Placemaking on a Regional Scale: Does Sacramento Need Another Icon? Part 1

If you asked someone from another part of the country to describe one place in the Sacramento region, what do you think they would say? They would most likely be stumped to come up with an answer.

If you asked someone from Minneapolis, Baltimore, or Dallas who had never visited San Francisco to describe a place there, they could easily talk about a never-ending number of landmarks: the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, the Transamerica Building, AT&T Park (the home of the San Francisco Giants). Los Angeles and Las Vegas provide similar lists: the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign, the Capitol Records Building, Dodger Stadium, Staples Center, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign, the Luxor pyramid and spotlight. Napa Valley has the rolling vineyards and charming towns, Reno has the “Biggest Little City in the World” sign, the Monterey Peninsula has Cannery Row and Pebble Beach, and San Diego’s Balboa Park and Santa Barbara are known for their distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival architecture.

These icons are the postcard images that people have of a region, city, or town. A 2009 Cornell University study produced the following list of the world’s most photographed metropolitan areas and, within each metropolitan area, the most photographed landmark based on an analysis of the photo-sharing website Flickr:

  1. New York City Metropolitan Area – Empire State Building
  2. London Metropolitan Area – Trafalgar Square
  3. San Francisco Metropolitan Area – Coit Tower
  4. Paris Metropolitan Area – Eiffel Tower
  5. Los Angeles Metropolitan Area – Disneyland
  6. Chicago Metropolitan Area – Cloud Gate Sculpture
  7. Washington, DC Metropolitan Area – Washington Memorial
  8. Seattle Metropolitan Area – Space Needle
  9. Rome Metropolitan Area – Colosseum
  10. Amsterdam Metropolitan Area – Dam Square
Chicago's Cloud Gate Sculpture

Chicago’s Cloud Gate Sculpture

The icons examined in the study provide insight into the character of the overall metropolitan areas. New York City’s icons tend to show an exciting urban environment and early 20th century architecture, San Francisco’s the beauty of the city, and Los Angeles’ the glamour of the entertainment industry, contemporary architecture, and recreation. Seattle’s Space Needle conveys a modern, high-tech image for the city and region even though the Needle (and the accompanying Monorail) are both 50 years old. San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Seattle’s Pike Place Market showcase their respective regions’ abundance of natural, healthy foods, particularly seafood. Convention and visitors bureau and economic development officials recognize the simplicity and directness of these images in attracting tourists, new residents, and new businesses.

So if you asked that person from Minneapolis, Baltimore, or Dallas to describe a place in the Sacramento region, it is likely they would mention something about the Sacramento Kings or the Capitol Building. They probably could not tell you what the Capitol Building exactly looked like, other than to say it probably has a dome and Grecian columns. The images that Sacramento residents have of their city and region – the Tower Bridge, Old Sacramento, Sutter’s Fort, the Delta King Riverboat, the Interstate 80 Causeway, Cal Expo, Power Balance Pavilion, Raley Field – probably would not register with outsiders.

Icons not only show what a region has been or is, but what it strives to be. Seattle’s modern Space Needle and Monorail were built long before the founding of high tech powerhouses Microsoft and Inspired by the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, Seattle civic leaders developed the 1962 World’s Fair to showcase the importance of science and science education and strengthened the role of technology in the region’s economic identity.

The Sacramento region’s civic leaders might want to consider the importance of icons in diversifying the area’s economic base. An icon does not need to be expensive or monumental, but does need to show creativity and key into something that is fundamentally true about the region. The classic elements of the Sacramento region’s identity – its important role during the Gold Rush and in the building of the national railroad and highway systems, the prominence of natural features such as the American and Sacramento River, Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, setting in one of the world’s foremost agricultural areas, and its role as California’s capital city – could provide a basis for such an icon.

For an icon to truly resonate with people outside of northern California, though, it must easily convey a story about a region with which many people in the country are unfamiliar. My next entry will discuss these potential stories and icons.

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