The Fault in Utopia

Really, what is appealing about Utopia?

I’m reading last month’s NatGeo, which is assessing cities all over the world and illustrating which of these is vibrant and what’s being done right. An additional piece of this issue on Cities is a depiction of the perfect future city: a city based on a variety of biophilic concepts such as making the city a sponge to get rainwater back into a proper cycle instead of truncating it with piping and treatment plants, offering a variety of transit and mobility options, growing and producing food nearby, and embracing the fact that we are part of nature and are healthier in connection with it.

Great. Wonderful.

National Geographic, April 2019.

Except this vision does nothing to acknowledged all that we currently have in our greatest cities, good and bad, and does not assess those constraints to inform that new vision. We do not have a clean slate to work upon, in fact, we have a tremendous amount of invested embodied carbon to work with and the worst thing we could do is bulldoze it all down and pretend that Utopia can be created on the rubble. An overlay imposed upon human existence is inhumane as well as unnatural.

Downtown view of NYC from “Top of the Rock”.

What is Utopia if it is undefined by process and people? Such a planned perfection would be false and rife with failure. Nature and systems evolve based on need. We can do a lot to predict that need, but we cannot predict it absolutely or envision all the aspects that would need to be included, and would be foolish to think we can. I remember in college that our campus was doing a lot of redevelopment. The joke at the time was that the RPI 2000 plan was for a hole in the ground with a fence around it. They planned new walkways across the campus based on their predictions of how people moved. Within months there were new paths etched in the grass, crossing at places they never imagined, totally changing the patterns and ignoring the investment in paved walk surfaces. The next time they built a new building or open space, they placed a few key sidewalks near buildings and then waited for the activity of students and staff to mark where walking would occur. Then they knew where to place pathways  and plantings. This was a fairly successful approach. What would have been even more dynamic would have been including the stakeholders in the intentionality of the work, so they could see the framework of the plan, see their actions were part of that plan, and be proud and engaged.

A pristine, planned overlay imposed upon human existence is inhumane as well as unnatural.

Can we create a Utopic city by ignoring what already exists? I think not, for a few reasons. 

First, we have created cities, the most vibrant and sustained cities, in places that people have chosen to be. The reasons are varied and, yes, times have changed some of those reasons. Yet some of them sustain. I think of the cities I am most familiar with, such as Boston, New York City, Hartford, Providence, Albany. All of these cities are at transit hubs, tied to water and over time they have grown to be linked to other hubs. And this network is vast, complex, and evolved.

Second, we have a huge amount of investment in these cities. We are foolish to think we can create the new by wasting the resources embedded in the old. This would be a “carbon bloom” of immense proportion, adding inputs into climate shifts and putting unregulated toxins into uncontrolled disposal situations (and where the hell would we put it all?!). Some of the already existing investment should be abandoned, such as pipelines for fossil fuel. Some need to be reimagined, such as transit infrastructure, to be moved to more efficient means, electric fuel, and possibly more people-centric by including nature and more supportive access. Some cannot be dismissed or reimagined in their systemic complexities, but should be the core information feeding any plan for the “city of the future”.  The changes will have to incorporate what exists, such as skyscrapers and brownstones, iconic landmarks, preserved land areas, and networks of connection to other cities. 

The valuable textures of our existing city.

Third, the biggest issue with uninformed utopic cities is they make it look like our only chance for a better future is to destroy all that we know and love (and a lot that we hate) and start over. Even setting the money, time, and environmental issues totally aside, there is nothing in envisioning this perfect future city that invites us to work for it!  That is not the way to go at all. 

So our approach to achieving the city of our future must change.

  • It must be informed by all we know of our resilience and sustainability needs, especially the imperative to break from fossil fuel use.
  • We must seek to connect any of nature’s systems that we have disrupted, such as water cycles, natural connection for migratory paths, soil health, and air quality.
  • It must also use the existence of our best cities as information for supported and certainly speeded-up evolution, so that we can use the existing materials to create our new existence at a lower environmental cost.

How do we do this? 

The visions of “our city of the future” are always important to stretch our minds past what we know, yet they also can create restrictions by their own reach for uninformed perfection. Caution: use these visions, but don’t get hamstrung by them.

Perhaps we need to always tie these sorts of explorations to a real city as it currently stands. I think of the proposal for the Big-U in NYC.  This projection of a resilience approach was built among the existing structures of the city, acknowledging the buildings and parks and pending planning, and recommending a broad approach that was well-informed by that fabric of city life. Because of the connections, the proposal was more successful, more applicable, even in pieces or layers, and more respectful of materials and embodied carbon. It also did not displace people, but invited them to send down even firmer roots. 

Ideally we should be light of touch and find the nodes of influence that should be positively affected to create supportive ripples throughout connected systems. I think, in this case, of the work in New London, CT on reconnecting to the Thames River (pronounce the “th” sound for this river) which was previously fenced off for intense industrial and train use. It is now accessible with a pedestrian boardwalk, has created a focus on downtown activity, increased restaurants and service sites overlooking the river, celebrated history, and improved connection to ferry and train travel as well as to industrial services along the juncture of freight train lines and cargo shipping. I think also of the Boston Big Dig, which was highly disruptive, but which, by focusing on one system within the city, has created ripples of benefit including an increase in parks and in pedestrian safety throughout the city. I have linked one article published at the 10-year mark, and I encourage you to read more about the project.

Finally, we must work together to create clarity and alignment around our aspirational goals.  NYC, for example, has many city agencies and large-scale stakeholders as well as community representation from the five boroughs and many diverse neighborhoods. If they are each accidentally working at cross-purposes, no progress can be made. If we can intentionally co-create our future-state vision, and use defined principles about that future state to inform each decision we face in the years to come, we can, over time, evolve into our self-defined Utopia, or darn near to it. And this can occur without wasted materials, displacement, massive costs all in a lump, or the shock and disruption of forcing a clean slate on which to begin.

It is entirely about process. A process which we must begin, if we are 2bgreener,


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