What Can We Learn From Utopian Planners?

This article was first published in Urban Times on June 3, 2012.

Photo: Just Space Network

The question of how to create sustainable cities and communities was raised again recently, with both the inaugural meeting of the New Cities Summit in Paris, and a call from the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) for a new generation of Garden Cities in the UK, exploring different perspectives on the issue.

While Ebenezer Howard's Garden City concept is often referred to as utopian, the underlying principles have proven to be both practical and widely applicable. The ideas behind Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities and Hampstead Garden Suburb can be seen in the evolution of American suburbs, traced through Le Corbusier's thinking about the ideal modernist city, to Soviet Russia's socialist cities.[1]

The utopian impulse driving Howard's vision was to create a more humane and just alternative to the dire conditions that many city dwellers faced in 19th century England. His aim was to bring together the best of town and country in a rationale and ordered plan; to make it desirable by providing high-quality, architect-designed housing; and to make it affordable and sustainable by enabling the community to retain the profit from rising land values. For Howard, planning was a tool for achieving social ends. community wellbeing, quality of life, and a thriving social and civic life were central to his vision, and it is this human focus that makes the Garden Cities Movement relevant to current questions about how to create sustainable places.

As discussed in earlier articles in this series, the social dimensions of sustainability - wellbeing, equality, social justice, democratic participation, community cohesion - are often neglected in policy and practice. In the UK at least, it has proved particularly challenging to incorporate these ideas into thinking about placemaking and urban planning.

While social sustainability has emerged as an area of academic interest over the past decade, much of this thinking is yet to be put into practice by planners, developers, housing providers, local authorities and other public bodies. There are various reasons for this; from the ambiguity of the term, to a lack of practical evidence about what works, and the difficulties of responding to the complexity and diversity of urban social life. However, another obstacle lies in disentangling political and practical dimensions of social sustainability.

Social sustainability is a way of thinking about what people need in order to live and work together. It views social, spatial, economic and environmental issues as inter-related, rather than privileging one dimension over another. The Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development (OISD) describes social sustainability as a synthesis of traditional areas of social policy, with principles of equity and social justice, and emerging concerns about participation, social capital and wellbeing.[2]  While government rhetoric about wellbeing, sustainability, fairness and localism abounds, there is little appetite to tackle one of the central political issues of social sustainability - income inequality.

However, there are many other practical issues that can be acted on that do not need to be led by governments; especially in the context of urban planning, neighbourhood regeneration, and large-scale housing developments. Here we can take another lesson from Howard, who was committed to creating his Garden Cities with little or no government intervention. There is considerable scope for planners, developers, housing providers and local public agencies to take the initiative in putting practical aspects of social sustainability into action. Some are already experimenting with innovative partnerships and models ofownership, like community land trusts, to create affordable housing in perpetuity. Likewise, people are beginning to think about how the relationship between spatial and social integration influences how communities function (see the wealth of work by Space Syntax on this) and are considering the connections between local job markets and environmental performance.

At the most basic level, there are important lessons about what makes new cities and communities flourish or fail that are yet to be incorporated into mainstream practice.Social Life's work has show large-scale new communities continue to be built in the UK without adequate social infrastructure to support new residents. It is not uncommon to find communities without shops, schools or local transport for several years after the first residents have moved in, or for neighbourhoods to be equipped with community facilities that don't meet local need because residents have had no opportunity to influence decision-making. In our research, residents, community groups and planning officers have all described the inflexibility of the current planning levies to provide the sort of adaptable and flexible services and infrastructure that can evolve and grow as new communities do. Space to grow is a crucial element of creating socially sustainable places - both in terms of infrastructure that can adapt to changing needs, but also creating spaces for people to contribute to the social, cultural, civic and democratic life of communities.  Shared spaces and shared experiences play an important role in creating a sense of inclusion and belonging.

Citizen participation has been identified as an essential element in creating and managing communities that are sustainable in the long-term, although many people experience significant practical barriers to involvement. Lessons from the English New Towns, regeneration programmes, and research into wellbeing and local belonging, have all described the benefits of giving people meaningful opportunities to shape and manage their environment.  Neighbourhood planning is creating powerful opportunities for people, groups and local businesses to shape their local environment.Chatsworth Road in East London, is one of the most dynamic examples, while the achievements of the Just Space Network must represent a landmark in public engagement with planning.  The Network enabled a huge range of individuals, community groups and citywide organisations to be heard during the development of the updated London Plan.  It persuaded Mayor Boris Johnson to strengthen policy on protecting local shops, extending green infrastructure and promoting Community Land and Development Trusts. Key recommendations on affordable housing, road user charging, air quality, and avoiding displacement of people from regeneration areas were, however, ultimately rejected by the Mayor.

Arguably by focusing on the practical rather than political dimensions of social sustainability, housing providers, developers, architects and planners can bring people back into the practice of creating sustainable cities and communities.  Many of these ideas do not need new policies or legislation. They need a shift in thinking and practice and a willingness to work differently.  While this approach could be described as piecemeal - representing a departure from the 'total plan' conceived by Ebenezer Howard and other utopian thinkers-  it does mean social sustainability might in the future be considered as essential as environmental sustainability is today.

 The geographer Professor Ash Amin, is among those calling for a better understanding of everyday urban social life to be brought into the debate about cities, planning and policy-making. He writes about the 'being-togetherness' that city life demands - the challenges of constantly negotiating diversity and difference in close proximity - and how the particular spatial organization of cities plays a role in intensifying the experience of integration or exclusion, marginalization or inequality. Amin suggests it is time to re-imagine the idea of the 'Good City' - an urban space that is open, inclusive, supportive and welcoming for all - because the reality of city living is so far from this ideal for so many people.  He proposes a 'practical urban utopianism' that refocuses planning and urban development on the lived experience, social challenges and political resources of today (rather than those of an ideal and imaginary utopian future) with the relatedness of city life at its heart.[3]

This article was written by Saffron Woodcraft. View the entire series of articles: Social Life


[1] Fishman, R., 1987. Bourgeois Utopias The Rise and Fall of Suburbia, Basic Books Inc.

[2] Colantonio, A. and Dixon, T. (2009) Measuring Socially Sustainable Urban Regeneration in Europe, Oxford Brookes University: Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development (OISD)

[3] Amin, A., 2006. The Good City. Urban Studies, 43, Nos 5/6, pp.1009-1023.