Urban Planning: Utopia?

Utopia is a word coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 as an imaginary island enjoying perfection in law, politics, etc. It is also considered as an ideal place or state or any visionary system of political or social perfection.

This entry is one of my essays submitted to the University of the Philippines School of Urban and Regional Planning (UP SURP) in 2014 when I was still a student taking my post-graduate education. I thought it would be interesting and informative to share this essay.

Utopia in the context of Urban Planning

Utopia is a word coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 as an imaginary island enjoying perfection in law, politics, etc. It is also considered as an ideal place or state or any visionary system of political or social perfection (Dictionary.com). Utopia is based on the imagination and discontentment of Moore to the present situation. Thus, several people crafted and designed an ideal place (utopia) that later became popular and the basis of effective urban planning.

Ebenezer Howard (1898) introduced the Garden City. It is a settlement designed with the central business district (CBD) in the middle of the city and its outer rings composed of greenbelt and residential areas, respectively. The center is accessible with road networks and railways along its periphery. The concept is a combination of town (urban) and country (rural) perceived advantages.

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City

Jane Jacobs (1961) on the other hand was critical of the Garden City idea due to its insensitive planned development. She put emphasis on the importance of people looking after each other in one’s neighborhood and their important role in planning.

Daniel Burnham (1890s) on the other hand, focused on creating big plans. He emphasized orderliness and harmony of form usually on a grand scale. Burnham is famous for his quote to wit:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will themselves not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.” “Make no little plans. They have no Magic to stir Men’s blood.”

Based on Howard, Jacobs, and Burnham; it is easy to conclude that there is no definite definition, design or concept of a Utopia. It is based on the actual needs and preference of the people, the resources available, and the political will of leaders. Therefore, the concept of Utopia is different from person to person.

My Personal Utopia

My definition of Utopia comes close to my definition of my “home”. A home is where I feel comfortable, happy, satisfied, safe, and a place to enjoy the company of my loved ones. It includes my immediate family, neighborhood and community. It is a place where I am free to develop and cultivate. It is a place where I am protected from external threats. It is more of my emotional feeling than the physical building itself. My home (my utopia) fulfills and satisfies my needs and provides tranquility. With this in mind, allow me to explore my perceived needs in different timelines so that I may understand and appreciate my utopia as an individual before I try to recommend a possible utopia for the city or country.

Twenty five years ago, I would have imagined my utopia as a place where I can be with my friends / classmates / family. A place where we can have fun either swimming in an ocean or a clean river or enjoying a game of basketball in a covered court. I am thinking more of a suburb with complete facilities and friendly neighbors. I could have also wished then for a near high quality school (University) to learn and explore both my strengths and weaknesses in the academic field and be involved in extracurricular activities.

At present, my priority is to establish a good future for my 3 kids. I want an unpolluted and safe environment that is free from criminality. I want good schools for my kids with good and available scholarship programs. I want to participate in community development. I want to be involved in how the government decides on things that will affect my family’s well-being. I want to have access to quality basic social services. I want to have a good source of livelihood to support the needs of my family and prepare for our future needs.  I want to raise well-rounded smart kids. My utopia at present is more of a mixed use site with access to schools (preferably a university town), source of livelihood, and safe residential areas. I have no issue with mixed use buildings in a central business district (CBD) but I prefer to live in a suburb with good access to the CBD (thru roads and efficient public transport system).

Fifteen years from now, my kids will have already finished their college education and probably starting to establish their individual lives. I am imagining myself spending more quality time with my spouse with a more than modest source of livelihood and busy in volunteer work. It will surely be the period of giving back to the community and playing a more active role in its management and development. I might run for public office (who knows?) or travel and enjoy other places in the world. Still I look forward to a safe and secured environment with friendly neighbors. I may want to be near/or have access to health institutions and the houses of my kids.

Twenty five years from now, I believe I will already be a grandfather with a very different set of needs. I still want to live in a safe environment that is near my kids and grandchildren’s houses. I want to have another house closer to nature (beach, farm, etc.). I may also need to be near hospitals. I hope (that’s the plan) that I have prepared and accumulated enough resources to provide for my needs in my ageing days. I may have an advocacy or may have already written and published books on different topics of interest. I still want to travel and enjoy the beautiful things in other parts of the planet. I sure would want to be still adept in that time’s latest technology (that would be exciting!).

My Utopia at the City/Country Level

Just like me, I believe every person envisions his/her own form of utopia and this vision changes as his/her need changes. However, as a city planner, I cannot exclude certain segments and must try to bring a desired utopia for all age groups. Thus, I would like to describe my idea of a Philippine Utopia both from a user’s and planner’s perspective. My hypothetical utopia is a combination of Howard’s and Jacob’s basic principles with the grandeur of Burnham. I would like to describe my utopia per sector with the belief that a clear and detailed plan turns into clear objectives which facilitate the increase of chances of its achievement. The said sectors are economic, social, technological, political/legal, environmental, and physical.

Economic activities in the utopia involve a good combination of agriculture, manufacturing, and services activities. There are ample job opportunities for both blue collar and white collar types of work. Big and small businesses are both thriving and are working together in providing quality jobs and goods to the people.  Due to the stronger financial position of the constituents, they have the option to pay for private goods or avail of public services / goods from the government.

Social services in the utopia include access to quality education (public and private) and free or subsidized health and education services to the lower income groups. Everybody should have access to education and health services. There are ample policemen and community personnel maintaining and securing the peace and order situation of the city. People are aware, trained, and ready for natural and man-made disasters. There are also recreation and sports programs for all segments in society.

In this utopia, all sectors are connected to the internet. A person may choose to conduct business, pay bills, pursue and study a full course (university), work, etc. in the comfort of his/her own home with the latest technology or go out and conduct these things personally. Information is accessible to all at minimal or no cost to the people.

People in this utopia have a say on government policies that affect their lives. Government is democratic with active people taking part in good governance. Government is willing to listen to its constituents and proactively include them in the planning, monitoring, and evaluation of public projects. Government also conducts capacity building for the civil society organizations in order for them to be skilled and knowledgeable partners in developmental projects of this utopia. A citizen can also transact business with the government through technology in the comfort of their homes.

This utopia observes sustainable development policies and practices. There are areas reserved for nature and adequate clean water for everybody. This utopia has responsible citizens that practice good stewardship of the environment. There are bike lanes, electric (solar) cars, electric (solar) trains, and power comes from renewable energy sources. There are policies crafted with and supported by the people in terms of solid waste management, wastage, sanitation, etc.

In terms of physical / infrastructure manifestations of the stated sectoral objectives of this utopia, I imagined it initially with Howard’s design but with some modifications. Howard’s design focused on one (1) CBD whereas my utopia is composed of several CBD’s (multi-nodal). Each node/CBD is separated by ample green space and is connected to good road networks and accessible via railway operated by renewable energy. Each node has its own suburb as defined in the American societies (so people have options). The node itself is composed of mixed use green buildings (residential, commercial and institutional). The development of the node is vertical to save space and with ample parks and other multi-purpose spaces.  Though there may be specialization (manufacturing, services, education, tourism, etc.) per node, it is expected that each node can survive without depending on the other nodes (economic activity, social services, renewable energy, food, solid waste management, etc.). However, inter-nodal arrangements should be carefully pursued and implemented in tackling sensitive issues that may affect the respective territorial boundaries of adjacent local communities (i.e. pollution, watershed, peace and order, etc.).

My preferred utopia expands the options of the people in a way that empowers them on how to choose the way they live. They may opt to live outside the CBD (suburbs) or in a mixed-use building in the CBD. Since they have a good source of livelihood they can choose to pay for private services/goods or avail of government public services. The government listens and involves the people in pursuing new policies and development. Religious affiliations are respected. All segments of the society are considered in the development. People are the users, the owners, and the planners in the city development. The government and other private technical people only guide and basically act only as implementors of the goals and needs of the people.

I assume that most developments are government initiated. In this new age, governments are mostly democratic in a sense that it is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. With that in mind, development or specifically urban planning and development should also be people centered. A project implemented without the people’s support may fall short to its intended use or worse may become a white elephant project. Technical people tend to put the wishes of the people last, they assume they know what the people wanted already, or worse they do not believe that the people know what they want. The era where leaders establish pyramids and other edifices depending on their whims has ended thousands of years ago. It is only ethical and moral to ask people their priorities and preferences in pursuing development since they are the owner, the users, and the ones paying for it with their taxes.

Though, it may be difficult to synergize the different views on utopias of all the people, one needs skills in squeezing out their common or general sentiments. With my earlier analysis of my needs, this includes having a safe and secured community with access to basic services (basic).

In closing, I appreciate Howard’s intention of a balanced living, Jacob’s emphasis on the important roles of people in urban development, and Burnham intention of grand plans. This is my utopia and hopefully the desired utopia of my country.

For me, a home is what you make it. I believe that you choose where you want to live first and make it your home. An urban plan or an urban area is not a utopia or a home unless people are empowered to get involved and make it their own.

References:

Howard, Sir Ebenezer George, Garden Cities of To-morrow – 1902, Kessinger Publishing, LLC (June 29, 2008)

Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities – 1961,Vintage; Reissue edition (December 1, 1992)

Inspired by the Lecture Slide Presentation of Prof. Jed Gomez on “Utopias, Dystopias, and Everything in Between” delivered on September 2, 2014 during the Plan 201 Class at the University of the Philippines School of Urban and Regional Planning

Meaning of “utopia” downloaded at http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/utopia in September 5, 2014

The Social City image downloaded at http://www.mediaarchitecture.at/architekturtheorie/garden_cities/content/the_social_city_1898.jpg in July 28, 2021