This is a revised personal version of the article that is published in International Planning Studies. Please cite as:
Van Assche, K., R. Beunen & M. Lo (2016) Place as layered and segmentary commodity. Place branding, smart growth and
the creation of product and value. International Planning Studies. Online first: DOI 10.1080/13563475.2015.1115339
More papers can be found on the website governancetheory.com
Place as layered and segmentary commodity. Place branding, smart
growth and the creation of product and value.
Kristof Van Assche, Raoul Beunen, Ming Lo
Kristof Van Assche is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Extensions, University of Alberta, Canada, Wageningen University, the Netherlands and Centre for
Development Research, Bonn University, Germany email@example.com | Raoul Beunen is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Management, Science &
Technology, Open University, and visiting researcher at Wageningen University, the Netherlands firstname.lastname@example.org| Ming Lo is associate professor at the
department of Economics at Minnesota State Universities, St. Cloud, email@example.com.
Abstract Smart growth is a comprehensive version of spatial planning that can guide sustainable
development and tackle negative social and environmental consequences of urbanization. In this
paper we explore how an integration of spatial planning and place branding strategies can further
the concept of smart growth and improve its chance at implementation. A review of the parallel
evolutions of place branding and smart growth shows their shared interest in comprehensive visions,
sensitivity for narratives of place and self, and the proposed embedding in participatory governance.
The concept of layered and segmentary commodification offers a novel perspective on value creation
in smart growth and helps to develop new forms of smart growth, that combine and integrate
elements of spatial planning and place branding.
Key words: Community-Based Natural Resource Management, Machiavelli, Law, Policy, Justice,
Around the globe planners are developing novel approaches to manage urban growth in more
sustainable ways, in ways more sensitive to spatial quality and to social, economic and ecological
contexts. There is a widely shared understanding that the success of such approaches depends on
the possibilities to integrate an almost overwhelming variety of objectives. Smart growth has
emerged in recent decades as a comprehensive version of planning which can likely achieve this goal
of complex coordination. Yet, we argue that smart growth can be improved and rendered more
palatable by making it more sensitive for the continuous creation and transformation of value in
place (Oliviera, 2015a; Van Assche et al., 2013; Pike, 2009, Bengston et al., 2004). Place branding, a
young discipline often maligned, evolved, just as planning, and in its new manifestation it can
contribute to such desirable development of smart growth. Smart growth, in turn, is a form of
planning which is ready to absorb insights from place branding. We investigate the potential for
hybridization between place branding and planning strategies. This leads us to the question of value,
the entwined process of object formation, value creation and transformation. We introduce the
concept of layered and segmentary commodification to shed a new light on the creation of value in
place, and the resulting insight informs our attempt to hybridize planning and place branding in new
versions of smart growth.
We start with a brief analysis of smart growth as a product of repackaging of spatial planning.
Then we look at the potential branding of areas shaped or reshaped by smart growth, after which we
investigate more in detail how at the smaller scale, activities, places, objects, experiences can be
created and branded. To gain this understanding, we need to expand our conceptual frame,
incorporating (after discussion) established concepts from political economy and sociology, and
constructing new concepts, most importantly the concept of layered and segmentary
commodification. Finally, we explore the implications for governance of such dynamic perspective on
Smart growth as rebranded planning
The literature on smart growth that emerged in the 90’s is rich and diverse and the definitions of
smart growth abound (See e.g. Bengston et al., 2004; Downs, 2000; 2005; Gillham, 2002; Porter,
1997; Weitz, 1999; Nelson & Duncan, 1995; Burchell et al., 2000; Beaumont, 1999; American
Planning Association (APA), 2001; 2002). Different advocates highlight different policies and
practices. The family- likeness among the group of definitions and perspectives is however
unmistakable and several elements recur frequently. First of all there is an interest in sustainable
growth and environmental impacts, secondly an interest in transportation and green networks that
enable this, thirdly an interest in variations in density to accommodate this, and finally an interest in
multifunctional land use.
As many observers have noted, it is often difficult to target one of these elements in isolation
(e.g. Downs, 2005; Nolon, 2003; Nelson & Duncan, 1995). The different definitions of smart growth
usually acknowledge that a comprehensive vision is necessary. In most cases this implies a plan
envisioning a future spatial structure that can accommodate various land uses and solve current and
expected issues (cf. Nolon & Salkin, 2006; Platt, 2004; APA, 2001).
The way to produce and implement such comprehensive vision is heavily debated and all the
strands in planning theory and policy studies have their own idea of good procedures. Still, the fact
that a comprehensive spatial vision for the community is advocated is not trivial. In 21st century
America, after a century of planning, zoning and urban design, most planning can be described as
legalist and lacking comprehensive spatial visioning (Down, 2005; Platt, 2004; Knaap & Nelson, 1992;
Gilham, 2002; Ndubisi & Dyer, 1992; Weitz et al., 1998). In other words, planning as design is a rare
phenomenon and planners have to reassert and re-conquer their position in local politics all the time
(Van Assche et al., 2013).
The ‘smart growth’ concept came to the foreground in the nineties, with a burst of
promotion, research and to a lesser extent implementation in 1995-2005. Most of its elements, as
well as the argument for visioning, could be found in earlier planning literature and in many cases in
older practice. The prevalence of urban sprawl in post- war decades, however, proved that the
impact of the older concepts and strategies was neither enduring nor widespread (Beaumont, 1999;
Benfield et al., 1999; Abbot et al., 1994; Endicott, 1993). Local governments routinely equated
economic development with new residential development and handed over the responsibility for it
to developers who routinely interpreted desirable living environments as that what sold before.
Randall Arendt (e.g. 1999) adds another reason why comprehensive plans, when they exist, are not
implemented: if changes in land use and other ordinances accumulate, the difference with the
comprehensive plan grows and the legal precedence of the ordinances renders the comprehensive
plan more and more a paper tiger. Emily Talen (2005) and other researchers of New Urbanism, an
eminently comprehensive approach to planning, add that planners often cling to their zoning
ordinances as the only tools they trust to work in local politics. These planners therewith become de
facto opponents of New Urbanism and other comprehensive approaches, such as Randall Arendt’s
Planning academia in the US championed the smart growth concept as a re- packaging of
comprehensive planning. Comprehensive planning had been formally adopted by many American
cities, but very often without much attention to implementation (Arendt, 1999; Platt, 2004; Jacobs,
1998). Because of the history of implementation struggles in American planning, the proponents of
smart growth were often deeply aware of the legal, political, economic and cultural obstacles waiting
them (APA, 2001; 2002; Mehrhoff, 1999; Porter, 1997).
Outside academia, the early advocates of smart growth can be divided in three groups (cf.
Downs, 2005): 1) non- governmental groups, some of them close to the environmental movement,
others to planners, architects, landscape architects and their professional groups, 2) planners and
their backers in government and 3) a group of large developers. The non- governmental groups
pushed their agenda directly, with local and state governments and in Washington, or indirectly via
universities and their outreach programs and publishing strategies (Benfield et al., 1999; APA, 2001;
2002). The proponents in local governments were either convinced of the intrinsic value of planning
and its new embodiment, or they were interested in the cost- saving and revenue increases promised
by smart growth (National Association of Counties, 2001; Downs, 2005; Platt, 2004). At the federal
level, the Environmental Protection Agency saw smart growth as a strategy to integrate
environmental and development policies (EPA, 2002). Larger developers could be interested because
they had the capability to alter whole neighbourhoods or larger areas, bring together the
components of multi- use plans, and cash in. They had the financial power, a longer time- horizon,
and the social capital and logistical capabilities to make it happen (e.g. National Association of Home
Builders, 1999; Urban Land Institute, 1998). Local governments usually did not see their role in
planning as substantial as the smart growth proponents had in mind.
With the rise of the property rights movement since the 80’s (Jacobs, 1998) and the general
swing towards de- regulation (Jessop, 1998; Knaap & Nelson, 1992; Peck & Tickell, 2002), planning
became ever more cornered. The toolbox that was slowly created and later associated with smart
growth, was hard to use. Rebranding of planning as smart growth could not change that
unfavourable context much (cf. Downs, 2005; Nolon, 2003; Liverman 2004). The legal and political
frames that rendered planning powerless in preceding decades are still in place and right now even
less conducive to planning. If planners still believe in the value of comprehensive planning they can
work slowly on changing these frames, but they can also, maybe in parallel, try to find new
arguments for smart growth within the current context. In this paper we will explore this second
path and we argue that looking at place branding, especially its interest in the linkages between
place and economic value, can generate some of the arguments. We believe that it is even
worthwhile to explore hybridization of planning and place branding strategies if, and only if, both can
be embedded in the same governance frame.
Place branding and spatial planning have different trajectories and traditions. Place branding
strategies usually emanate from marketing or tourism departments at city level and the theory about
place branding emerged out of marketing and management studies. We will show however that both
planning and place branding have evolved significantly, making it easier to hybridize them and to
reap the benefits from such hybridization. We will engage with the criticism on place branding and
argued that more recent versions of place branding, as embedded in governance, can tackle most of
the critiques, while enabling synergies with planning.
Place branding as capitalism in overdrive?
Place branding strategies could increase the appeal of smart growth projects, of places and of objects
in those places (Pike, 2009). We believe that planning and smart growth, in order to improve
implementation chances, have to become more sensitive for processes of value creation in space.
This will not only make stronger arguments in dealing with developers, local governments and other
players interested in economic value, but also prevent selective forgetting of political and legal
obstacles by proponents of smart growth. Place branding is an academic and applied field specialized
in value creation in space. We very briefly introduce it here and highlight some of the main critiques
because these can affect the way one can envision combinations of spatial planning and place
Just as planning and smart growth, place branding exists in many guises. We define it broadly,
as strategies to create (economic) value in place by means of place image and to create added value
for products by means of place association. This entails immediately that ‘value’ transcends use value
or that use of places and associated products becomes more valuable because of the association.
Following Anholt (2007) and most mainstream place branding theorists, we distinguish place image
and place identity, with image as that what can be managed more easily, and identity as that what is
already perceived or desired (see also the overview in Pike, 2011). Place branding also entails that
places themselves are promoted as products, by means of images that might veil inequality, injustice,
and other less palatable place, community or company features. The reduction of places to products
(commodification) and the veiling of injustice by means of place branding (commodity fetishism)
drew the ire of many critics, usually on the ideological left. We spell out some of these critiques in
detail in the following paragraphs and draw the attention to an evolution in the place branding
literature that indicates an awareness of the issues targeted. This evolution can be summarized as
increasing awareness of the necessary embedding of place branding in governance. Since this
necessarily includes spatial governance, there is a realization that new linkages with democratically
grounded and participatory forms of planning have to be fostered (Zenker, & Erfgen, 2014). We
argue -and this is new- that in environments less sensitive to the public benefits of planning (as for
example in much of the US) the argument of economic value creation by means of smart growth can
resound more strongly. This requires understanding smart growth not only as a way of spatial
planning, but also in terms of the creation of a product. We will investigate in some detail which form
of commodification smart growth can represent, and how this can be managed productively, in order
to benefit not only developers but also communities at large.
Place branding as place promotion is certainly not a new phenomenon. It existed since towns
tried to attract tourists, residents and investors -at least since bronze age times (Wengrow 2008).
Place branding emerged as a delineated discipline, shortly after 2000. A key figure in this evolution
was Simon Anholt, often called ‘father of place branding’, founding editor of the Journal of Place
Branding and Public Diplomacy, and brand consultant for cities, regions and nations (See e.g. 2007;
2010). Anholt focused from the beginning on the importance of identity and narrative as defining
elements of brand and he underlined the distinction between internal and external perception.
Anholt and the school that gradually emerged first looked for inspiration in the existing marketing
literature and found their first applications in tourist destination branding. Many scholars and
practitioners then became aware that value creation by place branding strategies can transcend the
tourist sector and that marketing expertise and strategies are insufficient in place branding (Anholt,
2010; Konecnik & Go, 2008). The more recent literature shows that place branding has to take
account of various, competing narratives of identity and quality (Hjortegaard Hansen, 2010; Anholt,
2010; Bianchini & Ghilardi, 2007), that it has to realize that places are not single unified products
(Pike, 2005; Pasquinelli, 2010), that existing assets should guide asset creation (Van Assche & Lo,
2011; Anholt 2007), and that it requires both re-labelling and product creation (Moor, 2003; Insch,
2011), embedding in governance (Hildreth, 2010; Hankinson, 2001) and monitoring and evaluation
(de Chernatony, 2006; Czarniawska, 2002).
At this point in the evolution of place branding, it becomes more interesting to look for
synergies with spatial planning. We believe this evolved version of place branding can overcome
some of the critiques that were rather targeting versions of place marketing associated with
sometimes ruthless attempts at identity reconstruction (e.g. Gotham, 2007; Insch, 2011). Meanwhile,
planning itself has moved towards generally more inclusive strategies, acknowledging the necessary
embedding of planning in democratic governance, and its polyphony of discourses (Hillier, 2002).
Participatory planning, communicative, collaborative planning, post- modern planning, in their
various guises and definitions, share an intention to see plans and planners as participants in
democratic governance, not as directors (Allmendinger, 2002). Recent perspectives on place
branding and current versions of planning thus become more and more compatible.
Smart growth and place branding
With comprehensive spatial visioning as the unifying characteristic of many versions of smart growth,
there is a way forward in the conceptualization of branding strategies. The unity of a vision that can
make smart growth work is a conceptual unity that can be branded. Presenting planning as merely a
process or as a matter of permitting, does not offer the possibility to create visions that can be
branded (cf. Van Assche et al., 2013). In its manifestation of ‘smart growth’, planning offers more
openings to place branding. Conversely, planning as smart growth, as a form of planning that aspires
to be comprehensive and embedded in democratic governance, can function as an arena to work on
a branding strategy and to envision implementation options.
The shared elements that can possibly create synergies for contemporary place branding and
planning are comprehensiveness, visioning, governance embedding and discursive inclusivity. Two
additional concepts that require more explicit introduction to investigate potential synergies are
narrative and identity. Both smart growth and place branding strive to create new visions for a place,
building on existing assets, narratives and identities (Anholt, 2010; Van Assche & Lo, 2011). A new
vision for a place, in a plan and in a branding strategy, is necessarily a proposal for a new place
identity (Hillier, 2002). Both planning and branding have grasped the importance of existing spatial
and social identities. Ignoring the interpretations of place and self by various groups of residents and
users is likely to undermine new identities projected on a community, either as brand or as plan
vision (Gotham, 2007; Hildreth, 2010; Pryor & Grossbart, 2007). Identities are intricately linked with
narratives. Places and groups become meaningful and acquire value for the community through
stories of place, self, and history (Hjortegaard Hansen, 2010; Bach, 2002). Smart growth visions and
projected brands have a much better chance to succeed, to persuade actors and come closer to
implementation, if they are inspired by and build on existing narratives and identities (Hollands,
2008; Talen, 2006;Van Assche & Lo, 2011; Hjortegaard Hansen, 2010). At this level, smart growth and
place branding can offer complementary perspectives on asset mapping and asset creation and on
the possible role of existing narratives and identities in new visions. Such complementarity can help
to construct new narratives that are internally persuasive and attractive for external audiences, such
as potential new residents, investors, or user groups.
In order to give a more comprehensive idea of possible synergies, we think it is necessary to
reconsider the processes of value creation. If a focus on economic value creation in place is
something planning can learn from place branding, we need to understand the process of
commodification of place and more specifically we have to reconstruct how commodification and
value creation can be understood in the case of smart growth. For that purpose we rely on a
conceptual scheme that distinguishes processes of 1) object creation (and destruction), 2)
commodification (and de- commodification) as the transformation of an object into a product, and 3)
value creation (and destruction) as the transformation of value attributed to the product. We explore
these processes and their interrelations in the following section
Commodification and de- commodification
Branding creates new commodities or looks at many things as potential commodities (Moor, 2003;
Hildreth, 2010; de Chernatony, 2006). That does not imply in any sense that places, art, nature or any
other thing can be reduced to products of branding (Hjortegaard Hansen, 2010; Czarniawska, 2002;
Hildreth, 2010). It only implies that understanding the success and failure of virtually anything in
current capitalist democracies implies an understanding of brand creation and maintenance and the
underlying principles of commodification (Anholt, 2010; Callon et al., 2002; Thrift, 2006; Kemple,
2007). In a similar way a deeper understanding of place branding requires an engagement with the
processes of commodification and de-commodification.
Commodification goes hand in hand with the discursive creation of objects. Things that are
delineated and recognized as distinct from their conceptual and/or spatial environment, can more
easily be valued and devalued (Kooij, 2015; Duineveld et al., 2013). Planning interventions can create
spatial units, neighbourhoods or sites that are more clearly distinguishable from their surroundings
than other parts of the landscape. Spatial differences can be observed, but the discourse of local
governments, developers and media can also articulate certain differences (Czarniawska, 2002;
Jacobs and Van Assche, 2014). The constant redefinition of values and products automatically implies
that some existing values diminish or disappear and that products can vanish. This is what we called
Commodification is a controversial term (e.g. Jessop, 1998; Swyngedouw & Heinen, 2003).
Much of the critique of branding is associated with a critique of commodification. The pervasiveness
of branding is then seen as a proof of ever more pervasive and intrusive processes of
commodification (Castree, 2003; Thrift, 2006; Lury 2004). Why is commodification so bad for some
and so hard to place in a positive light? Commodification was a centrepiece of Marxist and neo-
Marxist analyses in various disciplines and revivals in post- modern anthropology. The so- called
material turn and the interest for the body in geography, anthropology, and cultural studies,
contributed to its importance in critiques of the neo- liberal global economy (Bernstein & Campling,
2006a,b). Marx himself comes back to the concept of commodification several times in his life, most
notably his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and in the second volume of Das Kapital
(1857) (See Mulhern, 2007; Castree, 2004; Room, 2000 for analyses of Marx’ original concepts). One
can distinguish two main elements: commodification as the transformation of ever more objects and
materials and qualities into products that can be made part of the circuits and value chains of the
economy, and secondly the commodification of labour. In industrialized economies, the worker
cannot rely on farm, family or village to obtain the things he needs. These have to be bought
somewhere and generate profit. His labour, he himself, is bought and forced to come to a place, the
city, where the traditional production and mutual support mechanisms do not work anymore
(Kemple, 2007; Bernstein & Campling, 2006a, b). Commodification is the reason for alienation, the
transformation of identity of the worker after his separation from the product of his labour, and the
loss of control over its value (Knijn & Ostner, 2002). Commodity fetishism is then the systematic
forgetting that products did not fall from heaven in their finished form (Mulhern, 2007). Such
forgetting is necessary part of the functioning of capitalism, in the Marxist perspective, because
awareness of the conditions of production, of subjugation and alienation, of reduction of identity and
loss of dignity, of choice and of meaningful work, would destabilize capitalist society (Bernstein &
Campling, 2006a, b). The forgetting is also necessary because disconnecting the product from its
anterior conditions makes it easier to project new histories, identities on them, to give more space to
the creation of sign value (Thrift, 2006; Manning, 2010).
Unveiling the production conditions of objects, and, more ambitiously, the value chains that
mark global capitalism, is then a critical activity that could lead to more awareness and possibly
social change. Yet, as Kopytoff (1986) and Appadurai (1986) observed, products are never finished
and workers and consumers are never just that. Products change nature once they end up in a
community. Existing cultures transform and are transformed by new products. Existing codes can be
reinforced or subverted by means of new products or reinterpretations of existing ones. People and
groups can fashion an identity out of places, products and experiences. After production and sales,
the product still has a social life and that later history has effects on subsequent object and subject
formation and on the success of commodification in the future (Bernstein & Campling, 2006a,b; Lury,
2004). One can say then, taking a distance from the Marxist perspective, that commodification
cannot be controlled and predicted by the capitalist producers, and that communities and individuals
contribute to parallel pathways of commodification.
Transformation of value in a broad sense, as changes in the appreciation of things, places,
and experiences in a community can be directly linked to processes of commodification, where
object delineation and attribution of economic value encourage circulation and exchange. It can be
triggered by deliberate attempts at commodification by market parties or pro- market governments.
In those cases, it can also undermine the values held by those parts of the community not engaged in
or profiting from economic exchange, and, by extension, it can undermine any sense of community.
Yet none of the links in the reasoning above is always or necessarily there. Value transformation also
takes places without manipulation by market parties and without (attempts at) commodification,
while commodification can be driven by local forces just a well as forces operating at larger scales.
Object creation can consolidate community and commodification of these objects can further solidify
Many things can be priced without entailing a reduction of objects, activities, places,
experiences or people to that price (Ertman & Williams, 2005; Gottdiener, 2000; Cavanaugh, 2007;
Callon et al., 2002; Bach, 2002). Pricing is a manner to capture the value of something for a
community, and to make it exchangeable for other things. This does not mean that the thing is the
price, it does not mean that corporate control over life and community is unavoidable and it does not
mean that an economic perspective on life is the only one. In a community, interpretations of self,
place and other are always shifting, and the delineation and valuation of ‘products’ will shift
accordingly. The appreciation and use of space, the ‘consumption’ of space, is bound to shift along
the same lines (Anholt, 2010)
In other words, the infinite processes of commodification and de- commodification can be
studied without embracing either a neo- liberal ideology of liberating markets or a neo- Marxist
ideology of oppressive markets. One can take a distance from these ideologies and use
commodification/ de-commodification as twin concepts that can capture the processes of object and
value transformation marking present society. This can open the door to an analysis of these
processes in space. Furthermore, as space is amenable to management and design to a certain
extent, it opens the door to the study of interventions in space and their impacts on value and object
transformation. Smart growth, as a manner of intervention, can affect object creation/ destruction,
(de-)commodification and value transformation. It can affect these three entwined processes we
touched upon in the previous paragraphs. In the following section, we clarify the way these
processes are entangled in the case of smart growth, by introducing a new concept of layered and
Layered and segmentary commodification
In this section we develop a concept that can refine the understanding of value creation in smart
growth and thus deepen the insight in potential synergies between planning and branding
approaches: layered and segmentary commodification. This refers to the constant creation and
recreation of spatial scales (layering) and elements at those scales (segmentation) and the
simultaneous transformation of value. One can consider the area covered by a smart growth project
or plan as a unity that can be branded, but also as a basket of many ‘products’ that deserve attention
in their impact on value creation for the whole. This basket includes the scaled elements of houses,
gardens, streets, neighbourhoods, and parks, but one can also think of routes, edges, views and
qualities such as ‘green character’ that can acquire different meanings and thus values. New values
can come from changing tastes, shifting user groups, new uses in old elements, or new elements that
are worked in. One added green street can create a green network that creates value for a
neighbourhood and that can even create a perception of an area as neighbourhood (Arendt, 1999).
Conversely, an area with apartment blocks can change in character when one block is taken out and
replaced by a playground and market. The products in the basket of the project or the plan area are
being redefined and revalued continuously. Insight in the dynamics between commodification and
de- commodification in a given area can be helpful for spatial governance. Paying attention to this
dynamics is already within the realm of place branding and is already helpful for smart growth
Over the years the boundaries of neighbourhoods, building blocks, public spaces, spatial
networks and the desirable qualities of the site, of activities and experiences there, will shift
organically, while in other cases these boundaries can be subject of deliberate redrawing (Liverman,
2004; Swyngedouw & Heynen, 2003). Planning and branding interventions can be helpful to create,
emphasize, reframe, and promote qualities, while working on several problems at the same time.
(De-) commodification can never be stopped, but mapping its course does open up possibilities to
manage it. In such endeavour, the unity of the area can be stressed or one can accentuate value and
distinctiveness of certain sites, activities and networks in the area. The relation between conceptual
and spatial boundaries has to be considered: certain concepts, activities that were/ are commodified
are more closely tied to spatial boundaries than others (Jacobs and Van Assche, 2014).
Skateboarding, for example is more directly linked to suitable places than walking, so ‘skaters’
paradise’ is more vulnerable to spatial changes than ‘walkable heaven’.
Spatial and conceptual boundaries co- evolve in a process of (de-)commodification. A
neighbourhood can shift from industrial to decrepit, to artsy. The dynamism in commodification, and
the entanglement of place and product in this process, opens up many new spaces for policy
intervention. Strong place identities are able to spawn products and can turn the place into a product
(Anholt, 2010). Understanding the entanglement of place and product allows for more targeted
spatial and economic policies and interventions.
New objects or new values attributed to existing objects are bound to affect the
configuration of objects and values. In larger urban developments the value of the whole area and
the strength of its brand will influence the boundary shifts at lower levels. If the value is high, the
character of the area will less likely be altered by activities or objects undermining it, while
conversely, it might spawn new objects and activities that intend to derive value from the larger
brand (something that can be observed at larger scales too, as with nations and regions: Anholt,
2007; 2010; Rausch, 2009; Meneley, 2004). In such spatial commodification, structure and elements
shape each other: partial products that result from layered and segmentary commodification can
support and co- create the overall vision and its associated identity narrative and the other way
around (Pryor & Grossbart, 2007; Burmann, 2010). Such processes take place irrespective of the
presence of planning or branding strategies. Planning and branding however can provide visions that
function as structures framing elements at lower scales. In case of successful place branding or
planning, the unifying vision of the strategy can further spawn compatible developments (Meneley,
Negative feedback loops are also possible: not every identity can accommodate every activity
without losing coherence, believability and value (cf. Throgmorton, 1996; Van Assche & Lo, 2011;
Hildreth, 2010). The ‘creative destruction’ of post- modern capitalism, famously deplored by Mitchell
(1998) as destroying spatial identities and creating superficial narratives for mere commercial
purposes thus has to be seen as a more complex process, a process that can create values and
narratives inextricably part of the community.
Smart growth, as a comprehensive and design approach to planning, can have a profound
impact on processes of value transformation in place. Smart growth can engender a specific
entanglement of the three processes affecting value in place: object creation/ destruction, (de-)
commodification and value transformation. Smart growth can therefore benefit from the insights
offered by place branding in the dynamics of value creation in space, in the interplay between supply
and demand side and between place identity and place image. Images, narratives, and identities can
be partly shaped in and by communication and by spatial design. Yet, place branding itself learned
the lessons that this engineering and marketing mind-set has limits and that place branding cannot
be disconnected from democratic controls. Conversely, ambitious, pro- smart growth planners and
their academic allies (including geographers and anthropologists & sociologists) can expand their
understanding of the effects of smart growth and manage these effects better by becoming more
sensitive to the entangled processes of value creation and the discursive and physical realities
underpinning them. This does require a change in attitude, an opening of the minds for the
possibility of managing space and narrative, without resorting to simple analyses of capitalist
exploitation or narratives of an ‘authentic’ place and social identity immediately lost in any
Conclusion: smart growth, branding and governance
Our analysis of value transformation in spatial contexts brings us to new arguments in favour of a
hybridization of planning in the form of smart growth and place branding. We already observed that
spatial planning and place branding became more similar. Both are interested in the creation of
visions that can guide the future development of places and both believe in comprehensive
approaches, including a multitude of policy interventions, aiming at creating, re- labelling and
promoting spaces and communities. Planning and place branding share an interest in the narratives
of place and self that can be found in a given area. We can add that both planning and place
branding have weaknesses. Planning, including smart growth, is still insufficiently sensitive for the
processes of value creation and destruction that influence the fate of both plan and finished projects.
Place branding is still missing insight in the repertoire of spatial interventions that can be found in
the traditions of planning and design and in the possibilities of smart growth and related approaches
(such as New Urbanism and Conservation Design) that aim at creating added value by linking
individual interventions into a larger, cohesive, whole.
The two perspectives can therefore said to be complementary. They are not the same and
should not be reduced to each other. In an ambitious planning system, interested in smart growth,
planning cannot be reduced to place branding, and neither can place branding be simply subsumed
in an expert framework to guide smart growth. Place branding expertise can help making planning
more sensitive to processes of value transformation, yet planning as governance renders place
branding one of many perspectives to take into account. It can become more or less important in any
given project, and when deemed important, it can be translated into plans and designs in many
ways. After each step or iteration in a design process, a place branding perspective can provide
helpful assessment. The analysis of layered and segmentary commodification reinforces these
arguments, by revealing the intricate correlations between discursive dynamics (shifting narratives
and identities) and spatial dynamics. Both affect, in their interplay, the creation and destruction of
value in situ, and the receptivity for and effects of spatial interventions. The same analyses can
inform smart growth and place branding and their complementary focus can be helpful to make each
of them more effective. A further argument for hybridization is that this effectiveness ought to be
linked to one and the same vision for an area, and that this vision ought to come about in a
governance process. The logical starting points for a planning/ branding hybrid are places where
some form of institutionalized planning already exists. The institutionalization of such hybrid can
build then on pre-existing spatial governance and make a wider variety of analytic and interventionist
tools available to other actors there. The combination can make more values and transformation
options visible and discussable within the governance arena (in line with Hillier, 2002, and with the
early post- modernists in American planning (e.g. Soja, 1997; Throgmorton, 1996).
We believe that place branding ought to be part of a strategy to broaden the appeal of smart
growth and increase its implementation chances. How can such embedding in governance be
envisioned? We can only start with the formulation of an answer here. One can say that the
institutionalization of a smart growth/ place branding hybrid requires embedding in spatial
governance. This means that it can only work if it is accepted in a community that spatial governance
makes sense and if spatial organization is not merely a derivative of property rights, investment
decisions, or environmental law. Planning and/or place branding should not merely be seen as tools
to get new developments off the ground and sold quickly, but as perspectives that can help in the
continuous evaluation and improvement of spatial organization. Place branding that operates on a
subtle understanding of the power of planning in co- creating unified visions for particular areas can
deepen the understanding of market forces in planning. Place branding analyses that are integrated
with planning processes every step along the way, understanding the layered and segmentary nature
of commodification and de- commodification in space, can assist in crafting narratives, identities, and
products that can appeal more to various actors in the planning and implementation process. It also
entails the possibility to revisit the patterns and strategies of commodification at any point in time.
This in turn asks for a variety of coordination tools in spatial decision- making. Such endeavor can
transcend the limitations of both place branding and smart growth, and deserves experimentation
outside the US context where smart growth originated.
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