Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Are We the Fairest City of All? – Next City
Science of Cities

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Are We the Fairest City of All?

(Photo by Mulad)

In 1914, as Europe stumbled into war, American writers H.L. Mencken, Willard Huntington Wright and George John Nathan went out in the great cities of the continent. The result, Europe After 8:15, is a fun, rambling travelogue that sparkles with Mencken’s ferocious generalizations. Mencken was never one to cushion his subject with a mutter of “complexity” and “differing viewpoints,” and the authors classify London, Paris, Berlin, Munich and Vienna with the scientific ease of a lepidopterist affixing labels to pin-mounted butterflies.

In the book, a rube from Iowa visiting the Austrian imperial capital “dreamed of Vienna as one continual debauch, one never-ceasing saturnalia, an eternal tournament of perfumed hilarities.” Instead, he finds “nocturnal solitude of the streets … actual desolation about him.” And he wonders: “Is Vienna’s reputation bogus, a snare for tourists, a delusion for the unsophisticated?”

The writers must correct their main character, explaining that the fun is there, but it resides in a gated local underworld: “Pleasure in Vienna is not elaborate and external … and so the slumming traveller, lusting for obscure and fascinating debaucheries, finds little in Vienna to attract him.”

The style of such proclamations may be old-fashioned (“show, don’t tell, etc.), but it still falls to the poets, rather than the statisticians, to sketch a city’s image. So it is that “Sex in the City” offers a vision of mid-aughts Manhattan that can’t be conjured from survey data. In brief, a city’s image is more art than science.

That’s not how statisticians see it, of course. Over the past decade, academics including economists, business school professors, market researchers and urban planners, have made dozens of efforts to develop a kind of function for city image that would reduce the vagaries of reputation to a neat set of numbers.

A recent effort, by a group of researchers from Israel and Italy, proposes an international rating scale to calculate perceptions. “Our goal was to develop a measurement of city image,” says Shaked Gilboa, the paper’s lead author. “The idea was that many cities use their image, or try to construct an image to attract various audiences — residents, potential residents, businessmen, entrepreneurs, tourists of course.”

Where once cities competed for a few wealthy adventurers, they now battle for savvy immigrants, fleet-footed companies, and a global international tourism industry that counts over a billion annual arrivals. What’s more, the paper reports that “people’s attitudes and actions towards a city are highly conditioned by that city’s image,” whether that image is part of an official branding campaign or disseminated in news items and music videos.

Is it possible, then, to get something as subjective as image down to a science?

To craft their surveys, Gilboa and co. crunched 39 previous studies of city image published between 2001 and 2013. Most of those metrics display the buzzy, irritating jargon of the branding industry — one 2006 study, for example, rates a city in six categories: Presence, Place, Potential, Pulse, People, and Prerequisites. Another reduces the great metropolis to Infrastructure, Attraction, Value and Enjoyment.

Sensing a divergence in the perceptions of residents and tourists, Gilboa’s team developed two separate surveys for Rome, Trieste and Jerusalem. Among residents, Rome scored highest of the three in leisure opportunities. Trieste and Jerusalem were perceived as offering better municipal services. Often, residents and tourists wound up drawing the same conclusions about these subjects.

But their perceptions split in interesting ways. Regular visitors have higher opinions of city services, like public transportation, than first-time arrivals. On the other hand, tourists who stay for a week or more have a lower opinion of a city’s safety and security than those who come for only a few days. And while tourists had highly variable thoughts on the three cities’ security situations — “they perceived Rome as the least secure and Jerusalem as the most secure,” Gilboa said — residents of all three cities had similar opinions.

The lesson of this, in short, is that no component of branding is one-size-fits-all. What residents think about their city — and hence, what they want from it — might have nothing in common with tourist perceptions. Different types of tourists have different observations. And that’s to say nothing of corporate strategists pondering relocations, young entrepreneurs or high-skilled immigrants.

That different images of the city exist for different groups might seem obvious; after all, Mencken observed as much about Vienna a century ago. But cities like New York still use the same brand identity for residents and tourists. Others, like Barcelona, employ one website to welcome both international students and medical tourists, two groups with vastly different priorities. “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” is an appealing slogan for vice-hunters. Less so for manufacturers.

Those are all internationally renowned, successful cities. The small Finnish city of Vaasa, on the other hand, recently decided it had an image problem and invited academics to troubleshoot. The researchers presented their findings, and Vaasa began what the scholars call “large-scale development of city image,” linking a new slogan, “Better Life,” to real-world developments like a renovation of the town square.

You may not have heard of it — yet. But researchers say Vaasa’s image has already improved.

The Science of Cities column is made possible with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Henry Grabar is a senior editor at Urban Omnibus, the magazine of The Architectural League of New York. His work has also appeared in Cultural Geographies, the Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. You can read more of his writing here.

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