General CityChanger Luca Ballarini: Empowering People Through City Imaging

CityChanger Luca Ballarini: Empowering People Through City Imaging

Karl Dickinson
Enthusiastic about real change that impacts real lives. Believer in the power of the individual; it can make all the difference. I enjoy connecting with people who have the wildest ideas and the enthusiasm to bring them to life.

When Luca Ballarini came up with the idea of ‘city imaging’, he didn’t yet know the impact it could have. Within less than a decade, the concept has become a powerful tool that anyone can use to drive change in their city. Read on to discover how the creative and cultural community is integral to the public perceiving and pushing for better places.

With his team at Torino Stratosferica in 2014, graphic designer Luca Ballarini coined a new term: ‘city imaging’. In technical terms, the origins of imaging hark back to the medical sector: a picture built from the results of a scan, Luca explains in conversation after presenting at Urban Future 22. But for creatives – or indeed the cultural community and entrepreneurs – this was adapted to “provide an image for the city, which is somehow different and more related to our desire for the city of the future.”

A City Imager’s Influences

In Italian, the word ‘fighetto’, Luca translates, “means cool, but cool in a way that is a little bit pretentious. It’s a cool thing that knows about its own coolness”.

He notices policymakers and city leaders crave ‘cool’ new ideas, possibly as a way to generate support and popularity from the public. But, as fighetto implies, maybe this isn’t the best direction.

Influencers and modern content creators produce city images that are not necessarily new – they just excel at delivering them as if they’re fresh. Luca recognises that this is his role, too.

“We should be able to go back and grab the best concepts that thinkers at the turn of the century have left us with and repackage them in a way that is useful for the challenges that we have ahead.”

Luca is a trained architect; although, due to an early brief he worked on and a personal interest in urban history and sociology, his career took a different path.

Inspired by historic and contemporary urban thinkers such as Julian Beinart of MIT, Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes, and Lewis Mumford, Luca instead chose graphic design as his media.

“My angle to urbanism is much more intellectual than practical. I’m not an urbanist and I don’t know the rules about urbanism,” he admits. In many ways, the work he does proves that not only technically trained city planners or elected officials have the power to create change.

The Origins of Imaging

Our CityChanger founded Torino Stratosferica, based in his home of Turin, Italy. The website concisely states their mission: “A collective project of city imaging to build a powerful narrative through images, which enhances the potential of the city and its international positioning.”

City imaging is about creating a vision of what people want from their urban spaces using visuals and language. It seeps into every aspect of our interactions with the built environment.

“The original concept was about connecting what we aim for, what we desire from our city, to what we’re able to produce as creative people.”

A major inspiration was Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City. Published in 1960, this essay explains that a city is not just the stationary built environment. It is constantly transitioning – a lived experience with moving parts (including the people who reside in it), and for each of us a collection of memories, desires, and quibbles.

While citizens are clear about the ugliness of their familiar urban surrounds, Lynch writes, “[t]hey can have little sense of what a setting can mean in terms of daily delight”.[1] This is different compared to the positive feelings they have, for example, when visiting elsewhere as a tourist. The image we have is closely linked to our experiences.

Luca points out that imaging gives people – everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, position, or location – a chance to visualise what they ideally want for the places they live in. City imaging is, in a sense, “communication design” and a chance to “generate culture”.

Luca Ballarini Torino Stratosferica - CityChangers.org
Image credit: Torino Stratosferica

Not Just a Top-Down Process

City imaging faces a fundamental obstacle: it’s theoretical.

That is to say, the ostentatious ideas that people may wish for of their surroundings may not be physically possible to implement nor provide enough of a business case to be put in place.

It isn’t helped, Luca says, that these projects are unsolicited creations led by the creative community: “That means no clients, with no real objectives, even with no funding, and no particular guidelines.”

It is very much a bottom-up process.

“The image of the city that citizens have in their minds is not at all the same that policymakers, politicians, even advertising industry people want the people to have.”

Our CityChanger believes that urban environments shouldn’t only be top-down constructs decided by policymakers, influenced by media messages, tourism, advertising, and city marketing, nor solely determined by the complexity of planning, developing, and building processes.

For imaging advocates, the freedom to create is most important. Luca strives to deliver such free-thinking brainstorming sessions, which he likens to “the psychedelic power of some drugs in terms of being able to liberate yourself from the illusion of preconceptions of culture”. People are free to say and explore what transition looks like for them, and what they’d like to tear down and build.

So, how can this be achieved?

Facilitating Bottom-Up Ideas

Gaining any form of traction for city imaging requires a network.

Torino Stratosferica is a lynchpin of the independent creative industry in Turin, on the European scale, and internationally. Luca connects with the major companies, studios, collectives, and agencies forging similar channels of change. There’s power in a union.

“Changes are always frightening for citizens. But we have to change.”

However, it’s not always a struggle. “What’s interesting,” Luca has observed, “is that the policymakers and politicians are always looking for good ideas.” He has identified a mutual respect between decision-makers and creatives. Each has what the other needs: one holds the power; the other an abundance of ideas.

Opening up a dialogue forms a symbiosis, which is made easier by Torino Stratosferica’s status as a not-for-profit organisation: everyone knows their proposals aim to benefit the community, not fill their own pockets.

Creating Utopian Cities

After a few years of working collectively with the creative and cultural community, Luca knew it was time to showcase the best ideas to the wider population. He does so through the now-annual three-day Utopian Hours festival.

“It is the continuation of what we were doing in terms of proposing ideas and slogans and claims and solutions for the city at its best, at its most beautiful,” he explains.

This may be an unobtainable idyl, our CityChanger admits, but the ideas a utopian perspective generates are a springboard for genuine change.

Utopian Hours - CityChangers.org
Image credit: Torino Stratosferica

Breaking the Communication Barrier

City imaging can seem quite abstract, so public engagement relies on speaking about it in the right way.

Stratosferica’s team is embedded in the design and imaging industry, so are positioned to “recommend storytelling and communication tricks to people who have to then communicate this to the citizenship”. What resonates, Luca adds, is wisely choosing language that makes ideas “sound more interesting and new”.

It was our CityChanger’s early experiences as a graphic designer that really propelled him into the field he loves. Luca worked on album covers and exhibition posters. “The message was king,” he remembers. Now, just as then, finding a balance of stimulating visuals and the evocative language that reinforces them is crucial to expressing the right message.

Fortunately, it seems, the messages we need are becoming more unified as behaviours become less distinctive.

Luca has noticed how communication trends have shifted over the past three decades. Now, he says, 30-year-olds and 60-year-olds have more in common. Both communicate via instant messaging services. They consume similar goods, media, and entertainment, and cultural tastes like humour have become more homogenised. The conversations we need – the messages we share – can appeal to all parties.

Achieving the city of the future, our CityChanger summarises, lays not in highlighting the differences but addressing our similarities.

Ambassadors of Imaging

Creatives are traditionally not heard on the big stage, given that they don’t drive capital gains. They are, what Luca defines as “hidden stakeholders”, often occupied with commissioned work delivering someone else’s message.

But those involved in storytelling, branding, and city imaging are ambassadors for their cities – even if, according to our CityChanger, they don’t realise it.

Luca gives an example he is familiar with: “A festival director attracts people from abroad – speakers, players. He invites them to their city, talks about the city to them.”

That visitor will develop an image of the city from what they see, as well as what they hear from those they engage with.

What also has an effect, Luca adds, is who you ask, and what and how you ask them.

“It is very much about the tone of voice.” He suggests speaking in a fairly familiar, friendly manner to build that connection: “It is very much the same that you would have with a peer or a colleague – the same amount of awareness and acknowledgement of what’s going on.”

Creatives are not institutional representatives. When this dawns on a city’s residents, the benefits are palpable. It happens time and again in the idea-producing environments Torino Stratosferica facilitates.

“All of a sudden, this transforms the atmosphere into a more joyful, more generous environment where people want to provide ideas and exchange ideas and exchange behavioural patterns about who they are, what they do, why they do it.”

City Imaging - CityChangers.org
Image credit: Torino Stratosferica

This is why, Luca understands, city imaging will help us generate the transition in our cities that we all want to happen:

“That’s how I imagine it to be: a powerful tool to reach a change that is providing better quality of life for us, but also for the environment.”

Find Out More

During the Urban Future 22 conference, Luca Ballarini spoke with Urbanistica. To hear more about what he said about city imaging, listen to the podcast here.

To experience the thrill of city imaging in person, check out Utopian Hours.


[1] Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city. MIT Press.

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