Utopia can refer to the detailed, concrete image of a flawless community (which is what Thomas More had in mind when he coined this neologism). It can also refer to the systematic exposition of the underlying principles of said community. Regardless of how they appear, they need to be defined and evaluated.
What does Utopia mean?
Utopia has many faces. Originally a literary genre created by Thomas More, it is also a tradition of political thought. A philosophical concept and a way of characterizing techno-scientific narratives (cyber-utopias, transhumanism, etc.). Or social experiments (throwback to the 1960s). -landers, “cité radieuse” by Le Corbusier, etc.). Cut worlds, lost paradise, future millennials, clandestine societies.
These different figures of utopia display their multiple meanings and question their relationship with history. Is utopia the nostalgia for a golden age, the longing for a perfect society or the description of a fiction nowhere? Surely, utopia leaves few people indifferent. It can be praised but also harshly criticized. On the philosophical scene, utopia has been accused of being a fundamentally unreal and potentially totalitarian way of thinking.
What does Utopia combine?
Political controversies are often linked to philosophical debates. Rejected by self-proclaimed “scientific” Marxists and conservatives, utopia has its fanatics among libertarian socialists (Fourier, Leroux, Cabet, Landauer) and libertarian liberals (Nozick). They combine, in unlikely proportions, many ingredients. It includes equal conditions, a low degree of state coercion and economic wealth, in a context of unlimited development of individual potentialities.
The evaluation of utopias can be achieved by observing their origins or their results. Its origin is by no means the best conceived part of utopian constructions. The results to be expected from utopias have been viewed quite favorably. However, starting with Aristophanes, they have also become a laughingstock. Then, after the mid-twentieth century, they stopped being a solution to become a problem, a change that is transmitted with the appearance of the word dystopia: the utopian dream taken backwards to become a nightmare.
A word about the future: utopias as social arrangements where consensual equality generates happiness seem definitely obsolete; Utopian mindsets that view the world as an Armageddon-like confrontation between the forces of evil and true believers will be with us for a long time.
Scenarios of Utopia
The settings capture the interplay between interpretation and complexity, offering an imaginary reconciliation for the imagined futures in the stories. They help plan for stakeholders to create and compare alternative responses to the future together by framing the plot. Imaginatively inhabiting history allows users to understand the emotional and cognitive significance of the place. Each participant plays the narrative to assess the simulated impact for important purposes and strategies.
The scenarios do not provide details of an intentionally detailed alternate life form. Rather, they provide selective comparisons explicitly linked to assumptions and arguments about causes and consequences as currently conceived. Pragmatically, scenarios offer narratives that stakeholders can compare to capture the meaning and significance of the changes currently lurking in their imagined futures, albeit in abstract and elusive ways. These stories help place-bound people to remember that seemingly inevitable tendencies or immovable structures remain susceptible to their collective purposes and actions.
Whereas utopia explores the meaning of pursuing dramatically different purposes by reconciling differences within an integrated narrative. The scenarios provide narratives that test the differences between alternative divergent stories. Utopia edifies like a novel, while scenarios function more like proverbs.
Scenarios are not simply tools for harnessing human storytelling to reduce the strategic uncertainty of a place facing a complex future. For the pragmatist, complexity takes shape as a source of survival and flourishing; as actionable problems. The scenarios put meat on the bones of the arguments that predict changes in complex behavior and the consequent interaction effects.
Narratives help us frame, compose, and select better options than we would have if we relied solely on tradition, ideals, or arguments. Storytelling bridges the past and the future in ways that enhance the quality of practical choice, and thus address complexity without sacrificing social meaning.
Plans and Utopia
Space planners plan for people deeply limited by political demands and other changing conditions. Plans help to pose problems and devise options in ways that various stakeholders can understand and use to assess future actions and consequences. Plans inform intentions toward some future action.
The cultural interpretation of the ideas of the plan deeply shapes the meaning of the ideas that people use to make policies, rules, projects, proposals, programs, incentives and other strategies of collective action that can cut through the complicated institutional landscapes of towns, cities and regions. Unlike social norms or laws that restrict us as we learn their meaning and therefore help govern a place; Plans help us review and compare the meaning of different expectations for the future of a place.
This imaginative reconsideration requires people to suspend attachments to family beliefs and practices to compare them with others as practical alternatives. This detachment does not remove people from the practical details of a place or from the many competing moral purposes and political interests. It means that for stakeholders to plan, they must experience and recognize doubts, curiosities, desires and expectations that disrupt the current habits and conventions that currently govern the place they inhabit. The trust and commitment that ensured our compliance with the law and custom now carries over into the development of the plan as stakeholders consider what options could solve the site problem.
Dissertations and Utopia
The decision to choose a solution among the many considered does not stem from planning, but from the intentions of the stakeholders who used the plan to conceive and compare options. Collaborative planning seeks to include stakeholders in developing the plan so that participants understand the meaning of optional decisions for the purposes and circumstances in question.
Deliberation among the community of stakeholders making the plan helps to establish or frame the problem to include differences in purpose and interpretation. For the pragmatist, the plan works if someone adopts it as a guide to judge. The choice of an option and the subsequent action includes personal, social, institutional and environmental influences. So if the actions achieve consequences that solve problems, the public clientele rarely mentions the plan.
Plans don’t decide or act, people do. People take credit for good results that emphasize virtue, integrity, and the wisdom of decision-making. Good plans become psychologically invisible until the next problem. The plan may have included misleading goals and errors, but accurate and relevant plans can become scapegoats for poor leadership and poor decisions. The pragmatic approach places expectations and knowledge along a continuum that invites planning stakeholders to adapt the advice they write about an uncertain future to the circumstances and conditions that arise.
As we anticipate and prepare for the future of a place, we combine our expectations and knowledge to envision the place imagined. We make plans to guide deliberate comparisons on which options to choose. The plan helps us establish the option that customers intend to choose and use. I believe that planning practitioners are professionals and, otherwise, they do quite well if the plans they make guide and shape the intention of their collaborators and clients. Especially since utopian visions and scenarios enhance the moral scope and relevance of advice. Plans advise. They do not oblige, but advise. Research on planning practice can and should explore how spatial planners of all kinds mobilize and adapt these concepts. Especially when exploring how space planners and planners envision the future as guides for practical judgment.
Eaton R (2002) Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un) Built Environment. London: Thames and Hudson.
Fainstein S (2005) Planning theory and the city Journal of Planning Education and Research 25:121-30.
Fainstein S (2010) The Just City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
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