24 October 2015

PhD Thesis preface: Place branding in strategic spatial planning

This Ph.D. thesis brings together the strategic spatial planning approach and place branding, specifically at the regional scale. It critically explores the actual or potential roles of place branding as an instrument for the attainment of strategic spatial planning goals. This discussion is gaining particular momentum at a time when the application of branding techniques and principles to places, such as cities and regions, has been firmly positioned on the agendas of local and regional governments. Place managers and policy-makers have been embracing place branding as a panacea for a bewildering assortment of deep-seated economic and social ailments, as well as a critical component to assist regional development strategies. However, and in spite of theoretical and empirical advancements, the debate on place branding often lacks any intellectual grounding or even positioning within wider spatial planning strategies, and is ripe for a rethinking in terms of its origins, theoretical underpinnings, conceptual development and practical applications.

Strategic spatial planning, which has been gaining in popularity in Europe, particularly at the regional level, was conceived as a means of overcoming the temporal and often spatial limitations and rigidities of traditional/statutory planning, by confronting the contemporary social, spatial and economic needs of a place and envisioning shared, realistic and desirable better futures for places and their citizens. Strategic spatial planning focuses on a limited number of strategic key issues and focuses on place-specific qualities and assets (whether tangible or intangible). In addition, strategic spatial planning involves relevant place actors and the specific activities of citizens, politicians and spatial planners. Proactive civic participation in a collective strategy and vision for a place (for instance, a region) may generate trust and legitimize spatial interventions, as participants in the process are likely to find that some visions present a future that certain individuals would like to inhabit; to work, study and play in; visit and develop leisure activities in, while other possible futures are considered highly undesirable. In this regard, place branding may be used in support of such visionary realignments and structural change; to foster economic restructuring, social inclusion and cohesion, political engagement and civic participation; as well as the reinforcement of place identification and the general well-being of citizens and communities.

The theoretical assumption postulated in this thesis is that place branding could and perhaps should be integrated into strategic spatial planning, independent of the geographical scale of application and whether the place branding initiatives are novel or a re-branding exercise. This thesis investigates the empirical significance of a regional branding strategy for northern Portugal (NUTS II), integrated into wider strategic spatial planning, and its ability to overcome the entrenched regional, economic and social difficulties and imbalances. To achieve this aim, a qualitative methodology was employed. Specifically, a content analysis of strategic spatial plans, development plans, strategic initiatives and online tourist-/traveller-generated content for Portugal and its northern region. In addition, 16 regional actors with a stake (and expertise) in the region were interviewed. 

By drawing the attention of scholars, practitioners and policy-makers towards place branding as a strategic spatial planning instrument, this thesis aims to contribute to theoretical underpinnings of place branding in order to make it effective, efficient, socially and environmentally responsible and more grounded in theory.