“This is my city” – Urban identity

Text: Prof. Dr. Oliver Scheytt

How do we experience a city? What aspects of it do we notice? We first experience a city in terms of its architecture, as a collection of structures. Our experience is essentially shaped by certain fixed points, such as the old or new parts of the city, high-rise or flat-roofed buildings, towers, greenspace or bodies of water. They help us to orient ourselves – in unfamiliar as well as familiar environments.

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Department stores and town squares, historical buildings and fountains are features that allow us to describe a city in specific and vivid terms. They lend it a distinctive character – provided that its individuality has not fallen victim to the kind of one-size-fits-all architecture that has become ubiquitous; chain stores are a prime example of this phenomenon. Historical and topographical elements play a crucial, indeed irreplaceable role in our perceptions of a city. Cultural buildings, such as museums and theaters, and educational institutions, such as libraries, music schools and adult education centers, can be distinctive markers as well, reflecting how the city sees itself.

The city’s physical structures provide the setting for its social and cultural life, which also shapes the look and feel of a city. But here, too, the initial focus is on the image the city presents to the outside world: When we think of Düsseldorf’s elegant Königsallee and the people who gather there, it conjures up a very different milieu than when we think of the people on the streets of the Duisburg-Ruhrort district. Spending time at the marketplace in Nuremberg, listening to the local dialect and seeing Nuremberg’s famous sausages, a visitor is unlikely to confuse it with Hamburg’s fish market. A city’s social and cultural fabric has a profound effect on what we call its ambiance. Contributing factors include the people who live there,
the relationships among various population groups, the residents’ national origins, foreigners and students. The diverse experiences a city has to offer are a function of multiple elements, and particularly its architectural features. All of these things shape much of the urban experience, from leisure activities and consumer opportunities to social and cultural encounters between and among residents and visitors.

The reasons why visitors or residents happen to be in the city are important as well. If they are there to consume or shop, they may be less interested in the new museum on the corner and its striking architecture than in what they can buy and the shopping environment – even if the museum helps to shape that environment. How they perceive the city is therefore also a function of how it affects them personally and their attitudes, which are influenced by their experiences, education, occupations and interests at that specific moment. Finally, the feelings and judgments we attach to our own perceptions play an important role in how we experience a city.

Identity and image

A distinction should be made between how we experience a city first-hand – our own perceptions and assessments – and a mediated experience, one that has been shaped (and judged) by the media or the reports of others, and one that significantly affects a city’s image.

Efforts to mold and even transform a city’s image are the province of a city promoter. Images are shaped by comparisons with a certain ideal, but also with other cities and experiences. Municipalities have always been concerned with image. Image is at play, for example, when the people who live in the “upper village” consider themselves superior to their neighbors in the “lower village” – or vice versa. In a mountain village, those who live at a higher altitude see themselves as “strong, courageous and serious,” while they regard those living just a few hundred meters below them as “soft, weak and self-indulgent.” In contrast, the people in the “lower village” believe that they are “smarter, healthier and more fun-loving” than their neighbors up the hill, whom they disparage as “stubborn, poor and backward.”

“Image,” then, is the amalgamation of many people’s impressions, combined to form a single, more homogeneous, “representative” picture. In most cases a city already has a certain image; no first-hand experience is required. Over time, the public has come to embrace certain clichés and images – which are tenacious and often slower to change than the cities themselves. In the Ruhr region, for example, some visitors still expect to encounter coal dust, despite the fact that nearly all of the mines closed long ago. The image of a city can be very much at odds with its (now radically different) identity.

Image also has a great deal to do with a city’s future. A positive image is essential for attracting industry, conventions and other major events, as well as for promoting tourism and appealing to shoppers.

Culture plays a defining role in shaping a city’s image and identity. How the city perceives itself is reflected in its culture and communications. Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall (a cultural building), the Salzburg Festival (a cultural event) and the Bayer Arts & Culture Erholungshaus in Leverkusen (a provider of regular programming) are only a few examples. Cultural sites and events provide insight into a crucial question: How do people live and work? This question is central to a city’s culture. It focuses on the people and their way of life, their living conditions and the relationships among diverse cultures. Art and culture encourage reflection: Where do we come from? What makes us who we are? What do we want our future to look like? Every cultural medium and artistic production raises these questions – to which we find our own answers in urban society, in the form of the stories that bind us together. Thus cultural institutions are among the most important places where we can talk with one another about our city and its identity. Every day, and every evening, people come together to share activities, experiences, communication, reflection and entertainment – whether at a trendy bar, the theater, a museum, the cinema, a concert or a cultural center. Cultural events of all kinds, including tradition-steeped as well as contemporary festivals, set the tone for urban life.

Art and culture shape not only the city’s image, but also its more profound identity. Whereas “image” is a representative, generalized perception, “identity” captures a city’s true, unique essence and the nature of the people who live there.

Identity and identification

The reciprocal relationship between a city’s citizens, as observers and actors, and the structures, culture and life of the city is expressed through identification, in the sense of “This is how we see ourselves, and how we want to be seen.” As multipliers and communicators of their city’s identity (which ideally has positive associations), citizens necessarily identify with that city. Many people are proud of their hometowns’ symbols and unique features – examples include Aachen’s cathedral, with its significance for German kings; Herbert Grönemeyer’s song “Tief im Westen” about his home city of Bochum; Düsseldorf’s famous “cartwheeler”; Gelsenkirchen’s football club, Schalke 04; the agricultural traditions of Neuenkirchen; the artists’ village in Schöppingen; Wuppertal’s suspension railway; and the Bayer cross, which is visible even from the motorway. The pictures they evoke in people’s minds are more than mere “image factors.” They symbolize something distinctive and original, something that inhabitants can identify with because it is unique to their city and not present in the same form anywhere else.

Cultural programs and events offer a wide variety of opportunities to engage with the elements that lend a city its identify, and to share in the city’s unique traditions and their significance. The more attention a city’s identity and unique features are highlighted, the more its citizens are activated, and the more the (cultural) public is inspired by everything that makes up the city’s identity – the sooner the city’s residents will embrace the idea that “this is my city” and be able to identify with it.


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