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.
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.
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.
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.