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The Politics of Place-framing in Planning Practises

Subtitle: Some Considerations in the Cases of Paris and Liverpool

Article by Wim Bosschaart.

Framing is one of the most profound human activities and we are doing it continuously throughout the day. Nowadays place-framing is of increasing importance for cities as they found themselves competing in the globalising world. However place-framing in planning is far from innocent… Dynamics of place Spatial planning is per definition a profession that has very much to do with storytelling as places in the postmodern era are always constructions of stories. Places can be a thousand different stories unfolding simultaneously due to their unique constellation within time and space and the pluralism in its users and their mental maps of places. Cresswell (2004) already denoted that places are more than a location and include a variety of meanings and experiences. Rather than fixed entities, places are characterised by the fact that places are always relational and nascent (Massey, 1995) and are continiously redefined or constructed by its context. Hence places can be conceptualised as vessels of energy in the 3rd law of thermodynamics: the energy and form of places will never stop but only moulds and transforms into new temporary structures. In that respect places can be seen as ”assemblages” being continiously assembled from the overlapping, overlaying and tangling together of many components within the heterogeneity of society and thus function as networked places in itself (Anderson and McFarlane, 2011). Within this diversity and subjectivity, how to make sense of places? Or in other words: how to plan for fragmented societies?

Globalisation and differentiation Especially in a globalising world cities found themselves competing on larger scales: cities want to stand out against its regional, national and even international competing entities. Hence the increasing scales on which cities compete have enforced the need for differentiation among cities to stand out and therefore offer something unique and attractive for tourists, investments, congresses and so on. In this respect concepts such as place-making, place-framing and branding supported by narratives, rhetoric and visualisations come in as tools for urban planners to put cities on the global map as being distinctive and even outstanding versus its competitors. As the world is getting increasingly approachable for larger parts of society scarcity and uniqueness are becoming scarce and hence form the things we start looking for. In that respect planners are looking for unique selling points or stories attached to the place that could broadly identify the place and make it stand out. Hereby stories or narratives function as overarching umbrella – within which spatial transformations have to fit – or at least give directions towards future developments.

Place-framing As Harvey (1996) already indicated, planning functions as an act of carving out permanence in the flow of processes to create spaces. But what image of promote? Earlier it was argued that places are always defined by continuous flows. Are planners not stigmatising or freezing the natural flow of processes of transition in places? The world is more and more characterised by its pluralism but this notion of postmodernity has not yet developed itself into a concrete planning discourse (Allmendinger, 2007) but has profound implications on planning practises. Hence it is accepted that planning originates from more modernist ways of thinking that order the world but now finds itself struggling to find the balance between these modernist tendencies and changed and diverse postmodern societal context (Beauregard, 1996).

Hereafter two cases will be introduced that briefly touch upon important issues regarding place-framing that planners should take in consideration to illustrate the earlier conceptual thinking with some examples.

Case #1: Paris Take a few seconds and think what comes into your mind when you imagine the city of Paris. This is your mental map or your personal lens on Paris as a place and subject to your own experiences and background. Hence it forms your personal frame. Did it work? Now try to deconstruct this image of Paris by considering how this image came in your mind.

It is very likely that you associated Paris with romance as it is still called the Capital of Romance. Even more because I framed your mind by putting a romantic picture or Paris at the start of the article? Through the aggregate of formal and informal place-making strategies, Paris is constructed or framed as being the Capital of Romance. This particular perception of Paris is continuously being reproduced through adverts, movies, songs, paintings and so on. Hereby representations (in planning: narratives and visualisations) promote and enforce certain takes on the identity of Paris. In the case of Paris this framing is so dominant and widespread that eventually the people on the ground become enforcers of that image themselves and actually strengthen and confirm that image over and over: this is where stories are becoming sticky (Van der Stoep, 2014). Think of the street artists that paint couples, the adverts depicting romantic dinners with view on the Eiffel tower, and so on. In that respect, places are continuously reproduced: if that does not happen, places will change.

Picture 1. Impressionist painting of Paris. Source: Karen Tarlton

But: in place-framing lies a certain subjective perception enclosed that carefully favours that image of romance above other images for certain hidden reasons. But this is just one highlighted take on the historical-geography of Paris. In that sense, place-framing is where politics become spatialised, and subsequently normativity and performativity take place. Think of all the couples celebrating New Year’s Eve romantically in Paris. On the contrary, Paris can also be seen as the city of the French revolution (as it is seen!) as there can be multiple images of places that co-exist. Place-framing is highly political as certain values, opinions or even incentives can be behind it. Still, many couples visit Paris for a romantic trip, as this is still the image that is highlighted. Place-framing thus construct the normativity of Paris being romantic and the performativity that as couple you should definitely go there. Therefore feelings of place or national identity can be seen as constructed and reproduced through place-framing and slowly enforces certain performances that confirm that image.

However this is actually a very stereotyped and museumified image. Though: these symbols of Paris are recognisable all over the world. Hereby it is important to distinguish between the internal and external value of the place-framing. Place-framing always depend on a certain background and consists of (1) a direction or target group, and (2) an aim or purpose. To whom and for what reasons has place-making been used? Often there exists a gap between internal and external values as place-framing is merely aimed at shaping the view of externals on presenting a certain take on the identity of that place. In the Paris case this gap leads to an externally recognisable place but the Paris people themselves can feel alienated or disembedded by the promoted ”culturenormativity” giving rise to contestation. As such, place-framing is tied by the duality of positionality, that, one the one hand place-framing can lead to external celebration and sense of place, however, on the other hand can lead to internal degradation, museumification and feelings of being out of place. This can be seen as cultural facade or parallax whereby the context and thus the observation of objects has changed over time (Žižek, 2011) and subsequently leads to hollow or disembedded phenomena that have transformed over time. The original internal value has shifted towards hollow external outside value that stereotypes or alters that traditional origins (Baricco, 2009).

Case #2: Liverpool The Liverpool-case (Boland, 2010) exemplifies that place-framing is a very sensitive practise that can lead to resistance from below. In its strive to become the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2006 the Liverpool bid highlighted and promoted certain images from top-down in which the citizens did not recognise themselves. In essence, Liverpool was characterised and put on the map by the activating of two images: that of The Beatles, and that of football.

Picture 2. Liverpool promotion campaign depicting Paul McCartney. Source:

This take on identity had external value towards tourists and the cultural bid, but raised contestation by the locals as they felt alienated and even museumified. This is not our identity! Important facets of the history of Liverpool where left out, such as its function as working class harbour city and hub in the slave trade. And even more, Liverpool still contains subordinated neighbourhoods, in which they could not believe that the city council could spent so much money on fancy place-framing instead of solving the deprived situations. These people felt rejected, left-out, and did not identify themselves with the glamoury identity that was promoted. The internal value did not match with the external values. And these conflicting interpretations of the past, serving the legitimate a particular understanding of the present, are put to use in a battle over what is to come (Massey, 1995). Yet this take on Liverpool as a place was taken, selectively activating certain readings of the past, and therefore, is political in its nature.

Conclusion As cities found themselves competing on increasing scales of the globalising world place-framing enables them to stand out versus its competitors. Place-framing, however, is always based on one’s background in terms of norms and values and often consists of a direction and purpose. Note: framing always happens in the human mind to comprehend with the world we are in; even this very article is framed by my perspective. Nonetheless it is important to denote that framing can be given in by a variety of perspectives, values, reasons and more. Active place-framing involves the activation of particular readings of the identity of a place as it carves out order and dominance in the flows of places that are always relational and becoming. This act of highlighting and stigmatising is highly subjective and political in nature and often used to serve more goals than meets the eye. The case of Paris showed how place-framing constructs normativity and performativity of Paris being romantic. Nonetheless postmodernism gives in that multiple place-frames can co-exist although some frames can be more dominant. Even more it was highlighted that place-framing eventually enforces the people on the ground to reproduce certain images of Paris over and over but actually becomes a hollow tradition. It showed how place-framing can have different values and purposes for internal and external users and thus can lead to museumification and the cultural facade. The case of Liverpool shows how place-framing is a very sensitive practise that can lead to resistance from below as the promoted frame does not match with its users from within. As the article showed (place-) framing is something profoundly human and something we do in our everyday life to make sense of the world, but should be treated more consciously when used in planning practises. Key sources:

Baricco, A (2006). The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture. Rizzoli International Publications.

Boland, P. (2010). Capital of Culture – you must be having a laugh! Challenging the Official Rhetoric of Liverpool as the 2008 European Cultural Capital. Social and Cultural Geography, 11 (7), 627-645.

Massey, D. (1995). Places and Their Pasts. History Workshop Journal, 39, 182-192.

Žižek, S. (2011). Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences. Routledge Publishers. Other sources can be find online.

maart 10, 2016

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