The Rise and Fall of “New Towns”: A Review of Rosemary Wakeman’s Practicing Utopia

Rosemary Wakeman, Practicing Utopia: An Intellectual History of the New Town Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016)

392 pp. $45 ISBN: 9780226346175

By Sam Wetherell

Rosemary Wakeman’s exquisitely written Practicing Utopia charts the rise and fall of new towns—the “deus ex machina” of developmental welfare states—in the mid-twentieth century. The new towns appear almost as stage sets dropped from the heavens into political settings ranging from Scandinavian social democracies to communist, colonial, and post-colonialism states. Commissars, potentates, technocrats, and intellectuals wished to make the world anew. New towns like Britain’s Milton Keynes, Finland’s Tapiola or Nigeria’s New Bussa offered what Wakeman terms “futurologies of the ordinary” in which new social and economic relations could be tested and perhaps realized.

Wakeman is less concerned with the nineteenth century and utopian projects from the 1920s to the 1980s, such as Joseph Rowantree’s New Earswick or Bronson Alcott’s Brook Farm than with that fertile and distinctive period from the Jazz Age to the nineteen eighties when new town planning was tied to projects of national and imperial economic development.

After the First World War, a mostly male and international group of planners such as America’s Clarence Stein, Britain’s Raymond Unwin, and Germany’s Walter Christaller were experimenting with ways to move populations out of large cities deemed to be congested, unsanitary and prone to aerial attack. In Britain and other advanced economies, they sought to retrofit cities built around railways and steam power for twentieth-century development based on the automobile and dispersed electrified factories and housing. The 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s saw an explosion of European and Soviet new towns guided by these goals. Ideas about mobility, community formation, architecture, and energy use promoted by organizations like the Congrès Internationaux Architecture Moderne found their way across borders, often being adopted by very different forms of government.

New towns planned for colonial and post-colonial development took the form of coercive “new villages” built by the British imperial state to isolate peasants from insurgents during the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s; Israeli communities were built to house European refugees while new developments in Iran and Algeria were planned and built to accommodate workers needed to meet the exploding demand for oil.

9780226346038Wakeman shows how the trend emphasizing the importance of localized planning to strengthen neighborhoods began to shift in the sixties toward planning in which cities were seen as organic totalities threaded together by new and rapid forms of transportation. Fascinatingly, Wakeman shows how planners then began drawing on cybernetics and systems theory as they became convinced that with correct inputs they could model urban conditions to produce happy citizens. Here new town planning became a depoliticized, “scientific” endeavor, with celebrity planners such as the enigmatic Greek architect Constantinos Doxiadis developing ever more elaborate and portable metrics for measuring and inducing urban happiness.

By the 1970s and 1980s, this intellectual movement was in retreat. New town planning was coming under fire from a new kind of humanism, a theory of the social that united new urbanists like Jane Jacobs with Marxists such as Henri Lefebvre in the belief that individuals and communities are too spontaneous and unknowable to be planned.

Practicing Utopia’s most compelling argument is that the mid-twentieth century was a moment when the built environment was called on to do new and radical kinds of work – whether it was resettling refugees, redistributing jobs, producing new communities, policing imperial subjects or codifying national identities. For those interested in the way that the built environment shapes the contours of politics and allows different futures to emerge, this book is essential reading. New towns were the limit case of a mid-twentieth century belief that the future was knowable, that new spaces could produce new kinds of people and that the practices of urban planning could move seamlessly between borders, a belief that now feels impossibly distant.

Sam Wetherell is a lecturer in the history of Britain and the World at the University of York. His book, Foundations: How the Built Environment Made Twentieth-Century Britain will be out next year. 


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