Equitable Utopias - Thoughts on Walking Away from Omelas

Lisa Feldstein's picture
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In the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula LeGuin depicts a utopia that is made possible by the transference of all misery to a child who is kept in a cellar. Some in the community ignore the scapegoat's existence, choosing the easy life of bliss that is offered to them. Those whose consciences do not allow them to live in willful ignorance often chose to leave Omelas and live complete, full lives that include awareness, and shouldering their own pain.

While utopian communities are few and far between, it is easy to spot attempts to create them: gated planned communities and economically (and, by extension, frequently racially) segregated subdivisions are the mainstay of new development. And if these neighborhoods fail at achieving their utopian ideals, they are very successful at creating circumstances that permit their denizens to ignore the conditions of other parts of the community.

In our cities, suburbs and exurbs, the child in the cellar is the low-income neighborhood. The residents bear the burdens of the community in the forms of substandard housing, lack of access to basic goods and services, and an overconcentration of polluters and toxic substances. Since these neighborhoods offer little, it is easy for those who chose to do so to ignore their existence. Simply decide not to visit the sewage treatment plant. There are no shops of worth, so don't shop there. The schools are bad; keep your children in your own neighborhood schools. Like the residents of Omelas, choose not to acknowledge the scapegoat that makes possible the quality of life you enjoy.

Planners are often the ones who have walked away from Omelas. They've gone elsewhere and are trying to create new places, wonderful places that don't rely on the child in the cellar for their success. Planners have not given up on utopian vision, but seek true utopias, utopias that don't rely on disproportionate allocations of suffering to succeed. Planners also recognize that utopias cannot be static, but must be ever responsive to a community's changing needs.

To succeed, planners must educate the public about the child in the cellar. The lack of grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods – the inability of people to feed their children because of lack of access – needs to be understood as a community-wide issue, not one that affects only those in the underserved neighborhood. Inclusionary housing requirements should be implemented with intentionality, to create mixed income neighborhoods. Planning departments should work closely with economic development departments and Chambers of Commerce to ensure businesses are being recruited to serve all neighborhoods, not just those with high concentrations of wealth. Planners can help by creating incentives, such as priority permitting, for neighborhoods identified as needy.

Planners have great tools for addressing disparity. Every day brings opportunities to address these inequities. Having walked away from Omelas, our challenge is to make places that don't have cellars for scapegoats. It will mean a little more suffering for some, but also more joy for most. We can lead the way.
Lisa Feldstein seeks to use land use as a tool for social and economic justice.

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