Utopia myopia: the future of cities

Sunday 23 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Garden Room Utopias

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On the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, visions of a better world are back in fashion. But while many urbanists dream of utopias, few show much interest in realising them. Indeed, some writers reminisce about the idealism of the past but breathe a sigh of relief that such plans were never acted on, with inevitably dystopian consequences. Environmentalism remains the dominant ‘alternative’ model of urban design, but many erstwhile exemplars of green urbanism are now viewed as failures or even more cynically as the work of corporate master planners given a green veneer. Others argue that utopian visions depend on an ‘elitist’ ideological certainty that is no longer viable. The idea of Smart Cities, for example – only recently heralded as the solution to our urban malaise – now raises fears about state surveillance. And those who suggest Smart technologies might be liberating are often portrayed as naïve. Arup’s Dan Hill says a Smart City will only be acceptable if it has a ‘bottom-up or citizen-led approach,’ while author Leo Hollis goes so far to say that ‘In the end, the smart city will destroy democracy’.

Reviewing Douglas Murphy’s book Last Futures, the Guardian’s Andy Beckett says, ‘during the 80s, most of the utopian architectural schemes of the previous two decades were quickly forgotten or derided’. Today, the new utopianism looks desperately for anything to latch onto. As part of its Utopia 2016 project, Somerset House organised an exploration of ‘graffiti as an intrinsically utopian practice’. Meanwhile, King’s College London encouraged students to ‘creatively explore Utopia from your own areas of expertise and interest … to contribute your ideas, hopes and beliefs about the future of health and wellbeing’.

Is the idea of an urban utopia only celebrated because it is a fantasy that we can all appreciate without having to create, endorse or understand? Is it now enjoyed precisely because it isn’t a reality, but rather a way of escaping from the need to confront the challenges involved in actually transcending current limits and changing the world? When Thomas More coined the word ‘utopia’ he was playing with the Greek eu-topos meaning ‘good place’, but it could also refer to ou-topos, ‘no-place’. Is the latter a better description of utopianism today?