6 May 2015

Cities are intentionally ruining themselves to appeal to hipsters

The city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands recently started rationing water despite having enough water supplies. Seattle in the US has intentionally made its public transport slower because it was running too efficiently, and commissioned artists to spray graffiti on trains and in stations to make them look shabbier. The city of Wuhu in China demolished a recently-completed flashy district and commissioned a replica of a 19th century run-down East London district, complete with dysfunctional postal service and temperamental telephone lines. And the list goes on. So what exactly is happening?

You won’t read about this in any urban planning magazines, but this is the latest trend to emerge in city management and development circles. Mayors around the world are discovering that flashy, modern and functioning cities are just too boring and they are failing to attract the core hipster labour force required for a modern city to function. Keen observes have noted that hipsters, the fastest growing demographic in the world, don’t like living in comfortable surroundings and they much prefer to live in run-down areas that feel more authentic.

To cater to this demand, cities from North America to the Far East have started intentionally ruining their infrastructure, buildings and services in order to make themselves more attractive to twenty and thirty-something creative sector workers. Hungary’s capital Budapest, which is keen to promote itself as a technology hub, has hired people to dig potholes in its streets which were deemed too pristine by the hipster tech workers it was seeking to attract. There are many ways to achieve the correct feel that will appeal to the contemporary hipster, but the competition is fierce.

This demand has led to the emergence of consultancies that advise cities on the best way to achieve a run-down feel. John Parset, from Hip Cities Inc, which is based in the Shoreditch area in London talked to us about the experience of his small outlet. (He prefers not to use the word ‘firm’.) “What works in Prague will not work in Bangalore. We tailor our approach to each city, advising them on the right way to achieve the authentic look and feel. You can’t just start spray painting walls and cutting the electricity at random, the whole thing needs to have a conceptual consistency.”

Parset’s team are not only about creativity however, financial considerations are always important and the designers are keen to work within the tight financial constraints. “It’s rare that we get the opportunity to demolish an entire new neighbourhood and replace it with a replica run-down authentic working class district from Istanbul. Those types of commissions are possible only in countries like China. In Europe, we have to use resources more carefully, sabotaging escalators and lifts here, hiring people to spread rubbish around the streets carefully for maximum effect, and making sure public transport doesn’t run smoothly and make everyone feel unnecessarily not inconvenienced.”

Some cities go further than others however and the ideas are getting more extreme with competition. Bern in Switzerland recently hired actors to pretend to be shady characters and make passers-by feel uncomfortable and thrilled to live in a dodgy area simultaneously. City authorities took the parallel step of withdrawing police from the streets for added effect, and the experiment has been incredibly successful. Hipsters are now flocking to live in Bern, attracted by the prospect of rubbing shoulders with ‘authentic lowlifes’.

The trend is going stronger and stronger, designers like Parset can’t cope with requests from clients and this had led to a boom in the sector. What ideas can we expect next? Parset describes plans to use bulldozers to ‘rough-up’ buildings, demolishing parts of them in a Dubai neighbourhood and setting others on fire. The neatly-trimmed laws will be all gone, and his team is hiring trained dogs to defecate on the pavements. The city will also install genuine broken telephone boxes imported from Europe, and a team of graphic designers is working on seedy leaflets to be left there.

Is there a particular city that clients are interested in borrowing from more than the others? ‘Beirut, without a doubt’, Parset replies. Lebanon’s capital, which has experienced severe turmoil over the past few decades and where almost nothing works properly, is the ideal city according to him. ‘We get a lot of requests to copy the look and feel of Beirut, the bullet holes are particularly sought after.’ Sadly however, the construction boom in Beirut means many old buildings are being destroyed and new ones being built, and the city is losing its authentic feel.

But there is hope. ‘We have recently been contacted by a developer from Beirut who wants to recreate a Beirut replica in Beirut itself. They realised the modern development they built wasn’t inspiring, so they want to demolish it and recreate a civil war era Beirut neighbourhood in its place. We’re very excited about this project.’ Old is the new new.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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