Death to Placemaking Banners

Y’all know what I’m talking about.

Is there any urban design thing more played, pointless, or bland?

This isn’t an East Coast – West Coast thing, although after Coachella I’m definitely looking forward to Mad Decent or someone giving us holographic Biggie. No, this is pretty much universal.

The effect is really poopifying. Pretty much the distinguishing factor between an authentic urban place and a shopping center is whether or not one entity has total control over the feel and the branding. I can recreate the exact building massing and aesthetics of pretty much any urban place with a camera and a CAD program. But if I’m a single property owner, the end result isn’t an actual place, it’s a “Lifestyle Center.” When you do a Lifestyle Center as infill instead of greenfield, it becomes a “Festival Marketplace.” But it’s still the same shopping-and-entertainment-complex, operating under a unified brand.

Now, you wanna do a Lifestyle Center or a Festival Marketplace, well, good for you. No one is going to mistake Market Center The Woodlands as an authentic small Texas town, and everyone in Murder City knows the Inner Harbor is a place for tourists. But what makes placemaking banners a uniquely insidious evil is that they crap on real, authentic places.

I mean, what city is that? To my eye it looks like a Will Wright creation, an intentionally generic manifestation of what cities do. An advance screenshot for Sim City Over 9000, perhaps?

Imagine now you’ve got two shopping locales. Out on the fringe you’ve got Weston Village at Southlands North; proper urban scaling, but single property manager and totally sanitized experience. Close to the core you’ve got Duncan’s Row, which is your basic working-class-partially-gentrified-then-sort-of-degentrified-now-it’s-just-a-mishmash kind of district. Ten years ago it had four record stores but now there’s only one left since everyone just downloads. That kinda place.

Anyway, these places serve two different clienteles, even if the building massing is identical. But now suppose the City puts up a bunch of banners on every damn streetlight that say HISTORIC DUNCAN’S ROW – WORK EAT PLAY LIVE. What this amounts to is vandalism. It’s taking the branded, sanitized experience of Weston Village at Southlands North and trying to retrofit it onto the at-least-still-somewhat-authentic Duncan’s Row experience.

It’s really no different than if some native Duncan’s Row graff artists took the 735X out to Southlands North and spraybombed Weston Village with the same tags they drop on their home turf. It’s no different at all. Both acts amount to defacing one environment with stuff that rightly belongs in the other.

Except whereas the graff is (i) illegal, (ii) nonsanctioned, and (iii) will probably be cleaned up by the property owner, the placemaking flags are (i) legal, (ii) officially implemented, by the city or a well-meaning-but-idiotic business association, and (iii) will probably be put back up if you vandalize them.

It’s crap.

And you can’t even parody this shit, because these banners so regularly cross the line into self-parody and back that the entire genre circulates continuously, like traffic in a big-ass roundabout.

What’s that? A fork, a martini glass, and a musical note? You mean to tell me that this is a place where I can eat, drink, and hear live music? I HAD NO FUCKING CLUE I WAS IN SUCH A PLACE UNTIL NOW. THANKS, PLACEMAKING BANNER!

These things primarily come into existence through two vectors. The first is civic-minded people with no imagination, none, zero, zip. The second is lazy design consultants who just copy-paste the text out of the last job and do a find-and-replace so they can bill you for hours they actually spent downloading Albanian femdom videos. Note that these may in fact be the same people. Find them, and give them a stern talking-to. Only then can we eliminate the scourge of placemaking banners.

9 responses to “Death to Placemaking Banners

  1. I’ve seen placemaking banners used well: for recognizing what is otherwise invisible about a place to newcomers/the less-informed, and hailing a shared history/values. Kinda like oversized postage stamps or undersized murals. In some areas there are historic connections that the banners can make that add to the layers of the experience of the street. For example, I saw a banner hailing one area’s long-gone tile manufacturing plant, which made many of the more artistic tiles embedded in some of the streets facades. The banner calls out the legacy of an artistic craft community and encourages folks to enjoy the details of the ‘scape.

  2. Yes.

    Placemaking banners not only are stupid and pointless, they clutter up the streetscape and make areas less attractive.

  3. this is awesome. i agree with you, and i also agree with morgan above. maybe there’s a distinction to be made here between commercially driven banners and civic-ally driven banners? someone improve my terminology here…it’s past 5 on a friday.

  4. I agree with your point about banners, but whatever you’re trying to say by calling Baltimore “Murder City”, it’s obnoxious. Coming from shoot ‘em up Texas “gal”, that’s not unusual. Small boundaries around an inner city make rates jump. Imagine an arbitrary boundary across inner-city Houston and see what happens to the crime rate, lol. Even diluted, your Metro area crime rate is already sky high. Labels coming from small minds make the label-caller just look just stupid.

  5. Pingback: Ban the Banners » The Rochesterian

  6. Developers love that shit. It’s neighborhood branding in an easy to understand format, which on paper = $$

  7. keephoustonhouston

    Hey, no Bmore dis implied. 90% of the people I’ve heard use the phrase “Murder City” are from Baltimore – just co-opting their own damn language.

  8. Pingback: The path to hipness (Part I) | History Sidebar

  9. Pingback: What’s In A Name, Part Deux | Keep Houston Houston.

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