Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

Role of Utopia for Design of Future Cities: Utopia in Urban Planning Literature

Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

Role of Utopia for Design of Future Cities: Utopia in Urban Planning Literature

Article excerpt


Utopian thinking historically played a central role in the literature on urban planning. Utopians were the first planners. Many utopian projects were, throughout history and until recently, a research laboratory for both urban planners and theorists. The following research generally aims to understand the role that urban utopias can play in thinking about the structure of contemporary cities. In order to do so, this article will review a variety of literature recently published on this subject, closely examining their textual content.

Key words: Utopia; Urban planning; Planning theory


Four years ago, I returned to the university in hopes of continuing my studies. My aim from the start was to find an interesting subject for my master's thesis. Following Alfred North Whitehead's quote that it is more important for a proposition to be interesting than true, I spent a great amount of time in the library searching for an interesting subject. It was during one of my discussions with my director that she proposed that I research Utopia. The idea of thinking on a great and prestigious topic like Utopia pleased me, and I found it very appealing. I started my research and enormously enjoyed reading great classical books on Utopia like that of Fishman, Le Corbusier, Howard, and Wright, who later became the heroes of my life. I enjoyed the secure feeling of a soldier surrounded by the Great Wall of China. However, my wall started to shake when, during one of my classes, I read Jane Jacobs' famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The heroes of Robert Fishman, namely Le Corbusier, Howard, and Wright, were portrayed as the devil with arguments that seemed impeccable. I had to ask: Who was right?


Following Jane Jacobs' famous book, it is difficult to find a scholar who wrote positively on Utopia in contemporary urban literature. In general, "utopia" is defined as a code word synonymous with totalitarianism or, in effect, Stalinism (Jameson, 2004). However, when reviewing recent articles in the urban design field, one can read some concerns about the current status of this field. Cuthbert argued that even after 50 years of the creation of the urban design field, we could still hardly see any good theories produced (Cuthbert, 2007). What we can see is mostly a generalized anarchy of creative ideas that bear little coherence, either internally or collectively (Cuthbert, 2007). According to his analysis, the deep theoretical issues in this field are still rare. Journals are mostly composed of case studies or design regulations. However, to paraphrase his question, what more can we squeeze out of contextualism, functionalism, figureground relationships, design regulations, case studies, serial vision, etc.. Following these arguments, Cuthbert believed that urban design fails to engage with any substantial theory in the disciplines of economics, social and political science, psychology, geography, or the humanities. What is needed is an external standard of criticism, a set of alternative assumptions, a dream world in order to discover features of the real world we think we inhabit. Talen shared this idea (Talen & Ellis, 2002). For her, urban design was prescriptive. So, it needs a focus on substance rather than the process and especially a wellarticulated theory of good city form. Her main argument was that in the absence of clear guidelines, the objectives of urban design will not be clear for citizens and urban designers. In addition, the actors in urban design will be leftwith shallow resources when engaging morepowerful and less-publicly spirited actors. To support her arguments, she suggested that some universal values are common among people such as "What does 'beauty' mean?". So, she argued that some urban design guidelines and theories about good and bad urban form, like those proposed by New Urbanism, are needed for the future of urban design.

Based on these assumptions and in order to analyze some general theories about urban design, one would think that the review of current writing on Utopia would be relevant, as Utopian beliefs of universalism, the presence of the durable, time-tested truths, and discoveries are common things. …

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