Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, according to United Nations, with forecasts projecting this number will grow to 68% by 2050. So it’s clear that, despite some of the many intuitive (and perpetually annoying) disadvantages of living in a large urban centre, the benefits far outweigh whatever complaints we have so far come up with.

Instead of looking at the usual set of pros and cons, this article will take a look at the notion of cities as metaphors, i.e. the often intangible and difficult-to-describe characteristics that make (some) cities reach for the stars, in their visions, dreams and aspirations, unlike other urban centres, which have remained stagnant or regressive. Ironically, many of the cities’ brand-building qualities are not measured by the height of a city’s tallest skyscrapers. Far from it, in fact. Rather, they are to be found in areas that reside closer to the notions of experience, ambience, even intimacy, as opposed to growth, progress or technical innovations in the spirit of smart-city methodologies.

The Language of Urban Discourse

Urban development experts often use metaphors to describe the many colourful facets of urban development, including the social or historical identity of cities. They use phrases such as the city fabric,  backbone or pillar; they refer to cities as living organisms describing them as melting pots or jungles, not to mention the (over)use of verbs such as buzzing with activity or adjectives like vibrant and refreshing, or cities having green lungs. If you study the glossy marketing materials produced by some of the best architecture houses worldwide, hardly a paragraph gets written without a metaphor or two.

There are many ways to look at modern cities and the underlying cornerstones of their collective identities. One of the key words (or concepts) would probably have to be linked to MEMORY, in one way or another. In other words, how a community’s past experience has shaped and influenced its contemporary ‘self-understanding’, the particular blend of pride and prejudice you can expect from its people, institutions…and streets.

Metaphorically Speaking

Cities can also be looked at through the prism of ephemeral concepts such as the type and the level of (hopefully positive) energy that can be experienced in contact with a city. To take another example, the possible outcomes of the old meeting the new is a very interesting research area, in its own right.

Cities can also be looked at as revolving around generic concepts such as (a particular variety of) business activity, lifestyle, entertainment or cultural offer. When you think of places such as Paris, Ibiza, Florence, Dubrovnik or London, chances are your mind will automatically revert to mental labels attached to those sites in a split of a second, just like you would upon hearing a particular business brand like AppleNike or Coca-Cola. Expectations shape the reality, they say.

Some Metaphors Are Start-Ups

It’s 21st century we are talking about, after all, so it’s quite inevitable that (any) map of urban metaphors should have become much more complex by now. Today, cities are often looked at through very pragmatic categories, such as human capital (also a metaphor, by the way), creativityinnovations. They like to talk about themselves as ideal venues for attending or organising a particular type of events, for example. Few people need reminding how important the so-called MICE industry is for contemporary cities .

Urban Storytellers

As mentioned in the previous article on this blog, to build a strong brand of a city is an infinitely more complex task these days than to build a brand of a company, any company, for that matter. Interestingly, however, to damage a city’s reputation internationally, might just be a little harder.

Some of the world’s greatest cities are also great storytellers. Some of their stories become dominant as a result of an evolutionary path they have tread over centuries and some as a result of a conscious choice followed by a comprehensive strategy.

In the articles that follow, I will be looking at cities through the prism of metaphors, using examples from Kraków (mostly) to illustrate a broader phenomenon or make a point on a (hopefully) interesting aspect of urban development. Stay tuned.