Set aside your branding and logos, advises Martyn Evans

Martyn Evans index

It’s an odd business, property development. Particularly the kind of development I do – large regeneration schemes where we are re-making places that have been lost, typically through post-industrial decay. When rebuilding parts of cities our job is to re-create fast, to the drumbeat of our investors, that which was developed over at least decades and sometimes centuries. Is it possible to make good places quickly?

Initially this is the job of the masterplanning architect – a role we developers often take for granted as we stand around meeting room tables, poring over plans like some latter-day Baron Haussmann, laying down the principles by which, sometimes, thousands of people are going to live their lives in coming decades.

Then the marketing kicks in. Because nothing will happen unless someone buys. So, the instinct is to design, package, brand, position and sell a place that otherwise would have grown organically over centuries, messily and unevenly and, other than planners guiding the process along broad policy guidelines, without anyone really in charge.

Then there is huge impetus to name this place something and call in the branding consultants. After all, what are we going to put on the brochure covers, on the website, on the umbrellas (because, irritatingly, it will guarantee to rain when you’re showing the most important investors around the site)? But what real places do you know that have a brand? Does Manchester have a brand? Norwich? Shoreditch? The city and borough councils will have visual identity brands – but they are not places. The inward investment organisations will have brands, but they are not places either. Manchester doesn’t have a brand because it doesn’t belong to anyone. It belongs to everyone and everyone is free to use that word Manchester as they see fit. There are no brand police.

The word Manchester is written across that city in thousands of different ways

So, if we think that our job as good masterplanners and property developers is to create places as closely as possible to how they would be if they had grown naturally, organically over time then surely we are doing them a disservice by reminding people all the way through the process that they are commercial property developments, not places.

Call something a property development and automatically you conjure up images of glossy brochures, promotional websites and t-shirts. Call it a place and you see magazines, newspapers and what’s on websites all describing what the place is like, what happens there and who the people who live and work there are. So maybe that’s what we need to do – develop our marketing campaigns as if they are campaigns for places that have been there for centuries.

When we’re designing and building large schemes that will have their own distinct profiles perhaps we should be trying to do without logos and marketing identities. A trawl through my own company’s website shows how easy it is to rely on such tools. It can be counterproductive to be too rigid. Supply a logo and it’ll likely get stuck small, bottom right on the ad for the concert you sponsored. If you suggest the promoters use it simply as a word in a sentence, embedded in the design of the poster, it’ll be front and centre as a location indicator.

Let the identity of your scheme run free and it immediately becomes a place. The word Manchester is written across that city in thousands of different ways. It’s cast in iron on drain covers, carved into stone on the city library and printed on to steel on the train station sign. It doesn’t need brand guidelines because everyone knows what it means. It’s the name of a place and doesn’t refer to anything else.

So, as we don our Baron Haussmann mantles in our masterplanning architects’ meeting rooms, let’s start our meetings by reminding ourselves that we are making places not property developments. Let’s use that thought to look up and over red line boundaries that are nothing but legal and financial constructs, to imagine that we are creating places for people and that, ultimately, even though it says so in a legal document stored on a hard drive somewhere, places are owned by no one and everyone all at the same time.