A Practical Guide for Marketing Urban Living

Published December 4, 2017

For decades, urban planners and academic experts have declared urban decay to be a force of nature, but a new manual written for elected officials says cities can be great again if their leaders apply basic marketing principles.

In Selling City Living: How Cities Can Compete With the Suburbs for Growth, author and urban planning expert John L. Gann Jr. presents actionable steps and concise case studies to explain how cities can use time-tested marketing principles to attract new residents and improve existing residents’ quality of life.

Identifying the Real Problem

Instead of complaining about suburbs, Selling City Living: How Cities Can Compete with the Suburbs for Growth acknowledges people leave cities because suburbs are promoting themselves successfully.

If urban areas promoted themselves and met people’s needs, people would be moving in, Gann writes.

“This is not another in the long line of suburb-bashing books,” Gann writes. “Nor is it yet another trashing of the automobile, the major enabler of suburban growth. These pages deal with the reality that automobiles and suburbia became successful because millions of people liked them. That’s an accomplishment to be admired and emulated, rather than lamented or denounced.

“What this manual argues is that cities are products in a competitive marketplace,” Gann writes. “Since World War II, the suburbs have eclipsed cities as popular places to live because they were very well-marketed. The cities lost their primacy for non-farm living because they weren’t [well-marketed]. Cities faced new competition to which they utterly failed to respond.”

To regain that primacy, cities must identify why people left, what their customer base wants from a place to live, and how the city can deliver what “consumers” want.

Milk and Marketing

Selling city living is like selling milk, Gann writes.

“You can’t order a glass of milk in today’s popular fast-food restaurants,” Gann writes. “That makes milk less visible than it used to be, and invisibility is fatal to marketing. So, before you can sell Borden’s, you have to sell milk. That understanding produced the ‘Got Milk?’ campaign.

“Because of decades of suburban living, older cities as places to live, recreate, or shop are also less visible than they once were, although they remain strong as places for work and entertainment,” Gann writes. “Invisibility allows myths and misperceptions to grow. To get new perceptions about cities into people’s heads, you first have to get some old perceptions out.”

Thoughtful marketing can save any product with flagging sales, including city living, Gann writes.

“When a commercial product in the marketplace loses or fails to win sales and customers, it has failed at marketing,” Gann writes. “The product may have taken a form that made it uncompetitive in the marketplace, or the product’s competitiveness was not made known to enough customers. Cities are no different. Cities are products in the marketplace.… Marketing failure was the cause of cities’ decline, and marketing, properly understood, can be the source of their revival.”

Busting Myths About Cities

Gann recommends city officials debunk the myth of cities having uniformly poor-quality education systems, by explaining how urban neighborhoods can offer more options.

For example, living in an urban area means living in an area with more schools, both government-run and private, Gann writes.

“Families with school-age children are sold on suburban living because of good schools and both realities and perceptions that schools in the city are bad,” Gann writes. “Many city neighborhoods are still served by good public schools. They should tell their story. Charter schools, private schools, and parochial schools mean that public schools are not the only option.… Schools in older cities are often a walkable distance from neighborhood homes. That means no waiting for a school bus and no need for Mom’s taxi service. It also means more healthy daily physical activity for students, none of which is usually possible in the suburbs.”

Playing to Their Strengths

To cities’ advantage, urban design has more variety because individual decisions played a larger role in the city’s evolution, Gann writes, and elected officials should learn to use that advantage to compete for new residents.

“Older cities are the product of the individual decisions of thousands of people,” Gann writes. “Suburbs are the products of the decisions of a few developers working to meet mass-market preferences and the one-size-fits-all requirements of land-use regulations. That has made older cities less cookie-cutter uniform and more interesting. Older cities are physically and visually diverse, being the work of thousands of ‘planners.'”

Every section of Gann’s manual expertly explains how cities can promote economic prosperity and quality of life, for new and current city dwellers alike.

The manual’s lesson is simple, and one that government officials would do well to learn: When cities meet residents’ needs and wants, everyone wins.