This is a short commissioned piece I wrote for the Design Council’s ‘Design for Planet 2022’ zine, which was edited by the whip-smart, redoubtable Will Jennings. For seasoned utopian scholars this will be pretty basic stuff, but I aimed for this piece to make utopian methodology accessible to a broad range of designers.
Utopias commonly appear throughout literature or film as islands—as in Thomas More’s original Utopia in his 1516 book of the same name. Scaled up, they are pictured, in science fiction, as whole planets on which ideas for social relations are tested out. Commonly utopias here on Planet Earth are narrowly conceived of as totalising diagrams, but if we look to film and fiction we can see they are testing grounds for an astounding range of possible social relations, political possibilities, and most excitingly for visions of future flourishing and goodness. The great power of utopias is not in providing an authoritarian model for a perfect world, but rather in the way that envisioning relations differently through a philosophy of hope can introduce radical possibilities for improving everyday life in everyday places and situations.
Utopian scholar Lyman Tower Sargent identifies three faces of utopia: utopian literature, utopian experiments (these are practical experiments in lived space often called intentional communities), and utopian social thought. Sociologist Ruth Levitas furthers this in The Concept of Utopia by identifying that desire, in particular desire for change often, fuels these utopian formations. And Tom Moylan in his seminal Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination tells us of ‘critical utopia’—first it operates as critique, and second it is critical in the nuclear sense—with the critical mass to act explosively upon relations and possibilities in our world.
Critical distance is also important, and imagining situations that allow us to understand and evaluate our own world from afar, in often transgressive ways, creates possibilities for change because, well, many of the ways people live just look really weird when you step out of the ruts you’re in and simply look.
I’ve spoken above about relationships, and relationships are central to the study and experience of landscapes everywhere. Commonly landscapes are thought of, like utopias, as total diagrams or plans, like the geometric layout of the gardens of Versailles. But landscapes in everyday life are the environments that make people who they are, and people have a relationship with the places they inhabit that shapes them in return. The Nordic philologist Kenneth Olwig tells us that landscapes can also be thought of as landships, relations of belonging and meaning-making that are embroiled in the particularities of place. By way of example, landscape architecture as a profession is becoming more and more about relationships between humans, other species, the inorganic elements of lifeworlds, and climate and weather than about the imposition of a geometric order on a defined ground.
The complexities of landscapes require thinking through everything about a place, and to transform them often requires the sort of all-at-onceness found in utopias. The scenario-making function of design is then privileged over the form-making function, and this too is like utopias in that narratives and possibilities for a better world in which all species might flourish are allowed their full expression.
Perhaps what is finally of greatest importance in all of this is that the moral imagination must be employed fully in projecting landscape futures, which repeatedly forces the question through the process of design, “Is this right, good, and desirable?” in the face of the ever- present insistence that “This is just how things are done” or, worse, “There is just no alternative.” Utopias are tools for better futures, in substantive landscapes, here and now.
Levitas, Ruth (2010) The Concept of Utopia. New York: Peter Lang.
Moylan, Tom (1986) Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. London and New York: Methuen.
Olwig, Kenneth R. (2019) The Meanings of Landscape: Essays on Place, Space, Environment and Justice. London and New York: Routledge.
Sargent, Lyman Tower (1994) “Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited.” Utopian Studies, 5(1): 1–37. DOI: https://doi.org/www.jstor.org/stable/20719246
Sargent, Lyman Tower (2010) Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.