Today’s topics?  Utopia, science fiction, and the eco-city.

There are plenty of groups of people through history who, for various reasons, have rejected mainstream society and gone off to establish secluded communities of their own.  The spaces thus created might be interpreted in a negative light: as exclusionary; as constituting a form of irresponsibility; not so much posing a constructive challenge to the establishment as typically just ignored by it (Goodwin & Taylor, 1982). They may be delegitimized by their utopian tendencies, appearing to be no more than ‘escapist daydreams’ (Pepper, 2005). But if we borrow Karl Mannheim’s definition of utopian thinking as that which is “incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs” (Mannheim, 1960: 173), we might equally see any dominant ideology as a utopia in disguise. Therefore, it is precisely by constructing alternative utopias that we challenge ideological norms. As a “useful source of socio-political truths and inspiration” (Goodwin & Taylor, 1982: 221), utopian thinking helps us to “relativize the present” (ibid: 28). More generously, then, we might valorise the protected spaces of utopian practices as experimental niches which may generate innovations and new ways of living precisely because of their disentanglement from the ‘state of reality’. It seems fair to argue that our ability to experiment always depends to some extent on the existence of some ‘free spaces’ (Pepper, 2005) of this type – whether they take the form of universities, hippy communes, scientific research centres, religious communities, or more fleeting spaces of alternity such as theatre performances, public protests and carnivals, and so on and so on.

I’m fascinated by such ‘free spaces’ generally – spaces where ‘normal’ rules don’t apply – and by what happens to space when its normal orderings are temporarily suspended or subverted.  But I also acknowledge the risks of romanticising such spaces. What Lucy Sargisson (2000) calls ‘transgressive utopianism’ also has its dark side, and I think it is problematic if we confuse speculative experimentation with the task of engaging with and governing the complexities of the real world. We can do both, and they complement each other productively, but they’re not the same thing.

What matters for me, then, is that such spaces remain in dialogue with the messy world outside. Seclusion allows experimentation to occur, but it should not be an end in itself. Even more distortedly, there may even be a pretence of experimentation, a sheen of utopian possibility, a hint of transgression, all coopted for promotional purposes, and in fact subordinate to various goals of exclusion or social distinction. It is unsurprising that this type of operation is fairly obviously at play in many advertisements for consumer goods, but seems more worrying if the ‘experiment’ itself makes loftier claims for its societal value. Some of the more critical takes on the ‘eco-city’, for example, suggest that what is proposed may sometimes amount to a sort of ‘gated community’. Hodson and Marvin (2010) take this further, painting a dystopian picture of a degraded planet in the future, in which certain ‘premium eco-enclaves’ are reserved for the rich and fortunate.  Relatedly, I was very interested to hear John Beck talk, at his excellent recent inaugural lecture, about the portrayal of space colonisation in science fiction. This often takes the form of an ‘exodus’ for the select few, leaving the unfortunates back on earth to fight it out among themselves.

The older ideal of the ‘garden city’ may be problematic for similar reasons. An audience member at a talk I did the other day pointed out that gardens are very exclusive – their order is maintained by a gardener who makes particular decisions about what qualifies as a ‘plant’ and what qualifies as a ‘weed’.  I was reminded that Zygmunt Bauman (1989) uses precisely this metaphor – the ‘gardening state’ – to describe the way western, liberal government fundamentally seeks to create binary oppositions – ‘us’ and the ‘other’. Who and what will be welcome in the garden, then?  And what are we to do with the unruly strangers outside it? If plans are always ideological – and always therefore secretly utopian – does it make any sense to talk about ‘planning’ for the multiple orderings of a city? I find it problematic that the policies and practices of sustainable urban development may rest on particular, utopian orderings, which are unannounced and invisible specifically because they are conductive of, rather than incongruous with, dominant ideologies.

More generally, I’ve been trying over the last few months to make some connections between certain strands of science fiction and the ways that urban sustainability is conceptualised. I’m wondering: is it a good or a bad thing when utopian thinking, in the form of speculative fiction, seeps into plans for something as real as a city?  Do we end up with something confused and unrealisable, or at least unable to expand beyond a protected exclusive niche? I’ve had quite a few thoughts on this, and hope to write something more substantial about it in future.

31 March 2014, London.


Bauman, Z. (1989). Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Goodwin, B. & Taylor, K. (1982). The Politics of Utopia: A study in theory and practice. London: Hutchinson University Library.

Hodson, M. & Marvin, S. (2010). Urbanism in the anthropocene: Ecological urbanism or premium ecological enclaves? Cities, 14(3): 298–313.

Mannheim, K. (1960). Utopia and Ideology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Pepper, D. (2005). Utopianism and Environmentalism. Environmental Politics, 14(1): 3–22.

Sargisson, L. (2000). Green Utopias of self and others. Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 3(2-3): 140–156.