Utopian writers and the creation of the America West

O, my America, my Newfoundland, My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d

John Donne, To His Mistress Going to Bed, (1654)

america-as-colonized-female

Engraving of Amerigo Vespucci awakening a Native American from her hammock slumber (Johannes Stradanus, circa 1615)

The future of America had often been writ into the imagination of frontier settlers long before their emigration. In fact, Utopian writers used America as a stage for their writings so frequently that the land’s history is often conflated with the stories of its fictional pasts (and futures) — as a palimpsest from which multiple visions of futures are derived.

After the Civil War, these fictions took on a near fervent ideological bent; from Edward Everett Hale’s Sybarist and Other Homes (1869), and William Dean Howell’s A Traveler from Altruria (1894), to perhaps the most profoundly influential novel — Edward Bellemy’s Looking Backwards: 2000-1887 (1887).

This last novel spurred a revolution of sorts in American politics. By the early 1890’s the adherents of the novel, those who worked to realize the future-America envisioned in the science fiction book, had formed a network of Nationalist Clubs that spanned the American continent — and poured resources into the formation of a new third party on the national stage, the People’s Party (or Populist Party). By the 1892 Presidential Election, the People’s Party had garnered the electoral votes from six western states — fully carrying Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho. In fact, Idaho had a Governor from the People’s Party, a U.S. Senator, and two U.S. congressmen (James Gunn and Thomas Glenn 12). In 1898, Idaho itself had become the subject of another Utopian work of fiction, Francis H. Clark’s The co-opolitan: A Story of the Co-operative Commonwealth of Idaho (writing under the masculine pen name Zebina Forbush). In this novel Ms. Clark borrowed heavily from the actual settlement history of the, then, four year old community of New Plymouth, Idaho (which she renamed Co-opolis in the novel). Her story is set thirty years in the future (1927) — and it recounts how the cooperative commonwealth idea found its highest and best expression in Idaho, leading to a nation-wide socialist revolution.

metropolis-01

Still from Fritz Lang’s silent film, Metropolis (Model-maker/Set-designer Walter Schuzle-Mittendorf, 1927)

By 1975, a nearly dormant world of Utopian Science Fiction once-again emerged with a seminal work once-again written on the pages of Western America; with Ernst Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. The novel is set in the year 1999, and is a compilation of newspaper reports and personal diary entries of the hard-nosed New York reporter William Weston (a character whose name serves as an homage to the protagonist in Bellemy’s Looking BackwardsJulian West). Weston is the first American reporter permitted to enter the break-away nation of Ecotopia in the 25 years since its succession from the Union (it being composed of the former states of Washington, Oregon, and the area of Northern California — with the city of San Francisco serving as its capitol). Callenbach uses the novel to introduce the somewhat radical notion of an entire country whose economy and urban forms are based off the principals of ecological sustainability. The book has been cited as profoundly influential to both the Green Movement and the advent of Eco-socialism.

ecotopia

Concept painting of San Francisco in 2048 as an Ecotopia for the film, “The Fifth Sacred Thing” (Jessica Perlstein, 2012)

“Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge

Perhaps the most significant Utopian Science Fiction writer today is Kim Stanley Robinson, starting with his wonderfully written set of novels covering three separate possible futures for the same spot of western America — Orange County, California. In the first novel, The Wild Shore (1984), Robinson explores the oddly Eden-like world of a quiet fishing village in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Then, in a jujitsu-like move, Robinson introduces a radically different future in his second book, The Gold Coast (1988), where the area’s economy is mired in defense industry contracts and the urban landscape is dominated by automobile-centered autotopia. In his third book, Pacific Edge (1990), Robinson returns to a type of ecotopian future envisioned by Callenbach. In this novel, although the protagonist (Kevin Clairborne) is an architect/builder who converts old “dead” buildings into communal homes with integrated biological components and heuristic control systems, the primary focus is on the problems the character faces as he steps onto the local city council and is faced with a potentially environmentally damaging development proposal.

“We are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe, and it is not inappropriate to remind ourselves of this when blank slates are given us.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312

utopia1

The Return to Abalakin: Part 1 (Alexander Preuss, 2006)

More recently, Robinson has written another Utopian work of fiction, 2312 (2012). In this novel humanity has spread throughout the solar system, bringing with it every conceivable type of settlement pattern. Not only has Mars been terraformed (part of the same universe created by Robinson in his Mars Trilogy), but Venus is in the middle of a monumental conversion — and a great number of asteroids have been converted into Space Habitats; which have been given differential orbits through the inner planetary system allowing them to be used as a type of interplanetary mass transit system. Many of these asteroids carry within their hollowed out cores entire biomes: African Savannas, Amazonian Jungles, Alpine ecosystems — each carrying their unique animal and plant species; flora and fauna now extinct on a future polluted and radically climate changed Earth.

I think cities are important because they are so densely populated…and I think that a lot of city life is fairly paleolithic in a strange way because it gets away from the automobile. Cities encourage face-to-face interactions with other individuals, so I like it for that. And I think that rooftops need to be used for urban gardens and that cities need to be greened, less for the auto and more for people and public transit.

Kim Stanley Robinson

As part of a lecture series for the Museum of Modern Art (“Speculations: The Future is___.”), Robinson has been pulling together the various strands of his Utopian writings and launching into a public discussion about climate change and the unique role cities, and urban planning, will play in reversing the environmental degradation associated with such apocalyptic shifts. He has also been speaking out about economic shifts, at least as tectonic as the climatic shifts we’re experiencing. In particular, he’s been musing over the inherent flaws of Capitalism and what a post-capitalist world might look like. Here Robinson traces Capitalism to its Feudal roots and in so doing, brings its connection back to the American West — with its dominant European settlers having striven so valiantly to free themselves from political and economic serfdom.

boise1

Boise Skyline at Dusk (Talo Pinto, 2011)

As an American writer whose novels are often set in the American West, Robinson knows we are not oblivious to the deep connections between our imaginations and our communities. As a Science Fiction writer he is surprisingly open about the limitations of technology, and about how we often abuse our intelligent manipulation of energy and material to craft far too unreal fantasies.

We see these contortions in our western world every day; from large-scale gated communities (where the wealthy residents attempt to sequester themselves from the vagaries of poverty) to the squirrelly activities of Doomsday Preppers (who seem to be rooting for the collapse of society itself). In the midst of this, Robinson strikes an amazing balance between hopefulness and caution — about our common past and our shared future.

Related articles:

Advertisements

The Curitiba Experiment

8393595010_ef31374d48_o

Grafite em Curitiba (Photo: Fernando Rosa, January 18, 2013) http://alturl.com/8dzyq

How would cities look if urban planners, not politicians, were in charge?

Recycle City: The Road to Curitiba (New York Times, May 20, 2007)

Planning from the Outside

The long history of the city of Curitiba, in southern Brazil, demonstrates that it is perhaps the most heavily planned city in the western hemisphere. The layout of the original town, like many such colonial developments in the Americas, had been heavily influenced by the Laws of the Indies — a set of precepts from the 16th Century that dictated much of the governance of Spanish and Portuguese land holdings; which included rules for town planning. And, though Brazil gained independence from Portugal in the 1820’s it’s various cities were still governed by many of the land use laws inherited from its former European ruler.

Even 250 years after its founding (and 120 years after Brazilian independence), Curitiba’s first true Master Plan was still developed, not by locals but, by the French architect and sociologist Alfred Agache in 1943 — a Beaux-Arts trained architect who was a leading theorist, teacher and practitioner of the Société Française des Urbanistes (SFU).

 “Planning – as we have often said in our conferences – is both a science, an art and a philosophy; A science because it proceeds from the systematic review of the facts based on a detailed study of the pasts of cities and their characteristics. The Planner’s next step is to investigate the causes of development or discomfort; and finally, only after a specific detailed analysis, is it possible to provide for the required improvements for the future development of the city. Observation, classification, analysis and synthesis — all required characteristics of a scientific study. ” … “But if science alone could solve the problems of city planning, urbanization could undoubtedly be reduced to a number of formulas. It is not so. Urbanism is also an art because the intuition, imagination, and composition play an important role in its application: the Planner must translate into proportion, volumes, perspectives, silhouettes, the various proposals suggested by engineers, economists, public health concerns and financial constraints.” … “Urbanism is also in the field of social philosophy — The city, in fact, seeks to achieve plastically the appropriate framework for the existence of an organized community.” Alfred Agache, 1932

plano_agache2

Alfred Agache’s plan for Curitiba (Alfred Agache, 1943) http://tinyurl.com/lvssvbm

Agache’s plan for Curtiba was profoundly influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept, borrowing the following elements:

  1. A Central Railway
  2. A Perimeter Avenue
  3. Interstitial support avenues
  4. A Central Railway station located on the Perimeter Avenue
  5. A main avenue leading from the Central Railway station to the City Center.
  6. A series of parks located beyond the city, and
  7. A peripheral greenbelt Park Avenue that would connect all the city parks.

Agache’s plan assumed a maximum population for Curitiba of no more than 900,000 people, all residing in buildings constructed to be between six to eight stories in height. Understandably, this would have resulted in a fairly compact city.

This time around, the plan would be local-grown.

Even though the town’s population had only reached 430,000 by 1960 it had already outpaced the land area envisioned in the Agache Plan (essentially by growing less densely).  Spurred on by residents’ concerns over the loss of easily accessible green space and the loss of the city’s unique character, in 1964 the mayor of Curitiba (Ivo Arzua) issued a call for proposals for a new plan for the city.

This time around, the initial plan was prepared by an energetic group of local professionals led by Jaime Lerner — a 27 year old local who had just graduated from architecture school. The following year, Learner help form the city’s first-ever planning department, the Institute of Urban Planning and Research of Curitiba (abbreviated the IPPUC in Portuguese). Over the next few years the Lerner-led IPPUC refined the initial plan, readying it for the city’s adoption in 1968.

This new, local plan for the city lead to nothing less than a revolution in urban planning.

If you want to make life better for people, make the cities better for people.

Jaime Lerner

Video: How a Brazilian City has Revolutionized Urban Planning

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRD3l3rlMpo

This new plan more fully integrated transportation planning and land use planning, as well as tying social welfare programs for some of the poorest residents to the development of the city.

Transportation as the backbone for sustainable practices

trinary road system

Curitiba’s Trinary Road System (IPPUC, accessed 2014) http://tinyurl.com/n79qt3b

By 1974 the reorganization of the city’s road system into a new hierarchical network was implemented; this included the formation of a radically new road type — one whose central component is a mass transit spine. Unlike similar network systems in the United States and elsewhere, where the lead position in such a hierarchy is the limited-access Freeway, in Curtiba the position is held by the Sistema Trinário (or, Trinary Road System). These five trinary road corridors, radiating outward and encircling the city, are actually composed of three parallel road sections. The two outer roads are for local vehicles and pedestrians (serving as a paired one-way couplet) while the central road is a wider road section composed of two outer one-way streets and an inner two-directional street reserved exclusively for bus mass transit.

The picture below shows the development surrounding the central spine road of one of the Trinary Road network.

Trinary Road Spine Development (Photo: Joel Rocha, 2015)

This full-integration of transit accommodations in the road design itself allows the buses running along the central spine to operate at a level of efficiency similar to that of rail transit.

It’s asserted by proud Curitibanos that if you miss your bus, you have to wait all of 90-seconds to catch your next ride.

In less than 20 years, this Trinary Road System, with its integrated Bus Rapid Transit System, was expanded to cover the entire city.

evolution-of-curitibas-transit-system-dubaization-files-wordpress-com-2011-12-curitiba

Evolution of Curitiba’s Transportation System (Jonas Rabinovitch and Josef Leitmann, 1993)

Curitiba’s BRT was constructed at a cost of only $200,000 per kilometer, nearly 450-times less than the cost of a new subway, and it transports 2.3 million passengers a day, not bad for a city with a population of 1.75 million.

With such success, Curitiba’s BRT system has heavily influenced the development of similar transit systems throughout the world.

Video: Curitiba’s BRT: Inspired Bus Rapis Transit Around the World

https://player.vimeo.com/video/12499536

Other Sustainability Efforts

As part of the municipal plan, the city has pushed other sustainability efforts. These include a dramatic increase in the amount of green space per resident, and some innovative efforts like the “garbage that’s not garbage” program that trades fresh vegetables for trash brought in for recycling.

Even Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist, has written about the environmental and social successes of Curitiba.

The Downside of Success

Although the city has undergone quite a renaissance since the adoption of its own locally grown plan, there have been some recent setbacks.

The Atlantic Cities blog recently published an article titled, Has South America’s Most Sustainable City Lost Its Edge?, which highlights a recent 4.3% decline in BRT ridership, and emerging failure to more fully integrate its suburbs into a more coherent regional plan.

Stefan Gruber, the Austrian architecture and urbanism professor, has written that the city’s more paternalistic attitude towards its citizens (and resultant lack of democratic outreach) has hobbled the city’s ability to elicit a sense of civic responsibility among its residents.

Conclusion

As American towns struggle to implement sustainability and livability measures, Curitiba’s frugal example of putting the needs of the people first in all its planning efforts is worth emulating.

curitba-as-vita-the-turtle-jaime-lerner-http4-bp-blogspot-com-q4q2waxq5raupbl4h2tkpiaaaaaaaaegoz0nyxv2tkx8s1600nov2010-theaudicity-02

Curitiba as Vita the Turtle (Jaime Lerner, 2006) http://alturl.com/6gvqo

While the city does loose marks for its comparative lack of democratic input from its citizens (compared to other Brazilian cities), the IPPUC does engage in extensive outreach as it develops its plans (far more than most U.S. cities).

From its focus on social, environmental, and transportation improvements — all through the lens of free enterprise (its BRT system runs with very minimal government subsidy) — Curitiba may provide the best example for growing towns throughout the American West.

centro-de-curitiba-francisco-anzola-2-3-2010-commons-wikimedia-org-wiki-file-curitiba_centro

Downtown Curitiba (Photo: Francisco Anzola, February 3, 2010) http://alturl.com/jbqk7