Life as a second city: Tacoma needs to find its own way to gain greater recognition

February 16, 2014 

Imagine someone writes a newspaper story about you and prints the picture of your older, well-known sibling next to the column. It is clear to you why this was done: Your sibling is more famous and recognizable. But how does that make you feel?

Following the Jan. 28 State of the Union address, PBS interviewed a number of civic leaders. One of those interviewed was the mayor of Tacoma, a city with many of the challenges and attributes of a second child.

The older sibling (that is, Seattle) has a nationally recognizable architectural landmark and a larger economy, and there is a higher likelihood that people around the country have heard its name rather than Tacoma’s.

Should we be surprised, therefore, that when Mayor Marilyn Strickland was being interviewed, “(D) Tacoma, Washington,” was written at the bottom of the screen, but behind her was an image of Seattle’s skyline? The Tacoma Dome, downtown Tacoma, the Museum of Glass and other Tacoma landmarks were notably absent.

Instead of using the Seattle image and perhaps to suggest where the program was being taped, PBS had an opportunity to educate the public (and to be factually correct) by showing a picture of Strickland’s town, Tacoma. Instead, PBS reinforced Tacoma’s “second city” image by visually identifying it with a picture of its more famous sibling.

Imagine how bothersome this is to people who live in Tacoma. A local columnist (The News Tribune’s Peter Callaghan) lamented that with Seattle’s picture as the backdrop, it was hard to focus on what the mayor was saying.

The “second city” phenomenon is not exclusively a Tacoma issue. Glasgow, Scotland; Melbourne, Australia; Milan, Italy; Montreal, Quebec; St. Paul, Minn.; Long Beach, Calif.; and many other cities around the globe face a similar challenge.

Either their identity has not been well-articulated, or it has not been understood by external observers.

This is not a logo problem. It is not about a catchy phrase, and it is not about another cultural event. Unique architectural landmarks can create memorable identities, but these phallic symbols already dot cities the world over. Whether in Dubai, Barcelona or Beijing, starchitects would be happy to add the next jaw-dropper to any city willing to deposit a large sum of public funds at their altars.

But for smaller cities, this level of economic competition is not affordable. This is where the notion of “urban branding” comes in. Cities need an internally generated and well-articulated narrative of identity before they can be recognized externally.

At the beginning of the 21st century, many cities, including Tacoma, are finding themselves struggling with this notion at local, regional and international scales. How does a city get out of the shadow of another city? How do you broadcast who you are?

Creating hipster colonies or 24-hour entertainment districts does not always work. Cities like Tacoma already house museums, artist colonies, hip hangouts and, yes, waterfront condos with killer views. Nevertheless, the glitzy brother 20 miles north casts a long shadow that may stunt growth and contribute to a feeling of self-doubt.

To get out of this position, cities like Tacoma need more than cultural fairs and gimmicky tourist attractions. They need an inclusively created branding strategy. It is important that they know what works and what doesn’t, but strategies need to be based on a vision that gives the city the self-confidence it needs to move forward.

Tacoma cannot be and should not be Seattle, in the same way that Long Beach is not and should not be Los Angeles. The identity of a city does not arise out of a formula calculated by the latest intellectual fashion, but from an inclusively created vision that seeks input from the public and asks help from experts, not the other way around.

Perhaps one the worst ideas of the last 20 years has been an excessive reliance on “best practices” and “experts.” We need to learn about each other, but we need to do it our way and articulate a clear vision of who we are. The second child can also succeed.

None of this, however, diminishes the responsibility of media outlets. Tacoma is not Seattle. A major news outlet should educate itself and the public by using accurate images. The next time a TV station invites the mayor of Tacoma to participate in a program, here’s hoping they don’t show the Space Needle in the background.

For now, people will be sleepless in Tacoma until they figure out their way out of being the second city.

UWT forum

The University of Washington Tacoma Urban Studies forum, “Beyond Urban Branding,” will be held Thursday from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. in William W. Philip Hall. It is free, but space is limited. For registration information, go to http://tinyurl. com/lg6cy7d.

Ali Modarres is director of Urban Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma. A geographer and landscape architect specializing in urban planning and policy, he has written extensively about social geography, transportation planning and urban development issues in American cities. This article first appeared at NewGeography.com.

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