The average American sees several thousands of advertisements each day — the most commonly accepted estimate is 3,000. It is no secret in our society that a large chunk of advertising and marketing efforts are directed at children. Some consider this a major social problem; others, not so much. Whether or not you think that advertising’s influence on young minds is positive or negative, no one can deny the fact that this massive onslaught of commercialism has some sort of effect, developmentally, on children. And, since these children will, in a generation or so, be reshaping our cities, how might these developmental changes effect the urban environment? Perhaps some clues are already rising to the surface.
As the internet becomes ever more ubiquitous in the lives of both children and adults, public (read: parental) opinion about the amount of time kids spend online is slowly changing. As the New York Times recently reported, a major growth area in web development of late has been the virtual world for the tween-and-under set. “Media conglomerates in particular think these sites” the Times notes, “ — part online role-playing game and part social scene — can deliver quick growth, help keep movie franchises alive and instill brand loyalty in a generation of new customers.” Apparently, many major companies (Disney, Warner Bros., and LEGO) are gearing up whole lines of virtual worlds that will attempt to hold on to young subscribers as their tastes change and mature.
Jump ahead a demographic bracket. MTV, purveyor of all things Cool and Important for the notoriously spendthrift 13-17 crowd, recently developed the Virtual Lower East Side, an online copy of the real-life NYC neighborhood often hailed as the last bastion of bohemia in Lower Manhattan, to “leverage the cultural cachet” of the neighborhood. The reproduced dirt and grime of the LES in its virtual counterpart is a decidedly deliberate marketing tactic; this large-scale reproduction of a real place exists in the fantasy land of the internet, where gentrification, crime, and other social problems can be removed, leaving only a thin patina of grit to lend credibility to new rock and hip hop acts whose shows in real clubs can be simulcast to laptop users from Oklahoma to Okinawa.
And now, the trend is crossing a very, very interesting line that could have major implications for the future of cities around the world. Developers in Dubai recently announced a typically grandiose plan to build a replica of central Lyons, France in the UAE boom city. This raises an interesting question: can something as ephemeral and elusive as the “sense of place” of Lyons be copied and pasted onto a desert thousands of miles from the original? Lyons is being reproduced, in theory, for the value of its cultural cachet. Might it be possible that, in a world run by adults raised in virtual copies of real-world places refashioned, essentially, as brands, the wholesale reproduction of city neighborhoods could become commonplace around the world?
Think about places in American cities that have a special cultural power. Now export them to a brownfield site one or two thousand miles away. San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury could be rebuilt in Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, Boston, and Charlotte and populated by hyper-commercialized nouveau-hippies. Take it a step further, and New Orleans’ French Quarter could become one of America’s most popular exports. There could be one in Shanghai, one in Jakarta, one in Abu Dhabi, one in Zagreb, and another on the outskirts of Khartoum. These would not be theme parks, but fully-populated, 24-hour neighborhoods selling a lifestyle of jazz, street dancing, and easy living. Commute from a loft above Bourbon Street to a 120th-floor office in Pudong.
At the very least, the reproduction of Lyons in Dubai will provide us with an interesting opportunity to observe how certain aspects of a physical environment affect the people who live there. Will people in Dubai-Lyons follow similar walking routes through their version of the city as the Lyonnaise back in France? Will the orientation of buildings or public spaces influence the kinds of people who live in or near them? Or will a reproduction be merely that, without any of the human characteristics of the original? If that is the case, the reproduced neighborhood seems doomed to serve as a brand in the most base and literal of ways: as a representation of an ideal instead of an actual point of inspiration.
As Clayton Patterson, a photographer who has been shooting in downtown Manhattan for more than 25 years, says of the Virtual Lower East Side: “[Reproduction] takes something that was a neighborhood, and now it belongs to everybody else…It’s the complete denial of your space, a complete theft of what it was that you lived in for years.”
In the glocalized world, does any place belong to any one group, or does everyone belong to everyone?