Klaus Ronneberger

The City as Theme Park?

The City as Theme Park?
title: The City as Theme Park?
year: 2003
place: Vienna; Sofia
publisher: Springerin, Vienna; ICA-Sofia, Sofia
language: english
author(s): Klaus Ronneberger
source: Double Bind, 2003, Vienna, Sofia: Springerin, ICA-Sofia
colaborators: in cooperation with the "Days of Vienna" in Sofia 2002

The social and economic reality of large cities has undergone a fundamental change since the eighties. On the one hand, the flexibilisation and globalisation of the economy has led to a decline in local industry. On the other, the leisure and entertainment sector has become an important economic factor. What is more, city administrations now define themselves as the dynamic management of the “Corporate City,” which is chiefly concerned with an aggressive strategy of local promotion. As part of this concept, they subject some specific districts to architectural “enhancement,” encourage the expansion of office space, and organise “festivalising” projects such as trade fairs or world expositions. Municipal authorities also go to great lengths to attract large numbers of tourists and high-income groups. Urban culture and “quality of life” are growing to become an important capital investment for cities. Because the city centres in particular are to be presented to the public as “visiting cards,” the visible presence of marginal groups in squares and on the streets is seen by local authorities as a threat to public order.

Malls on the advance

Since the nineties, malls, theme parks, musical theatres and multiplex cinemas have begun to play an increasingly important role, alongside urban planning and architecture, as part of a “whole urban experience.” As commercial production in urban centres continues to decline, it is hoped that the consumer and leisure sector will bring about new employment possibilities and additional tax revenue. With the same euphoric expectations that greeted the spread of self-service warehouses and hypermarkets in the early seventies, an alliance consisting of city treasurers, local politicians and planners is at present vigorously promoting the proliferation of the “experience” industry. Even though in Germany one does not yet encounter the same sort of “Disneyfication” of central urban districts as one finds in the USA, and even though the mall culture has not yet taken over as the dominant model of consumption and leisure, the present boom in shopping and entertainment complexes indicates the beginning of a similar development. Whereas older generations still have great reservations about artificial worlds like these, most younger people already consider this form of “experience consumption” as a normal form of everyday practice. Even in Central Europe, real estate companies have discovered this area as a profitable sphere for investment. The number of shopping malls, theme parks and multifunctional areas is to be considerably increased in partnership with the entertainment industry, which in Germany now employs an estimated five million people (Hatzfeld 1997).
In line with this new “experience culture,” the Ruhr area, for example, now promotes itself as a “magical experience landscape” (sic), with the Warner Bros. Movie World in Bottrop or musical theatre programmes in various cities in the region. In the past few years, the culture industry in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia has developed into a growth industry employing more than 250,000 people. The sustained financial and administrative support given to the leisure industry by the state government and the local authorities is seen as an important part of a revitalisation programme aimed at helping this old industrial region join the third millennium.

The city as a fortress of consumption

Malls or theme parks try to conjure up the atmosphere and image of a traditional city square, which is generally associated with communication, the public sphere, and spectacle. This cultural phenomenon indicates a fundamental social change. One main function of entertainment complexes is to represent spaces in which collective identities are created and social milieus can parade themselves. Post-modern intellectuals like Umberto Eco or Jean Baudrillard have given these artificial “experience” worlds the exalted designation of “places of the non-authentic.” Other critics, however, take up a culturally pessimistic and critical stance to these simulacra of consumption and call instead for “authentic” ways of satisfying needs and providing an urban experience. These supposed “non-places,” as Marc Augé calls them, may not correspond to the traditional concept of “city,” but, all the same, people who define this process of transformation only in terms of loss are sealing themselves off from new forms of everyday practice and glorifying forms of urban, bourgeois public life whose social and economic bases are things of the past. It is justified to criticise the way experience is exploited for the purposes of the culture industry, but the denunciation of malls and theme parks as an “Americanisation” or “Disneyfication” of European cities distracts from the essential question – the question of the balance of power. These places of amusement can be seen as enclosed and exclusive areas that are intended to be free of the nuisance of poverty and overflowing with idleness and entertainment. However, this requires the expulsion of all people who do not fit in with the concept of a relaxed consumer atmosphere and who lower the social status of such spaces.
Mall operators thus try to make it difficult for “undesirable” people to remain in the complexes, starting with the use of particular architectural devices. For instance, the following proposals can be found in a service concept for shopping centres: “Experience has shown, for example, that bright, friendly and clean premises deter a certain sort of customer. Dark-coloured marble in shopping arcades has not proved suitable, whereas light-coloured natural stone, together with the right lighting concept, is very effective in keeping unwelcome visitors and disruptive elements at bay.” Cleaning activities can also have a deterrent effect. “This was primarily effected by providing supervisory personnel with the appropriate clothing and cleaning equipment. They then started working directly next to undesired persons, preventing these from remaining there undisturbed. After a relatively short period of time, the disruptive potential was considerable reduced, as this group of persons did not find it as 'comfortable' to remain in the building as in former times” (quoted from the Immobilien Zeitung 10.9.1998). Freedom of expression and the collection of signatures are also undesirable or banned in German malls or shopping centres. It is foreseeable that, as such centres grow in number and the mall culture becomes increasingly accepted by the general public, the meaning of public urban spaces will undergo a profound change. Many people now visit the centre of the city only as consumers or holidaymakers. Under the influence of the “touristic gaze” and a consumer practice oriented towards “experience” and relaxation, cities are turning into a landscape of facades and leisure parks in which social heterogeneity is felt to be disturbing and disruptive. This is because the experience space is above all meant to put people at a safe distance from unexpected events and situations that could undermine the desired atmosphere. On an “urban safari” people want to enjoy the advantages of the city – its variety, visual stimulation and culture – while at the same time being protected from any threats or risks.
For this reason, urban management and operators of entertainment complexes try to offer consumers urban experiences in a risk-free form that satisfies the need for excitement and communication but takes place under completely controlled conditions (Hannigan 1998). Moreover, local authorities impose statutes or official decrees “for the protection of public order” in an attempt to repress all social activities that go against the cliché of a clean and safe city. The city administration thus defines begging, the drinking of alcoholic beverages or camping in public spaces as an offence under special provisions such as public protection ordinances. At the same time, the owner's privilege is used to change the status of publicly accessible places. This practice of control is being increasingly applied in railway stations, airports and public transport facilities.

Neo-feudal urban model

The economic and architectural enhancement of the city centre and the concentration by “urban management” on a “consumption-oriented” and wealthy citizenry is bound up with social mechanisms of selection. This strategy is supported by the attempts of the middle classes to set themselves apart; in the nineties their lifestyle was informed not only by a definition of societal milieus based on taste, but also amounted more and more to a minimisation of contact with and a spatial dissociation from the lower classes. Many members of the middle classes avoid certain urban spaces for fear of being mugged or from disgust and repugnance at certain sub-milieus. The ability to dominated the appropriated space – both materially and symbolically – makes it possible to keep undesirable people and events at a distance and to assign subordinate groups to stigmatised and devalued territories. The growing presence of marginalised groups in city centres and certain residential areas is felt by the elites and the majority of the residents to be a loss of control over the city. From their point of view, the issue is the reconquering of the public space and the establishment of certain standards of normality, even if, as they are well aware, these mean a restriction of basic rights for subordinate groups. The American urban researcher Neil Smith (1996) has shown, using the example of New York, that the present hierarchisation of large cities is not solely a result of the capital logic of the marketing of real estate, but is also connected with a “revanchist policy” – which includes a reconquering, bitterness at a supposedly too lax form of liberalism, and revenge – emanating from the “middle of society.” The repressive exclusion of people defined as not conforming to the norms can be successfully legitimised by saying that it is done to regain spatial control and maintain the socio-cultural hegemony of the community of the “respectable.”
Such “security communities,” whose main aim is to minimise risks or control particular situations and territories, are now playing an increasingly important role. According to Shearing (1997), they are chiefly “civil corporations” that have established themselves alongside state-run administrative institutions as a privately organised method of “government” and rule. The concept of government is used here in Foucault's sense, meaning the effective arrangement of things that are mainly there to promote security and avoid risky types of behaviour. The operators of malls and their customers, and “gated communities,” for example, can be seen as being communities that have entered this sort of contract. What all these organisations have in common is the way they demand particular patterns of behaviour and duties from their members or users. Increasingly, individuals are moving within an insular, quasi-feudal world of control in which they go from one “pocket of government” to the next. Each of these pockets has its own rules stipulating the respective methods of access and who is allowed to use the spaces. On a spatial level, this neo-feudal urban model – which already completely dictates the course of everyday urban life in the USA – is being established both in the centres of the service economy and important infrastructural facilities such as airports and rail-
way stations, and in certain residential areas and consumer zones. In Germany, these are social tendencies that still meet with opposition and resistance. However, even here, everyday life in the large cities is increasingly characterised by processes of exclusion and suppression that have not yet been sufficiently called into question by the wider urban public.

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