Shedding light in dark places

Journal of Place Management and Development

ISSN: 1753-8335

Article publication date: 25 July 2008



Feehan, D.M. (2008), "Shedding light in dark places", Journal of Place Management and Development, Vol. 1 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Shedding light in dark places

Article Type: Review From: Journal of Place Management and Development, Volume 1, Issue 2

The Journal of Place Management and Development has been launched, and judging by the first issue, it promises to be an ambitious and important undertaking.

From the perspective of one who has worked in place management, broadly defined, for 40 years, and especially from one who considers downtowns and town centers an essential component of civilization, I find the articles particularly relevant and thoughtful. Each author raises and discusses questions that professionals in the field have wrestled with for years. If the authors have not discovered answers to all of these questions, they have at least shed new light on the issues that are central to and surround them.

Cathy Parker, in her opening editorial, leaps into the fray with a discussion of boundaries – something that has troubled scholars and practitioners for years, if not decades. In order to establish boundaries, it is first essential to define what we mean by place and why “place” is, in itself, something that is “consumed”; not just the location where something else is consumed. In the USA and elsewhere, we have been waging place wars for as long as there have been human inhabitants. Over the past-half century or so, these place wars have been largely defined as city versus suburb and downtown versus shopping mall.

Recently, boundaries have become increasingly blurred. Suburbs, especially first tier suburbs, now look very much like central cities in their demographic makeup, the problems they are forced to address, and the solutions they are developing. Most metropolitan areas of any size are no longer centered on a traditional downtown and ringed by shopping malls; they have now become polycentric or multiple downtown regions. This changes the whole dynamic, as definitions, edges and boundaries become increasingly blurred and uncertain.

This issue of blurred boundaries affects not only definitions of place; but it also affects definitions of place managers. Who are they? What do they do? From what body of knowledge and research do they draw upon? Fayth Ruffin and her colleagues at Rutgers University have created what promises to be a strong competitor in a new and growing industry: professional development certification for place managers.

Watching this nascent profession develop reminds me of the birth of another profession, social work. When I was working on my graduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, I was fascinated by the various histories of that profession as it emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As with place management, social work struggled mightily with boundary and definitional issues.

Certification and licensing are issues for virtually any profession; but because place management tends to be a “horizontal” field as opposed to a “vertical” field (it requires practitioners to know a little about a lot of things rather than a lot about a few things); it is more difficult, perhaps, to determine who gets to hang out his or her shingle as a certified professional.

Once a professional place manager is working, with or without certification, how does one measure success? Darren Lee-Ross uses SERVQUAL as a means of measuring the performance of the place. While this offers some promise in terms of a shopping mall, how applicable is it to downtown locations? Downtown and town center managers must also be leaders, and in many cities leadership is at least as important as management. Tasks like building consensus among disparate stakeholders, influencing public policy decisions, and developing visionary plans are not something the SERVQUAL methodology seems capable of measuring – at least, not in the short- to mid-term. Nevertheless, from an IDA perspective, there is much that is useful in studying how shopping centers and, for that matter, new cities like Dubai are managed, marketed, and maintained.

Clearly, the issue of creating and communicating a brand directly affects the success of any place. Can cities like Syracuse, Liverpool, Auckland or Turin learn anything from Dubai? What does it mean to have such an extraordinary vision and the means to build that vision? Melodena Stephens Balakrishnan provides an insightful and useful examination of the relationship between tourism and destination branding. But tourism is only one facet of this almost mythical Middle Eastern metropolis. The same branding principles apply, and can be used, by place managers in cities throughout the globe, and they ignore these principles at their own peril.

I could not help enjoying the article on Novi Ligure and its town center management scheme. Thanks to a grant from the US Government and the Smithsonian Institution, I led a team of downtown managers to this town and three others, in order to help them prepare for the 2006 Winter Olympics. There is much to learn from even small towns.

James Yanchula’s essay on “Finding one’s place in the place management spectrum” is especially readable and useful for any place manager. His differentiation between management and development organizations really addresses, thought not quite so explicitly, the issue of leadership. At the top of his place management spectrum pyramid is a band he calls advocacy, and here is where leadership truly resides. It is at this level that downtown managers can truly influence not just what is, but what might be.

Perhaps, the enduring value of this new journal is that it should serve a constant reminder of what might be, as well as a place to learn about what is. Too often, professional journals become lost in the much dreaded “paralysis by analysis.” This journal offers hope to a new profession, because there is still so much to learn. The challenge for the journal’s editors will be to keep peering around the corner, shedding light in dark places, and challenging both scholars and practitioners to look for wisdom as well as knowledge.

David M. Feehan

President, International Downtown Association, Washington, DC, USA

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