Op-Ed: Utopian Thinking Poses Continued Dangers for Urbanists

Charles Wolfe calls attention to similarities between contemporary urbanism and yesterday's debunked utopias. The two may differ in substance, but both tend toward a certain level of dogma that isn't necessarily helpful on the ground.

October 30, 2018, 2:00 PM PDT

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc

Plan Voisin

SiefkinDR / Wikimedia Commons

"Like today," Charles Wolfe writes, "planning activities of a century ago sought improved residential quality, including a scheme which correlated scaled streets according to use, local stores, the community school, parks, playgrounds, open space, and social interaction among neighbors." These days, he goes on, we often criticize those principles of yesteryear for oversimplification, architectural determinism, and their lack of provisions for environmental sustainability and social equity.

But is it possible that planners of the future will see many of today's urbanist concepts in a similar light? Wolfe writes, "Absent large swaths of single-entity ownership, redevelopment of our current urban landscape is not easy — with limited raw land available for straightforward public or private sector-led development without sophisticated mitigation solutions."

In that context, "prescriptive" goals involving smart growth, placemaking, sustainability, and the like may fail to achieve their visionaries' wider aims without "reality checks against the challenges of design, equity, regulation and financing, and [the need to] be addressed at an integrated and practical level worldwide." We shouldn't be so certain, in other words, that our own utopias aren't as flawed as those of our predecessors. 

Monday, October 15, 2018 in Public Square: A CNU Journal

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