Last summer I was relaxing in a small park in downtown Anchorage AK and watching a musical performance by local kids. I was immediately taken by the peaceful atmosphere, hometown feel and the distinctive precinct that surrounded the park with rows of independent businesses and traditional streetscapes. Crowds of visitors and locals alike were enjoying a sunny afternoon (yes, it was Alaska!) in an area that had not lost its soul to the sameness that shapes so many small cities today.
Many have lost their battle to cookie-cutter architecture and present an over-abundance of national franchises which give way to a blandness and homogeneity that lacks any distinctive character. Then there are the look-alike strip malls, car dealerships, and doppelgänger sub-divisions and suburbs that greet us as we approach many cities. Too many times it’s the result of unimaginative leaders and outside developers imposing their cloned thumbprint on the character of a place.
The downtown precinct in Anchorage was an unexpected contrast to many places I have visited in recent years. While places like Carmel IN, Galena IL and Fairfield IA have retained much of their independent character, local identity and distinctive sense of place, hosts of others have lost theirs.
Some cities are gaining bland Anytown, USA status long before people travel there. An online search quickly reveals many places that are not putting their best foot forward in an effort to stand apart but are relying on attributes that are common to thousands of other cities. If small cities and towns in Southern Michigan look and feel much like cities and towns in Northern Michigan, why would anyone spend the time and money to go there?
It’s Easy to be Anytown, USA
Ed McMahon, who holds the Charles E. Fraser Chair in Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute, first coined the term, "Anyplace, USA" in a 1997 article. He captured the city sameness sentiment when he said, “Today, if you were suddenly dropped along a road outside of most American cities, you wouldn’t have the slightest idea where you were because it all looks exactly the same. Over the past 50 years too many of our townscapes have gone from the unique to the uniform and from the stylized to the standardized.”
And as McMahon points out, this sameness can extend to just about every new bridge which is constructed using a Jersey barrier to facilitate the economical and fast movement of traffic, at the expense of everything else.
We can detect the degree to which a city is Anytown, USA through:
- Communications promoting the city, such as brochures, advertising, websites, social, etc.
- Interactions with residents and businesses
- The journey to the place and its setting
- The sense of arrival in the location
- Time spent in the place as a visitor or resident
- Music, movies, stories and books depicting the city
It’s not enough to simply say your town is different and special in some way, or that it’s the perfect choice for a visit. Your reality must match the promise you have made in brochures and advertising whether trying to attract visitors, new residents or investors. If the place isn’t distinctive or doesn’t measure-up they will quickly tell the world via social media – and you will be left floundering with thousands of other clone towns.
Part Two will be published next week.
Produced by: Total Destination Marketing
Best Selling Book: Destination Branding for Small Cities
TDM can help your city stand out from the other choices with a place brand strategy.
Best-selling Book: Destination Branding for Small Cities