiveness of the town the place branding program of Shrewsbury has focussed on strengthening the associations with history, welcoming and independence executed through promotion, marketing and branding efforts. This place branding effort – “Original Shrewsbury” has managed to build an identity led planning process that culminated with the achievement of a more open-process place management approach. In 2017 over fifty local organisations participated in a series of workshops about the future of Shrewsbury as part of the initial stages of the new palce management process. What was interesting throughout the process is the sense of trying to get multiple people who strongly value their sense of independent thought to collaborate. But being part of it meant that these independent thinkers would see the commonality that living in the same place has built up in them which can be hardly noticed in their normal everyday life. At the next stage, outside specialists were employed to oversee parts of the process and an open space to the public was devoted to collecting feedback on some initial ideas. This public engagement resulted in over 20,000 comments.
SHREWSBURY BIG TOWN PLAN – An Identity led Framework
The result has been something that does not resemble just a masterplan but rather adds a Framework on top of the few suggested redevelopment sites. While the masterplan outlines priorities that would be common to many towns and cities – improving transport, creating a place for enterprise, increasing the vitality and mix, nurturing the natural resources in the town the framework outlines the expectation of quality standard which is brand values driven. Such an identity-based view of managing the uncertainty of how some of the developments would emerge is consistent with views of useful decision-making within economics and Shrewsbury is as clear as a complex entity can be about what to focus on – its independent sense of place, welcoming locale and historic location. At present the master planning themes of focus are being given to partner groups to lead and a special committee to uphold the framework for quality of execution will sit separately.
KEY TAKE-OUTS – The wider Place Branding and Place Management Discussion
Finally, positioning this case study in the latest developments in urban planning and city branding the trends of citizen engagement (spearheaded by all academics linked to the Institute of Place Management – as an example see Millington et al. (2015)) in the planning process and the strong identity centred approach to place branding is evident. A synthesis of approaches outlined as contradictory by Braun and colleagues in the special edition on Place Branding in the journal Cities (issue 80, 2018) is that of an “open place branding” process and an “identity-image” match one. Braun et al. (2018) have found that an open place branding process increases conflict between those involved while an identity-image match one increased place brand adoption among other findings. In their section on limitations they mention that the perception on the usefulness of conflicts may mean that open process having raised conflicts is an unwanted outcome. In the case of Shrewsbury to date the conflict levels have not necessarily increased but this may lay in the future as plans get executed. The Shrewsbury framework for quality of development will then have to be withheld as defining a strong identity like the one of Shrewsbury may mean that some economic opportunities are missed due to a strong civic perspective on what is wanted by the local community. Tough decisions ahead – but there is an agreed rulebook of principles to guide decision-making that should increase the attractiveness of the place – attractiveness here understood as both inwardly and outwardly oriented in line with the work of Baxter (2013) on place brand orientation – a brand led approach to strategy already common in corporate branding. This attractiveness approach should reduce the unhelpful distinctions and questions about who will benefit from the process– residents or outsiders. Place branding should always be about improving the experience for both. The annual review of the progress of the Big Town Plan has been scheduled during the annual DARWIN SHREWSBURY Festival which celebrates the town’s cultural heritage and future aspirations through a month-long programme of events. This review will keep the plan open to the public and engage more people to see their town as one where imaginativeness is required to adapt to a new future. Such an approach to public engagement is different from the traditional consultations and is in line with the latest recommendations of Robert Govers (2018) whose Imaginative Communities book is a good summary for practitioners interested in bridging the gap between academic discussions and good place management practice.
*Alex Vladimirov is Partnership Manager at Shrewsbury Business Improvement District
Baxter, J., Kerr, G., & Clarke, R. J. (2013). Brand orientation and the voices from within. Journal of Marketing Management, 29(9-10), 1079-1098.
Braun, E., Eshuis, J., Klijn, E. H., & Zenker, S. (2018). Improving place reputation: Do an open place brand process and an identity-image match pay off?. Cities, 80, 22-28.
Govers (2018). Imaginative Communities: Admired cities, regions and countries. Reputo Press. Antwerp, Belgium.
Millington, S. D., Ntounis, N., Parker, C., & Quin, S. (2015). Towns and Cities as Multifunctional Centres.