A Unique Vision of Your Place

On a sunlit afternoon in mid-August 2015, I found myself standing on a street corner in San Francisco, one that I had stood on, on a similarly beautiful afternoon some 20 years earlier. This time though, I found myself letting out a sigh of deep resignation, thinking, this is what globalisation looks like.

When I had previously stood on that corner, in the early 1990’s, it reflected the unique vibrancy of San Francisco, which to me as a young music fan had come to the world’s attention via the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’.

At that time 100’s of thousands of the ‘new hippies’ had been gathering through that summer in Golden Gate Park. Bands like Jefferson Airplane were from the city and The Mamas and The Papas glorified it in the song, "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”. Venues such as The Avalon Ballroom and The Fillmore, and another street corner at Haight-Ashbury, became the global focal point of both this movement that belonged to a new generation, and San Francisco itself. San Francisco, through its people, music and places, marked itself out as unique.

The corner I was standing on last August was at Powell and Ellis. Even in the 1990’s it contained a hint of the city’s history, but also it was reflective of a city that thought for itself, found its own way. A city that was San Francisco.

Now I was looking at Uniqlo, Desigual, The Body Shop, Urban Outfitters and a shop for lease, for what I assume will be significantly higher rent than a start-up or unique local fashion designer could afford. Just up the road I can see a huge H&M. These are all successful and desired brands, but do we need them on every street? At the possible exclusion of local artisans, artists and their ideas?

Sadly I found this same mix, give or take a L’Occitane or two, when I stood on a street corner in Los Angeles, London, Paris or New York within the next few weeks.

Where were the local businesses that defined what these cities represent in both the imagination of the travelers yet to visit as well as the people who live there now?

This sameness was highlighted in a recent article in The Guardian by Kyle Chayka, who writes about how the so-called hipster aesthetic is taking over the world. But it’s not hip, it’s homogenised, as he says its, 'Same old, same old'.

To tackle the sameness, the city where I live has run a program, called The Finegrain Program, since around 2009. I ran this program, helped define what it was and how it played out in the city.

It was very much in response to issues Sydney faced around the high cost of rent and the danger this posed for new business. Through our work the City realised that, if it was only the corporates that could afford the high street, they would dominate them and Sydney would end up as a homogenised city full of Country Road and Cotton On. I defined Finegrain, for the purpose of the city’s program, as being the businesses that were “unique, interesting, bespoke and innovative.”

In spite of the program, and its success in focusing on the problems of high rents and the importance of diversification, Sydney now has a new problem, which again is being reflected in my experience of that afternoon in San Francisco.

Land prices. Developers are frantically building apartment blocks in the inner city, indeed in places like Sydney’s Barangaroo and Green Square, whole new suburbs are emerging.

This new development is supposed to create vibrant inner-city urban living, however new money and the need for easy to access safe experiences are changing whole neighbourhoods. Its 'Urban - Suburbanisation'.

This was highlighted by a recent New York Times article by Bryan Miller, who writes about the travails of New Yorkers seeking new pastures because of rampant development around existing neighbourhoods; and how they in turn are seeking similar experiences to those they know making these new suburbs they move too less affordable; at which point the existing residents have to defend what it was they enjoyed about their place through cultural expression and social interactions. However, inevitably, the outcome is the existing residents move on, due to increased rents and sadly so does the culture that defined their place.

Back to Sydney, what are these new experiences that are being built in these new suburbs? Are they genuinely Finegrain, new business ideas? Are they 'unique or innovative', or are they a new franchise of Finegrain? One that seeks to replicate the success of the original, but actually delivers another Bill’s, Messina and Harris Farm, great businesses in themselves, but do you need one in every suburb? It is in danger of becoming at franchise of the ‘Sydney Experience'.

If this is the case what would then make a place unique and why would anyone want to visit if it just replicates where they live?

What makes a unique place? You would certainly need art as your heartbeat, your definition. But you also need character and characters, your soul, who in many cases are the unique business offerings of the attractors who embed what the culture is in a place. The unique offering of any place and its flavours has the ability to liberate its community and it's consumers. This is not what is now being witnessed in the new Sydney and in possibly in developments in numerous other cities around the world.

We can change this, by initially recognising it, not as a convenience but as an issue of identity and visioning better outcomes for our places. By not accepting what developers offer as their vision for YOUR place.

With the current focus on delivery of “place”, not experience, eventually this might mean that we do not travel anywhere, because everywhere will be the same.

All cities will soon have their global brand infrastructure like Zara, H&M, Uniqlo, whilst at the finegrain level, perhaps nationally, it will be the likes of a Messina and Bills; and this means that for future generations, looking for unique life experiences through travel, they will see the same thing they see on their street everywhere, and that is a sad legacy to leave them.

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