Monday, August 15, 2016

Zombie Urbanism

Jonny Aspen, Associate Professor at the Institute of Urbanism and Landscape in Oslo, Norway, coined the term "Zombie Urbanism" in 2013 to describe the way many urban environments are being designed today. I like the term, so I got in touch with Aspen and asked him about it--and how it applies to the redesigning of New York City, including the High Line, Hudson Yards, Times Square, and the new Astor Place.

Astor Place

Q: Can you give a definition of what you call "zombie urbanism"?

A: I’ve coined the concept in order to encircle what seems to be an increasingly more prevalent, and increasingly more worrying, phenomenon in contemporary urban development, namely the cliché-like way that many developers and designers talk about and deal with urban environments in general and public areas and places more specifically.

On the one hand I use it as a reference to what seems to have developed into an increasingly more homogeneous discourse, globally speaking, on what is believed to be important features of the so-called “creative city.” It’s a discourse that highlights the importance of cultural institutions, state-of-the-art architecture, and well-designed public places.

The concepts in use remind me of what the famous German sociologist Ulrich Beck has labeled “zombie concepts,” with reference to the social sciences. They are concepts that still are very much in use, but actually no longer fit the reality they intend to describe. As such the concepts are like the living dead, they are alive in our heads and our language, but not any longer useful for making precise propositions about the reality of the city.

On the other hand I use the concept of “zombie-urbanism” as a reference to how I experience many of the urban environments that come out from such a discourse, as built environments. What we can see is a kind of staged urbanism in which there is no room for irregularity and the unexpected, a well-designed, neat, and tedious urbanism based on a simplified understanding of the urban combined with more ideal aspirations about creating “living” and “people friendly” cities. You can see it in quite many urban redevelopment projects all over the world. Other examples can be found in strategies for remaking public places and plazas, such as for instance the recent developments of Times Square in New York.

Times Square

Q: What do you think is allowing zombie urbanism to spread across western cities today?

A: In general, the phenomenon is related to the current regime of neoliberal urban development and planning. This is a regime in which both developers and urban politicians quite shamelessly use urban features such as public squares and plazas as means for selling, marketing and branding. As such quite many aspects of “urbanism” have become subject to strategies of commercialization and capital manipulation. This development is of course also related to the seemingly never-ending spread of gentrification, or to what Neil Smith calls “generalized gentrification.”

The same goes, of course, for tourism, as an increasingly more important global industry.

Another important aspect, if not a cause in itself, is that quite many planners, architects, and designers seem to profit from such a development. They seem to have found themselves a new niche in designing urban tableaus of various kinds.

High Line, via urban75

Q: Where did you see these developments during your time in New York City?

A: I saw such developments most clearly in newly built areas, and especially in ones that contain public spaces and facilities. One such development is the Hunter’s Point South Park in Queens. I am particularly thinking about the promenade along the East River. Everything here looks clean, tidy, and civilized. The promenade is also equipped with well-designed chairs and benches. So everything seems in order, everything seems to make for a lively urban area. But even though the scenery is outstanding, especially the view towards Manhattan, the whole area feels dull and boring.

This is what I mean by zombie urbanism. Everything looks nice and urban, but in terms of social life, it’s rather sterile and dead.

A similar example can be found a bit further down the river, on the Manhattan side--the East River Waterfront Esplanade, especially the new Pier 15 that opened in 2011. The whole development is imbued with a well-meant rhetoric of making the waterfront accessible for all people, improving qualities of life, sustainability, and community programming. But again, the end result seems rather lackluster and limited. My impression is that most of the esplanade primarily is made to attract conventional recreational interest of tourists and middle-class groups that now seem to have taken over most of Manhattan.

Much of what’s here said also goes for the High Line and the Times Square redevelopment, though those stories probably are a bit more complex.

Besides such examples, the most obvious features of what I call zombie urbanism can be seen in many plans and prospects for future buildings and developments, especially when it comes to visualizing all the splendid qualities that the project allegedly will bring to the area when completed. Visualizations of public space qualities seem to have become increasingly important in this respect. In this way planners and developers deliberately use public space qualities as a way of both legitimizing and branding a future project. By highlighting all the fantastic urban qualities a development will bring to the neighborhood or to the city as such, any objections and criticisms that people might have towards the project are also curbed. Because who could really be against the planning of a new public space or a playground?

This has become a global trend. Just take a look at the plans for the new development at South Street Seaport or Hudson Yards in Manhattan.

The "Seaport of Tomorrow"

Q: What are the hallmarks of zombie urbanism? How do we recognize it when we see it?

A: This is harder to answer, because it’s not so that zombie urbanism is something that can be clearly pointed out as something that exists like a thing in the world. Zombie urbanism is a theoretical concept that, in the way I seek to use it, represents an effort to capture and put into words some important changes in the way our urban environments are produced as well as experienced.

For me, the latter issue of how we experience the urban world is especially important. This is what I’m trying to find ways of describing. Issues of feelings, affects, and atmospheres then become important, though they are not easily captured or put into words. I don’t want to become too philosophical about this, but the issues here at stake also relate to what each and one of us believe to be more or less genuine and authentic.

Why does the new Starbucks on the corner seem to be less authentic than the old coffee shop that it has replaced? It’s easy to pinpoint a range of issues and features that makes it so, but what it is that really makes the big difference might be harder to identify. Much the same goes for the topic of zombie urbanism. In general, my argument is that our urban life world increasingly seems to be staged in accordance with global clichés about urban environments and urban living. This is what worries me, and this is what needs to be further explored.

Astor Place

Q: Recently, in the East Village, Astor Place has been redesigned. This was years in the making. They removed part of the street, widened the central square, planted trees, put in concrete slab seating, and tables with umbrellas. It is now used by corporations like IBM and Citibank to hold “advertainment" events.

I'm pretty sure this is a prime example of zombie urbanism. But some would argue that it's a good thing--those slab benches and tables are full of people. How do we claim this is not an authentic and lively urban scene?

A: I agree that the remaking of Astor Place seems to be a good example of zombie urbanism. I would have to make some reservations due to the fact that I haven't seen the end result myself. But from what I can see from pictures and descriptions on the net, the makeover of the area resembles much of what I would call zombie urbanism. So what makes it zombie-like?

The most telling point is that the overall design solutions seem to be very generic. The whole place seems to play up design schemes for public places that are quite similar in many parts of the world. It is the same ingredients that are replicated all over: widened sidewalks, new seating, more plantings, upgraded lighting and so on, plus an attraction or two, may be an artwork or something, that apparently is to make the area stand out as something unique and special. My experience is that such places more often than not make for a fairly limited spectrum of public uses and activities.

City life is about encountering the unexpected and the unfamiliar. I'm not quite sure Astor Place will be the right place to visit in that respect.

Such forms of public design, even though many might see them as improvements, are damaging in that they block more creative ways of going about making public places. Instead of taking on the challenge of really involving people and working seriously with how to make places that are both socially mixed and inclusive, one settles with established urban design solutions, often prescribed by international consultancies.

When it comes to New York it might be that it's such a dynamic city, one can live or cope with a few zombie-like design solutions, such as at Astor Place, just because the places often will be put quite extensively to use. As such, the places themselves will continuously be in a state of flux and change, despite the way they are designed.

It's comforting to know that people will overrule the prescriptions of planners and designers. That's what urban living is very much about.

Astor Place


JM said...

Great interview, great post, and a great phrase to describe the soulless design aesthetic that's plaguing the city.


Mitch said...

My take on this is that this sort of urban design is put together by planners who read Jane Jacobs but didn't really understand what she was getting at. So they'll talk about "mixed use" and the like, but not the underlying society that uses the city.

Davey said...

Another fantastic piece)--

Scout said...

"Everything here looks clean, tidy, and civilized. The promenade is also equipped with well-designed chairs and benches."

Wow, that sounds simply awful. Like every park in Europe.

"But even though the scenery is outstanding, especially the view towards Manhattan, the whole area feels dull and boring... Everything looks nice and urban, but in terms of social life, it’s rather sterile and dead."

Well, that's about as subjective as any comment can be, isn't it? I certainly preferred the Hudson and East River edges when they were crumbling decayed Third World havens for crime and comatose addicts back in the 70s and 80s; I thought that was fun. But I have absolutely no doubt that I'm in the minuscule minority there - just visit those places on a weekend now; they're bursting with people enjoying themselves. Perhaps the demographic is a bit too ... suburban for some cosmopolitan souls, but it can't be denied that the riverside green spaces are enormously more popular today than they were in my youth.

Unknown said...

Is all of this the "shrub" that has grown from the "seed" that was planted with Agenda '21'? Heaven forbid we be fed anything that is raw.

Jill said...

Brilliantly said. Look at the plans to develop the downtown waterfront in response to Sandy. -- zombie urbanism at its apex.

James said...

Right, Scout.
It's never just one thing. The urban renewalism that came up in cities throughout the 60's, 70's, and 80's, became bastardized as a form of light commerce and advertising, but let's remember something. When you came Downtown (wherever) in the old days (say, the 1950's), you shopped, you bought a pair hard of shoes and an overcoat. You didn't sit except at a lunch counter or in an established park, if there even was one around. That lunch counter was a for-profit venture benefiting someone. Now, larger concerns are benefiting from people sitting. Instead of the local Rexall (and its parent corporation), it's a marketing tier on a hard-to-imagine scale. You rent a Citibike and -- who benefits, per se? Who is that Citibike? Who has a better vacation because you rented the bike?

The lack of answer is why we're tempted to liken our urban experience to zombiism; we have no control over anything, no dialogue, nothing but acceptance. In essence, we trade a bit of our souls for a nice place to sit.

Frankly, I understand the wrecked-town nostlagia, even though it doesn't really make sense. The current meeting holes like Overpass Park (the Highline) are crowded, claustrophobic, and in some ways even demeaning. They are not the old steel and wood benches near City Hall where you felt left alone and miles from anyone, if you chose. There you could think. Heaven forfend you try that now.

Sew nuts said...

The problem is less the design aesthetic and more the corporate takeover of all spaces. We recently traveled around California and everywhere we went we saw the same few dozen retailers. Never more than 10 miles from a Wal-Mart or Starbucks. Everything is subverted by the need for constant consumption of goods and services and by the relentless need for endless growth. This is an economic imperative of capitalism caused by debt servicing as well as the demand from investors for returns. However, I don't frankly see any solution to this situation. Civilizations always tend toward increasing complexity until they collapse.

Ian Beckman Reagan said...

Definitely an interesting concept that needs deeper investigation and inquiry.

That being said, I couldn't help but get the feeling that some of the critiques of public spaces were unfounded, which made me question Aspen's theory as a whole.

Take Astor Place's redesign for example. Although, it's not fully complete yet, it already seems to function several orders better as a place of gathering than it's original layout (does anyone remember? It was a mess!)

"The most telling point is that the overall design solutions seem to be very generic. The whole place seems to play up design schemes for public places that are quite similar in many parts of the world."

Perhaps, generic, yes. But has he considered that generic to some can also be viewed as "effective" to others? Not every public space design needs to break every rule in the book. I suppose Aspen's critique is that the redesign isn't breaking ANY rules, which I can understand.

"It is the same ingredients that are replicated all over: widened sidewalks, new seating, more plantings, upgraded lighting and so on, plus an attraction or two, may be an artwork or something, that apparently is to make the area stand out as something unique and special."
The widened sidewalks, seating, shade, and lighting are all the ingredients that have turned Astor Place from a passive transitory square not fit for communal gathering to a space of comfort and respite. I will concede though that there is absolutely too much commercialization and "advertainment" (great term by the way, will need to keep that one in my back pocket).

I guess to sum up my feelings, I do get a sense that zombie urbanism is a phenomena, and perhaps there are instances of it popping up around New York but it is not enough to say something is dull and generic and call it a day.

Unknown said...

Regarding Scout's comment:

"Wow, that sounds simply awful. Like every park in Europe."

Scout hit the nail on the head although it wasn't the intention. The problem is that it's "Like every park in Europe," or more accurately, other homogenized locations like Columbus, Ohio.

No argument that that the river banks needed cleaning up. But what wasn't required was turning them into faceless places that manage to be both toxic and sterile at the same time.

Unknown said...

"Zombie Urbanism" is too cool a phrase for the forced over-sanitizing of our cities. The young gaming generation will finds anything zombiesque rather appealing and will embrace it as if it was some kind of dystopian New York chic! I agree with the observations of Jonny Aspen, however the word "Zombie" is attached to almost everything marketable today. It's the new way to make things sounds hip and edgy to the sheep culture.

I find the word today as artificially cliche' and generic as gentrification itself. For instance, I'll bet I can't walk two gentrified city blocks without finding the word "zombie" on some products designed to inspire me into making a purchase. I'm not a Starbucks customer, but I bet they have something like a Zombie Latte'. But lets not just pick on poor old hip and happening Starbucks. I'm sure I can find a Zombie inspired hot sauce, or a Zombie craft beer, or even go to a bar and order a Zombie! The list goes on and on in the world of Zombie marketing for the new "daring" adrenaline posers.

Perhaps I just made the best argument against myself since what I just stated only provides more support for calling this trend "Zombie Urbanism". OK Mr. Aspen, I'll give it to you there, but might I suggest a few names that call it more for what it really is. How about "Staged Urbanism", or "Homogenized Human Habitats"?, HHH for short. Then there's "Idealistic Urban Dumps" or simply "IUD". Not to be confused with the birth control, but a way to control the direction of the city in respect to housing, real-estate speculation, aesthetic direction, and the latest political brainwashing agenda. Ultimately it all boils down to controlled marketing and fleecing of the public.

Our once unique New York now looks like your standard "Globalized Environment". With the acronym "GE" known to bring good things to life, this GE ironically caters to a form of death. The death of individual thought, expression, and cultural diversity. all these move aside to make way for cultural homogenization with a bent towards one world order. These spaces all feel the same as they that lack any sort of grit or patina (unless it's fake manufactured patina by a crafty designer), and instead espouse to a strict code of hard edged order. Easier and cheaper to keep clean I suppose. I see them as "Antiseptically Sterile Spaces", which more appropriately one might shorten to "ASS". Yep, ass pretty much sums it up!

Scout said...

I agree with Ian Beckman Reagan above - Duffy Square, Astor Place, the riversides are being enjoyed by more people than ever before; calling these places "generic" is subjective and unhelpful. Suggesting specific design changes that you feel are not generic, or some kind of actual praxis would be far more interesting - but that kind of discussion seems to be missing here, in favor of mere complaining.

David George - I know it's an easy target for New Yorkers (just like all those old New Jersey jokes), but Columbus, Ohio is far from homogenized. And the riversides, to many of us, are far from toxic and sterile. I ride my bike along them almost daily, and find them to be oases of delight.

Mileage said...

While I generally agree with the sentiments expressed in this post, it's worth pointing out that most of the new plazas around town have been designed to do away with roadways to create spaces for use by pedestrians. In this they have been spectacularly successful. This being New York, though, these spaces have become irresistible for corporate marketers and, unfortunately, the laws governing the use of city streets (and legally these plazas remain city streets) mean that the city agencies in charge of street permits lacks the legal authority to deny these applications when they would have been granted had they still been regular city streets. This is truly an unintended consequence of the desire to create these plazas that multiple groups are trying to address through legislation.

Unknown said...

you should see Playa Vista in LA. You might as well be on the Paramount lot.

Unknown said...

"...widened sidewalks, new seating, more plantings, upgraded lighting and so on, plus an attraction or two, may be an artwork or something..."

Complaining about what are pretty basic elements of an inviting space for someone on foot doesn't exactly strengthen this argument. What does the author prefer? Narrow, barren sidewalks that are dark at night?

Brian said...

I am conflicted as to what is being said here. Times Square, Herald Square, Bryant Park, Union Square, Madison Park/23rd/5th/Bway, seemed to be improved to me with Bloomberg by closing lanes and creating pedestrian plazas for seating, walking, discourse, some greenery, and yes corporate showcases. You could not even walk on the sidewalk in parts of Times Square or Herald Square before, it was too crowded, you were forced into traffic. Astor Place has had buildings added to it and surrounding blocks that just totally changed its character, it has added some truly ugly buildings.

ModernMulatto said...

Richard Federico, you make excellent and amusing commentary on an insightful article. All this urban phoniness makes me long for the wilderness. Far from the urban staging crowds. Coming to a village near you as the modern push is to make cities more village-like and villages more urban so that we end up with one coat of the same flavored frosting smoothed over us neatly from coast to coast


I agree with you ModernMulatto...
The thing is not that I'm against a safe and clean environement but it seems that this new urbanism is the same everywhere in the world. Soon, evrything will look the won't need to travel anymore. Or worse, maybe people will just expect to find the same place they left when they'll travel to the other side of the world.It was great to come to NY because it did have a personality, an edge...not because it was dirty and dangerous. In Europe, the trend seems to be the same...with some dull artwork in a pedestrian area with a Starbucks and chain stores. China is following the same paths...yes, Shanghai is getting cleaner but it slowly seems to ressemble any other "mall like" city. The same in LA. It's kind of sad to see crowds going to The Grove and talk about it like it's some exciting place. Just the same stores as anywhere else. everything neat and boring... If you come to Paris, London or Rome, do you want it to look like Times Sqaure and Astor place ? It's the world cultural differences that are being erased for a safe, unsurprising experience.
(I apologize for any typing/spelling mistakes)

samhill said...

What do you think happens when millions of order-seeking boring suburbanites become the dominant demographic in cities? What's strange is that in the past huge migrations of people were always about the poor moving en-mass to escape some crushing misery, now it's the rich moving en masse to seize "stimulating" urban areas. How wrong they were when they made that Kurt Russell b-movie Escape From NY - the exact opposite proved true!

DrBOP said...

Our small city in Ontario Canada (pop around 60,000 downtown) has just been through the THIRD and final phase of what I know now to call zombie urban transformation. Our main street which used to have the funkiest stores, store owners, street characters and liveley spirit has been turned into an uptown shopping mall without the roof, and you better not raise your voice EVER because security might want to know what "the trouble is":
8 out of 100 businesses are over 10 years old;
40 of them are chain stores of one type or another (FOUR Starfucks);
The question HAS to be asked, how many pairs of $200 jeans and $300 purses can one really use? How many $17 grilled cheeses can you eat? How many $1200 phones can you stare at?;
The main street (after the street widening, planters, FEW benches, new generic antique street lights, etc.)looks like everytown (ahem) USA; (being the "good Canadian", I'll say "sorry" now :^);
And if you look ANY kind of weird, or even different, you ARE being watched because there is NO tellin' what the grizzled senior might be up to....they might even want to pay in CASH, for gawd's sake.

What's REALLY scary is extending Aspen's idea to the country-side: Zombie Ruralism. Not only in the smaller downtowns, but OUT IN THE COUNTRY. Enclaves of million dollar 3000 sq ft "cottages", with the 1500 sq ft "guest cottage', and the 1000 sq ft "country office/studio"; and the pristine newly-manicured landscape/shoreline. They're not all in gated communities (yet), but they definitely don't want YOU hangin' round for ANY reason. And heaven forbid that there were ANY activities going on around their place that are bothersome now that they are here (usually for no more than 2 months max) around the neighboring camp fire can be sooo bothersome.....and the kids!
It's like the "more money than brains" crowd moving into the French Quarter in New Orleans over the last 10 years COMPLAINING ABOUT THE NOISE, and sicking their multi-millionaire legal beagles on a "Noise By-Law" (which is an ongoing challenge by the way).
And Aspen is VERY's a global phenomena. They used to point with pride at a North America that was a "classless" society.....I'm thinkin' the last 40 years has put the kibosh to that (if it EVER was true).