A precondition to the eruption of a zombie horde is an empty street. A newspaper, or tumbleweed, caught in the wind floats across the abandoned scene. The soundtrack ramps up, and the flesh-eating undead turn the corner. A perfect setting for the classic zombie story.
Most people would consider zombies the creepy part of this scene. But really, the scene is creepy before they appear: the street is empty, and the uncomfortable strangeness and isolation that results from the empty street makes discovery of the zombie horde all the more chilling. The people that were supposed to be populating the street are gone. The monstrous aspect of the undead is paired with an absence of people from the urban milieu. People have been removed from urban life, and it creates an exposed, isolating setting, where all manner of terrible things can occur. The absence of life from the street creates the conditions for a total breakdown of social order, and urban space is transformed: no longer homes, shops, streets and parks, the city is now a survivalist battleground where horror reigns. This is the opposite effect of Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street”—the absence of street-level human activity transforms the space into an occasion for terror.
One key insight that I find particularly useful from psychogeographical texts is the importance ascribed to the subjective human experience in urban settings, and in particular, the emotional and imaginative states experienced as one journeys through urban space. The strength of this type of analysis is that in addition to the various technical and architectural specifications common to urban design (street/sidewalk distance, pedestrian access, zoning), psychogeography takes into account the importance of the imagination. Streets and cities are not made up simply of bricks, concrete, cement, trees, and signage, but provide the context for continuous imagining of scenarios as humans walk about them. House by human brains, cities are where dreams and fears walk around.
The reason one particular area might feel exciting, or another dangerous and fright-inducing, has to do precisely with how the technical / architectural / design features of an urban landscape interact with this human imaginative capacity. One fears murder, monsters and being mugged when entering a dark, menacing alleyway; one feels caught up in a world of dreams when engaged in a street carnival; one feels a part of a bustling community and economy when strolling through a busy market.
This is more obvious when the rhetoric and mythology surrounding individual cities is explored. The sloganeering around cities is engaged precisely in the manipulation of imagination and linking this imaginative process to particular spatial zones. Nothing about the brick-and-mortar identifies Calgary as “heart of the New West”, or city of mavericks, or whatever it’s called now. This sloganeering is intended to spur a certain set of imaginings when walking about the city: oneself as a pioneer, as intrepid, as exploring or breaking new ground, as part of a “new” economy and community.
When engaging in arguments for density, pedestrian-friendly design and cycle lanes, it can be easy to get away from how urban spaces make you feel. So here’s an important question: how do you feel when walking around Calgary? Perhaps more directly: how many of Calgary’s streets are primed for a zombie outbreak? In what areas are there sufficient “eyes on the street” to make you feel safe? What streets, as you walk through the city, make a pedestrian feel abandoned, uncomfortable or downright spooked?
Joël Laforest is an Urban Studies major and contributor to the UrbanCSA blog. He is well-versed in psychogeography and an avid fan of science fiction.