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Thriving in the New Zombie Future: Business as Usual Planning for the Zombie Apocalypse

A satirical post welcomes the metaphorical zombie state experienced by humans in the modern built environment as the path of least resistance for a literal, future zombie state.
July 9, 2014, 5am PDT | William Riggs
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Chris Steins

The zombie apocalypse has begun. Real people are turning in to zombies around the globe, based on the lull of our current auto-centric and technology-enhanced society. Each day these human-folk wake up in "little boxes" in a row "made of ticky tacky" and go through a litany of mundane routines. They jump into cars to go to jobs for their requisite eight hours. They pass by pitched roofs, colored stucco, and appropriately manicured hedgerows, until they arrive at their places of employment. Their jobs (perhaps in the local city planning office) are defined by activities where action is warranted but thought is not required.

As quasi-figurative zombies, they rubber stamp like drones, scanning over papers and reports, and then addressing over-the-counter applicants like automatons, slipping in to planner-speak (e.g., "You will need a variance to increase your FAR and your proposed multi-modal strategy is encroaching in the ROW.") They end their days by returning home in the isolation of their cars, shutting garage doors, turning on TVs and i-devices, and taking collective Huxlian doses of soma so that they can recharge their batteries and repeat the entire cycle again the next day.

This disembodied, figurative zombie state that our society has facilitated is a sad reality, but it also masks the real zombie epidemic that is already sweeping the globe. Despite public awareness campaigns on television with shows like The Walking Dead, in books like the Zombie Survival Guide, on college campuses with programs in Zombie Studies, in newspapers like the New York Times, and on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, we have become culturally numb to the real phenomenon that people are becoming actual zombies.

Yes, fellow citizens, activists, city planners, and urban designers, you read that right. People are actually becoming zombies. The fictional depictions in the media, combined with the societal zombie-like behavior our cities create, mask the darker truth that the dead are quickly becoming reannimated. (For the novice, reanimation is the term for zombification, as in reanimated corpses. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as CDHD or consciousness deficit hypoactivity disorder.)

Research organizations have begun to assemble panels of experts to address the impending biological outbreak that is infecting people and turning them into real zombies (Munz, Hudea, Imad & Smith 2009). Most recent studies have focused on scientific advances to prevent corpse reanimation (Davis 1988); Thomas 2010). However, more recent work evaluates how city design and transportation infrastructure are linked to the spread of the disease (Nuñez, Ravello, Urbina & Perez-Acle 2012). Specifically, this work shows that the disease can spread more rapidly in urban spaces with more traditional urban form and transportation planning practices—places with a business-as-usual focus on travel in cars. Places focused on bike and pedestrian accessibility, however, are more resistant to the impending zombie infestation.

This reality presents a critical challenge. Most cities around the world have not been designed to accomodate zombie-resilient travel modes, therefore making zombie infection rates in urban locales relatively unstoppable and a transition to a zombie society immanent. Some of the most accurate scenes in the 2013 Brad Pitt film World War Z illustrate these concepts with streets clogged by cars, with no route for escape. Conversely, in a scene that shows a military unit silently traveling on bikes to refuel their cargo plane, we see an illustration of bicycle transportation as more effective because of its relative silence.

Put simply, we will all be real zombies soon, because the current urban form is conducive to the rapid spread of zombification. We have designed the ideal city for our future zombie selves. Over the last 50 years, we have focused primarily on cars and fuel-driven transportation improvements as well as circuitous and resource dependent suburban developments. There were many benefits to these development patterns, but one unintended benefit is that we designed cities that are much easier for zombies to infest than they are for humans to inhabit.

Congestion and resource dependency have created a captive audience for a zombie transition—people held captive to the apocalypse in cars. This leads to a series of provocative societal questions, which should be of seminal importance to planners and urban designers: Since we are primed for a zombie transition, why are we trying to reshape many of our cities? Shouldn't planners, architects, and designers be focused on zombie adaptation strategies that recognize the reality of this transition? Perhaps we should continue our current auto-oriented focus, because the job of planning for future zombie inhabitation, what I call the "New Zombie Future" (NZF), has already been done?

Because it is clear that our fate is a societal shift to the NZF, I would argue in favor of acceptance. We have a clear, pragmatic, and cost-effective way forward for our society. We should maintain the status quo of our suburban, auto-oriented communities. We should stop creating conditions that foster movement and interaction among the population, thus breaking us away from our figurative (and future literal) zombie selves. At this point in our societal development, it would be easier to continue on our chosen path of suburbanization and auto-dependency by embracing our real, immanent zombification. We should facilitate the New Zombie Future as we evolve from zombies of abstraction, to zombies in reality.

Contrary to my opinion, there are those who do not agree with the zombie way forward. There are those who want to push back against this vision of the future. There are those who argue that we should try to redesign our cities to make them more resilent to outbreaks of all kinds. They argue that we should redevelop and redesign urban spaces so they are more dense and connected—that we should fight both figurative and actual zombification. These contrarians cite research from places like MIT that suggests clearly-linked, well-connected, multi-modal streets are more conducive to evading and resisiting a zombie attack (Ball, Rao, Haussman & Robinson 2013). They claim these connected streets would slow the infection rate in a zombie epidemic and help fight the apocolypse.

But that argument is not grounded in the reality of our cities and towns. Those are not the kind of streets we have built throughout the United States. As I described in my introduction, we already live a world where suburban development and long commutes encourage zombie-like social isolation. The technology that we claim connects us has us talking with our thumbs more than our mouths. Most of us don't vote, are apathetic, self-centered, and self-serving—we already behave like the zombies we so fear and despise. With this type of behavior, what difference would resistance make? Why would our society agree with highly-connected, walkable streets when they would only prolong the pain and suffering our future generations experience in becoming members of the walking dead?

There are those who argue for the transition to boats, planes, faster trains, a space elevator, the Hyperloop, and other futuristic forms transportation as the keys to more efficient travel and resistance. Dialogue on the CDC website even suggests, "… large, strategic bridges should be destroyed and ferries be offered in place so that zombies would be better isolated to land masses." But these ideas, while exciting and novel sounding, are only interim measures. They would only slow the zombie apocalypse and extend humanity for a short time. Ultimately our fate lies in our streets, where we are already designing to facilitate zombie transition. These are the places we are already designing for cars.

So in that case, why not go with it? We now have a great opportunity to continue our business-as-usual strategy. We should build on the type of development patterns we have been working on for almost a century. We should design as many loops and lollipops as possible—build in more dead ends and dangling nodes in our roads. We should stop worrying about mass transit, trip reduction, air quality, or greenhouse gas emissions. We won't need our natural resources after the zombie invasion, and we can even hasten our transition to zombiedom by exploiting them.

God forbid we make the societal shift to cities designed for walking and biking. Those modes may keep us from achieving our future potential as zombies, and without any societal focus on them, in my humble opinion, "resistance is futile" (to quote The Borg, of Star Trek fame). So why should we deny the inevitable? We should simply "awaken the zombie" that already exists within each of us by embracing dependency on fossil fuels and creating places that have less accessibility to goods and services (Koch & Crick 2001). We should focus on the auto—the ideal solution to welcome the New Zombie Future. Why would we resist when we have all the tools at our disposal to thrive in this brave new world?

William (Billy) Riggs, PhD is an Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning and a leader in the area of transportation planning and technology, having worked as a practicing planner and published widely in the area. He has over 50 publications and has had his work featured nationally by Dr. Richard Florida in The Atlantic. He is also the principal author of Planetizen's Planning Web Technology Benchmarking Project. He can be found on Twitter @williamwriggs.

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