On April 1, the Globe and Mail came out with an article that sounded, looked, and felt like an April Fools joke: Ikea is pushing forward with plans to develop a mostly-empty part of East London into a planned community. The residents won’t be employees of the Swedish big-box multinational, but all of the land, homes, offices, and commercial spaces will be owned by Ikea, and, this being Ikea, they’re not going to be absentee landlords.
"It will be static, governed not by its own internal organic development but by a mega-landlord with a penchant for neat design and social order.
That, [Andrew Cobden, project manager] says, means setting up and promoting things like farmers’ markets, antique shops and outdoor flower stalls. Presumably, it also means keeping out cheque-cashing shops, Internet cafes, bookmakers and the other detritus of the British shopping street, as well as the sort of down-at-the heels characters who make urban life colourful but challenging.
“And that,” Mr. Cobden says, “will give the residents an events calendar that arrives on their doorstep of things that are happening – and that kind of creates a sense of place. … We’ll shape it rather than force it on people—but we’ll be trying to knit the community together.”
This is basically going to be an old-fashioned utopian venture, but instead of a wacko socialist/cult leader heading it up, it’s a corporation who expects to generate profits while—this being Ikea—making everyone fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable. According to the article, the Swedes are going to have a “long-term interest” in the community and “in fact, Ikea will be acting very much like a municipal government.”
Corporations acting like a government, is, of course, just the endgame we all know is coming. Private businesses control enough of government—and are, often enough, run better than government, that we’re just a few short steps away from this scene from Network being accepted as gospel truth. Why not let Ikea take over urban planning? Why not let Google put its algorithms to work fixing the world economy, or let Yum! brands provide school lunches? It’s not like they’re going to fuck anything up that isn’t already totally, insanely fucked anyway.
Ikeatown—or whatever welcoming, Scandinavian-sounding moniker gets slapped on the neighborhood—is probably going to be a pretty nice place to live. Just like an Ikea store, nothing’s going to be overpriced or extravagant, it’ll all be tasteful and full of clean design-school lines, and it won’t be homogenous enough to make people automatically think dystopic thoughts. Like an Ikea store: A bit confusing at first, but full of friendly features that you can’t object to—look at that bedroom! Look at how neat it is, how efficiently it uses available square footage while at the same time retaining a personality, with just a few moderately-priced pieces of furniture!
Ikea is a terrific place to go to buy something when you don’t know how you’re going to furnish your home (full disclosure: My computer is resting on an Ikea desk right now). But Ikea-ized rooms and apartments don’t have any character beyond being cost-effective and streamlined—and a neighborhood built by Ikea, which will be full of efficient, boxy buildings and well-lit shops, sounds fucking terrifying and soulless. Sometimes you want a bit of ugliness and blight to give your community a little bit of personality, a little bit of seediness leftover from an earlier, less safe era.
You can cheap-shot Ikea by pointing to their founder’s Nazi connections or comparing their urban vision to that of Nazi architect Albert Speer’s, but you don’t need to conjure up those bogeymen to be wary of planned communities, no matter who conceives of them. Maybe we don’t need large corporations running our lives more than they do already? Maybe it’s OK to let neighborhoods develop naturally without help from an ever-so-well-meaning Big Brother?
Whatever. I’m paranoid. People like Ikea, they’re going to move to this new, cheap, family-friendly neighborhood, and we’ll get a bit closer to the nationless corporate-dominated world government we deserve. But just note that Ikeatown is going to have
waterways on either side of it, and that sounds a lot like a moat to me.