F. Bate. New Harmony, Indiana.

Stuck on Utopia Parkway

Wade Graham

October 18, 2023

The moral flaw with persistent fantasies of creating perfect communities

The moral flaw with persistent fantasies of creating perfect communities

I was surprised by the furor that erupted recently when plans to build a from-scratch dream city branded “California Forever” were revealed. Exposed by a reporter from the New York Times, a group calling itself Flannery Associates had surreptitiously bought, over several years, more than 54,000 acres of farmland in mostly rural Solano County, situated in California’s inland Central Valley, about 70 miles from San Francisco. The reporter had been tipped off by rising suspicions: Locals were disturbed by the tide of unexplained, over-market value purchases by unknown straw buyers, adding up to nearly $1 billion, making Flannery the county’s biggest landowner. And, as a U.S. Air Force base is next door, the FBI got interested amid rumors that the secret buyers were Chinese. Flannery Associates turned out to be made up of Silicon Valley tech titans and venture capitalists, a familiar who’s who of billionaires from Google, Apple and LinkedIn, helmed by a former trader at Goldman Sachs (the firm that more than any other brought us the 2008 housing crash).

When unmasked, the company threw up a website to allay fears, offering pretty pastel images of an idealized Tuscan hill town surrounded by bucolic fields and hills dotted with skinny cypresses and wind turbines, sparsely populated by cyclists, kayakers and anglers. Its town squares would be lined with historic-looking buildings, shaded sidewalk cafes, children on bicycles, smiling people boarding public transportation and spotless pavements. It looked benign enough, a typical real estate developer pitch. But “Forever” came with an added utopian promise: that by design, the community would solve all of urban California’s ills, namely unaffordable housing, long commutes, failing schools, homelessness, crime, water scarcity, even wildfire. Really?

A lot of utopias in the news recently have a decidedly darker cast. Billionaire rocket makers Richard Branson and Elon Musk want to colonize Mars, breathing new life into that rusty old boat of 1950s sci-fi novels. Their breathless pronouncements — Musk, for example, wants to “build a city on Mars to become a spacefaring civilization, a multi-planet species” — seem less preposterous in light of the rapidly advancing technical capabilities of their companies, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX.

More alarming is The Line, a 170-kilometer-long, 500-meter-high, mirrored “linear smart city” in the Saudi Arabian desert, projected to house 9 million people — a quarter of the kingdom’s current population. Designed by a roster of starchitects including Rem Koolhaas, Wolf Prix, and Zaha Hadid’s office, it is spangled with the usual fibs about carbon neutrality and claims of “smart” tech. Indeed, it will be ruled by AI, helped by residents paid to submit surveys — in other words, a radical surveillance state, beyond even what the Chinese government has achieved. The Line is now being excavated, after one local tribal member protesting being displaced was shot dead and two more were sentenced to death.

Utopia has a long history of fanciful plans and actual attempts. They are not all nefarious. Dissatisfaction with city life is as old as cities: Cities are imperfect things, gatherings-together of often antithetical people, processes and activities, with the advantages and flaws of their human inhabitants and with old infrastructures and governing systems that weigh them down. It is no surprise that some people, sometimes very smart people, should want to rethink the city from scratch.

None other than Plato pitched the first recorded utopia in his Republic, in which Socrates envisioned a “just” society as a rigidly class-stratified authoritarian city-state where “golden” people (an aristocracy of philosopher-kings) rule over “silver” people (soldiers and functionaries), and “bronze” and “iron” people (workers). The rulers would share property, including wives and children, who wouldn’t know their biological parents. Reproduction would be arranged, for the greater good. Plato’s vision wasn’t terribly original: It was essentially the same brutal aristocrat/slave society that he lived in, only improved so that smart guys like him would run the show.

Cities are imperfect things, gatherings-together of often antithetical people, processes and activities, with the advantages and flaws of their human inhabitants and with old infrastructures and governing systems that weigh them down.

Right off the bat, Plato and Socrates ran into utopia’s first problem: control. The class system would have to be maintained by a carefully censored education system, teaching children “myths” so that they would stay in the places assigned to them. Utopias founder on competing desires — because people are irreducibly different and want a say in how things are arranged, the rules require enforcement. This is why dictators, who love forcing their delusions on others, love to peddle utopias and golden ages, past and/or future. 

Lately joining the list is Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “very, very smart” real estate developer and would-be dictator, who has called for a contest to design 10 new “Freedom Cities” to be built on public land, featuring flying cars, humming factories (due to blocking all imports from China) and “baby bonuses” for breeding women (all but one of these things, the Chinese government would approve of). The problem of control is also why, in the real world, the utopian ideal so often spirals into authoritarianism, and the promised paradise turns into Nazi Germany, the People’s Republic of China or the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia.

The second problem is escape. Utopia-makers are always trying to escape from something — from reality, current arrangements, ties, responsibilities or limits. Rarely do they say so up front, but instead cloak their impulse to escape in an idealistic quest. For Plato, that was achieving “justice”; but he was really trying to cancel the conflicting desires of others less fit to rule than he. The Pilgrims who set sail for America in the Mayflower to build their “shining city on a hill” were escaping — not, as they claimed, from persecution in England as when they had first fled for the safe harbor of the Dutch Republic, but from the religious tolerance they found there, in order to be free to practice religious intolerance unchecked in the New World. (Cults always seek their own, separate space, where they can narrow human possibilities down to a prescribed, iron box: think of the Branch Davidians in Waco, or the Peoples Temple in Guyana.)

Utopia-makers are always trying to escape from something — from reality, current arrangements, ties, responsibilities or limits.

Complete escape isn’t possible. All colonies bring their baggage with them — like rockets to Mars must. There is no IKEA on the farther shore where we can buy a completely new set of tools, practices, ideas, languages, beliefs and prejudices.

Consider the recent proposal for Oceanix City, a scheme to build a sprawling matrix of hexagonal dwellings floating somewhere in the ocean, powered by waves and sunlight and fed by “regenerative” coral reefs. (Danish wonderboy architect Bjarke Ingels, who is fond of working on utopian commissions for the likes of Saudi Arabia and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, drew the renderings.) On one level, it is a direct but poor copy of the floating, modular cities proposed by the Japanese Metabolism movement in the 1960s — conceived of as a solution to postwar Japan’s runaway population growth and lack of flat dry land for development, and theoretically modeled on nature’s processes of renewal (never mind that none of it worked in the real world). But the model more obviously resembles the piers of luxury, thousand-dollar-a-night “over-water” bungalows that have lately proliferated in the Maldives and French Polynesia. In other words, more of the same ordure: the rich trying to get away from everyone else to a paradise where nothing ever happens, while still having their meals served and their beds made.

It is also no surprise that the backers (floaters?) of Oceanix City are part of the so-called Seasteading movement, which peddles visions of autonomous floating havens that take advantage of the fact that “half the world’s surface is unclaimed,” in the words of one booster. In effect, free space where nobody lives. But the “autonomy” the movement speaks of is all about not paying taxes nor sharing the job of governance with other people. It talks of paying its way using cryptocurrencies, but is funded in the real world by the likes of Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who funds much of the radical libertarian New Right.

Between the corrosive forces of utopia’s two problems, the need to control and the inability to escape, an ineradicable distance opens between blueprint and reality. In the United States, the fundamental case of that chasm is the difference between the idealism of its blueprint (the Declaration of Independence, with its assertion of equality) and its violent, undemocratic reality (the Constitution, designed to safeguard slavery and minority rule). The blueprint’s author, Thomas Jefferson, built his own utopia in the form of his home, Monticello, but it was in fact Dystopia for most of its (enslaved) denizens.

Good social design can’t guarantee success, but bad social design can guarantee failure — and frequently does.

It might be objected that I make little mention of the urban design characteristics of utopias. While physical design is important, and can guarantee failure — such as siting a colony in a desert without access to water — good physical design can’t guarantee success. It must work in tandem with social design, which obeys the same rules: Good social design can’t guarantee success, but bad social design can guarantee failure — and frequently does.

It might also be objected that “California Forever” isn’t as aggressively utopian as Oceanix City or Plato’s Republic. It more resembles a planned community than Musk’s Mars colony. But utopia is a claim, not a measurable set of qualities or quantities. Planning to any extent is to some extent utopian, as it implies making a better city or world by design constraints. It’s a sliding scale, from strong to weak. A form-based code, or Jane Jacobs’ pre-gentrification West Village, are both sorts of utopias, though modest, because they aim for weak constraints that magically produce the right answer. A strongly constrained utopia might be The Line, or China today if you’re Xi Jinping. Anarchy too, is a Utopia if you believe in anarchism. It’s in the eye of the beholder. In practice, everyday, mild forms of American planning aren’t the issue here. It’s big, ambitious claims by a self-appointed few, which California Forever certainly is.

Reading between the lines, it is clear that “California Forever” is motivated by the investors’ loathing of real California cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, which struggle with the consequences of model suburbia’s exclusion of other people — epitomized by the homelessness apocalypse that California’s leaders seem unable or unwilling to squarely face. “Forever” is nothing more than a rerun of the old fantasy of building an “American Riviera” in California, complete with faux-Mediterranean architectures, neat, green gardens (tended by others) and copious leisure time for a fortunate few. All of its (known) investors live, or have lived, in Silicon Valley, which is the ur-suburban postwar single-family residence sprawl-topia that, by refusing to become a real city — meaning allowing denser, taller development to accommodate more and different kinds of people — has helped create contemporary California’s Gordian knot of problems — the same ones “California Forever” pretends to magically solve with one cut.

Far from a new utopia, “Forever” is just another real estate developer’s pristine, exclusive suburb. In the end, Solano County’s voters will decide whether or not to rezone the investors’ land from agriculture to urban to accommodate it. 

And this is how it should be. The closest thing we have to utopia, after 6,000 years of hard-won experience of living in cities, is a messy, functioning democracy, with participation, choice, and open debate about how we must live together and govern ourselves. As with any successful organism, cities thrive by rising to challenges, changing and evolving. Good design comes from within urban society, not from above it; from multiple perspectives, not a few, nor just one — no matter how smart the designer.