Ikea is building a city. Yes, you heard me.
There are feelings you get when you enter an Ikea store. The vertiginous experience of getting lost in their craftily designed labyrinth. The surprise of wandering into something you hadn’t intended to buy. The discomfiting almost-warmth of a fake apartment. The faintly reassuring sense that your children and your car are in someone else’s hands. Then the odd realization that you’re really inside a high-security structure on the distant edge of town.
Would you like to feel that way all the time? The people who run the Swedish home-furnishings behemoth are launching a bold push into the business of designing, building and operating entire urban neighbourhoods. Where once they placed a couch in a living room, the Swedes now want to place you and 6,000 neighbours into a neglected corner of your city, design an entire urban world around you, and Ikea-ize your lives. Their bold, high-concept notion of an urban ‘hood could be an important solution to the housing-supply shortages that plague many large cities — but it could take some getting used to.
— Doug Saunders, “Welcome to Ikea-land: Furniture giant begins urban planning project,” The Globe and Mail, April 1, 2012
As the Ikea people repeatedly tell anyone who will listen, this place [i.e., the company’s flagship urban-planning project in East London] will not be an Ikea. There will not be Poäng armchairs adorning the living rooms and Billy bookcases covering the walls. The houses will not require Allen keys to assemble. Meatballs in lingonberry sauce will not be served at the restaurants. And there will not, the company insists, be an Ikea store anywhere in or near the neighbourhood.
…But what might make it seem alien to Brits and North Americans is Ikea’s very active role in the neighbourhood’s life — in large part because the houses will be fully owned by Ikea. In a model that is the norm in Sweden and other parts of continental Europe, but alien to English-speaking countries, this will be an all-rental private neighbourhood, run and overseen by a private company.
Okay, so you’re saying…wait a minute, what?
What does it mean to live in a mixed-income urban neighbourhood in which none of your neighbours are owners? Ikea prefers to emphasize the upside: It will be less likely that people will buy, wait for the value to increase, then move to the suburbs and become absentee landlords (a problem in East London). But there are risks: without an equity stake in their neighbourhood, residents aren’t likely to rebuild it, transform it and shift housing, retail and light-industry spaces into one another to suit the community’s needs. 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.
And here is where living in an Ikea neighbourhood might come to resemble a long day in an Ikea store: The company wants you to be in a neat, clean, pleasant environment. And it very much wants you to have fun. Those things that normally just happen in life will be carefully managed from above.
Does that mean what I think it–?
[W]hat IKEA is really doing here is finding a place to sink a small part of its huge pile of cash. They want to earn a profit over 10 to 20 years, not the three or four years of a conventional property developer — and are therefore very interested in the long-term livability of the project. “We’re just securing our money long-term — and of course creating more profits at the end,” says [Harald] Müller [the head of the company that invests the profits from the furnishing giant]. “But we are acting as a long-term investor, we are equity-driven, so we are acting very differently from a developer.” In a very real sense, the furniture company wants to invest its money in your entire life.
Holy crap. Pardon me while I make like Leonardo Dicaprio and go check to see if my top is still spinning.
In the meantime, for more on this developing…um…whatever it is, I recommend the following:
- The Atlantic Cities offers a succinct summary of the details of the current project: “Hold onto your instruction manuals: Ikea is building an entire neighborhood in East London. The mixed-use community will be developed on 26 acres of land in Stratford, just south of Olympic Park. Strand East, as the neighborhood is being called, will be home to a Courtyard by Marriott hotel, roughly 1,200 homes, and nearly half a million square feet of commercial space (but no Ikea store, reports the Financial Times) — all wedged between two waterways…The distinguishing element of Strand East may be its devotion to walkability. The neighborhood will include many car-free zones, and cars that do enter the area will be stowed in an underground parking lot, out of sight” (“The City IKEA Built“).
- Harry Cheadle, writing for Vice, nails it, with “it” being the deepdark problem embedded in Ikea’s vision: “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…Corporations acting like a government, is, of course, just the endgame we all know is coming…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.” (Note especially the entirely appropriate Orwellian allusion Cheadle affixes to these thoughts: “The Future Is Ikea Stamping on a Human Face — Forever.”)