‘Looking backward, looking forwards’: reconnecting with planning’s utopian traditions

Guest post:

Andy Inch is a lecturer in the Department of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Sheffield. His research is broadly concerned with understanding the politics of planning and urban development. He is a member of both Planners Network UK and Planning Democracy in Scotland. He also leads (along with Lee Crookes) the Westfield Action Research Project.

Garden_City_diagramAs others have suggested on FOReTHOUGHT, the very idea of planning seems to stand on the wrong side of history these days, opposed to the principles of market-based ‘freedom’ that neoliberal common-sense claims is the only path to prosperity. If, at the height of the post-war settlement EFM Durbin could claim that ‘we are all planners now’, by the late 1990s Anthony Giddens, in acquiescing to neoliberalism, would knowingly counter that no-one seems to be anymore.

But how should we understand this loss of faith in planning? Some standard stories and images come to mind. A folk-wisdom has certainly built up around the failures of ‘modernist’ town planning (cue stock pictures of bleak windswept tower blocks). But if this folk-wisdom contains some important truths it too easily acts as an ideological cautionary tale, deepening the assumption that there is no alternative to neoliberalism. This is politically disabling since it saps belief that we can take control of our own futures.

Faced with this, advocates of town planning as a force for progressive social change often find themselves invoking the utopian roots of planning in nineteenth and early twentieth century social reform movements. As Hugh Ellis and Kate Atkinson’s recent book Rebuilding Britain shows, there is much to learn from the practical utopianism of the town planning movement. Not least Ebenezer Howard’s original vision of Garden Cities as a ‘peaceful path to real reform’. However, there are dangers here too. For one thing calls to revive the visionary roots of the planning movement risk being little more than glib slogans if they are not rooted in a clear understanding of the historical context they are made in.

Howard was heavily influenced by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, first published in 1888 it tells the story of Julian West who falls asleep and wakes up in the Boston of the year 2000, a city transformed into a socialist utopia. Bellamy’s novel was hugely popular in its day, capturing the spirit of progressive reform.

Today, however, we seem more likely to imagine the future in dystopian rather than utopian terms. The contemporary world, marked by the threat of catastrophic climate change and various fundamentalisms, seems more receptive to pessimistic than optimistic visions of the future. As Frederic Jameson, Slaovj Zizek and others have argued it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. We certainly no longer believe that we can discover new worlds, that technology can take us off to settle on distant planets, or that in some far off future reason will have prevailed and resolved our social ills (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seems a more likely map of the future than the Boston of Looking Backward).

So where does that leave us? The relationship between the contemporary dystopian mood and neoliberal fatalism is complex but they often seem to be mutually reinforcing, urging us to accept reality as it is by pointing to the disastrous failings of past attempts to realize utopia.

However, as many writers on utopia have argued, we should resist such impulses. Even whilst remaining skeptical of the possibility (or even desirability) of ever realizing utopia we must keep alive a belief that other worlds are possible, holding at least to what Jameson calls an anti anti-utopianism. If we don’t all we do is further accommodate ourselves to a present that was itself decisively shaped by the ideals of previous generations and continues to be most boldly re-organized by the libertarian utopia of the free-market.

9780230231962Ruth Levitas goes further in her book Utopia as Method, arguing that reducing utopia to a hermeneutic practice and refusing to engage seriously with the architecture of ideal societies may diminish our capacity to collectively imagine alternative futures. Levitas instead argues that utopianism be used as a method for critically examining the organization and potential reorganization of society. Hers is a bold proposal for a politically engaged and normative recasting of sociology, encompassing critical interpretation of the utopian traces in contemporary policies and programmes, debate about the ontological underpinnings of human flourishing and a capacity to imagine worlds in which societies do justice to their values.

This is all highly relevant for progressive planning, challenging the discipline to become part of a broader political project; working to renew faith in society’s ability to imagine and create better futures. Calls to re-engage with planning’s utopian past are urgent and important. Levitas helps us to understand that, if they are to go beyond the glib (or even melancholic), we need to better understand the ways in which the utopian operates and might be strengthened, even in dystopian times. This might start with a quick re-reading of Edward Bellamy but we also need to re-learn how to look forwards and creatively explore our own futures.