Ever since Sumerians dedicated their cities to moon gods and raised ziggurats like it was going out of style, cities have always been more than a place to live. Whether it was the super-technological schemes of modern architects, the manic social engineering dreams of 19th century utopians or the Puritans' visions of a godly “city on a hill,” humans love to see cities as a way to finally solve the hard problems of humanity.
Of course, reality is a different beast. Cities are notoriously hard places to micromanage, let alone perfect, and the multiplicity of cultures they inevitably attract leads to their eventual form diverting, often blessedly, from even the most iron-clad plans.
But that doesn't mean people don't try to build perfection. Here are some examples of would-be utopian cities that human beings actually built and what eventually happened to them:
1. Brasilia, Brazil
The Plan: Since the 1700s, Brazil's capital was Rio de Janeiro, but starting in the 1800s, there was an increasing push for a more central capital, an effort to better tie together a vast country with strong local identities. In the 1950s, that finally happened.
Enter the French architect Le Corbusier and his modernist disciples. Le Corbusier shows up a lot in the grandiose schemes of 20th century modernism, peddling a plan for a perfected contemporary city filled with skyscrapers and automobiles that relied on modern technology and separated pedestrian traffic. Ambitiously, he hoped this particular urban design would lead to an efficient, industrial society.
In Brasilia (and a few other places), Le Corbusier's school of thought had its day. Architect Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer designed Brasilia. Construction began in 1956 and continued for four years, raising gleaming, curved modern government buildings and massive parks.
What Happened: Well, Brasilia was built, has some spectacular-looking architecture and remains a city — the fourth largest in Brazil — today. Beyond that though, it didn't exactly live up to Le Corbusier's dreams. His love of the automobile led and a lack of adequate housing for the working class led to massive sprawl. Now, when Brasilia's roots are mentioned, it's usually with words like “hope” and “failure” paired together.
2. Levittown, U.S.A.
The Plan: A very different attempt to adapt to the prevalence of the automobile, Levittown was planned as a profitable way to give every American the middle-class dream of their own home and yard. The Levitt family of developers and architects built a series of developments with the name in the '40s, with the New York town being the original. Basic, cheap homes surrounding winding streets were meant as a way to preserve both common space and individualism.
Despite its attempt at being a low-density, affordable community of the future, Levittown was also a racist utopia: Only whites were allowed to purchases homes there, and it's easily viewed as a harbinger of the “white flight” that gutted many urban cores.
What Happened: Levittown was massively influential and ended up being the model for modern suburbia. Over the next 60 years, countless similar communities would blossom, boosted by cheap gas prices, white flight and a culture that idealized the nuclear family and home ownership. While blasted even its day as a model of bland conformity, suburbia kept right on booming.
But around the turn of the 21st century, things changed: Crime started to show up in more suburbs and the affluent started to move back to gentrify city cores. The 2008 housing bust played a role too, producing the defining image of half-finished suburbs gutted by the crash. Even as economic growth has crawled back, suburbia's still wheezing; the 2010 census showed that for the first time since Levittown's heyday, cities are outpacing suburbs.
3. Welthauptstadt Germania, Germany
The Plan: Pairing the ugliest possible side of modernism with a brutal love of grandiose gestures, the Nazis had big plans for Berlin. Once that pesky world war was over and they'd finally subjugated Europe, Hitler and architect Albert Speer planned to turn their attention to making the German capital a “world capital,” a huge hall of the German people, an “Avenue of Splendors” thicker than flies on shit. Speer ordered a sample column to test whether the city's soil could take building on such a grand scale.
What Happened: Some boulevards were widened and a victory monument was moved, but the war turned from pesky to disastrous, and Berlin, stomped by the Red Army, turned into a wasteland. Like many of their schemes, the Nazis didn't particularly have a basis in reality. Speer's sample column sank and tilted. (Womp, womp.)
4. Haussmann's Paris, France
The Plan: Despite its long reputation as the cultural hub of Europe, 19th century Paris was marked by narrow medieval streets, outdated sanitation and an incredibly rebellious population. The latter spent a good 50 years getting really good at toppling governments and turning uprising into a national past-time (as well as inspiring the occasional musical).
Mindful of what had happened to several monarchs and multiple other governments before him, Napoleon III wanted the problem of Paris dealt with permanently, especially if it dovetailed with a reform that could enable him to strut around nice surroundings while playing the people's monarch. He tagged an aristocratic administrator, Georges-Eugene Haussmann, to carry it out.
What Happened: With the resources and blessing of a dictatorial government, Haussmann tore into the old Paris, demolishing thousands of homes and buildings, replacing the old city with one of broad boulevards, parks and better sanitation. From one perspective, Haussmann played a major role in creating the “City of Light” that would become one of the cultural and architectural glories of the world while improving its general health. He also destroyed countless historical buildings and entire neighborhoods, exiling many of the city's working poor to less central districts in the process. The impact of his overhaul is still hotly debated, especially if you consider that many rulers proceeded to follow his example.
5. Equality Colony, Washington
The Plan: In the 19th century, good old fashioned American volunteerism combined with social upheaval to result in a variety of planned utopian communities, based on the philosophies of one thinker or another. The Northwest in particular attracted a surprisingly high number of these colonies. Intended as more secular variations on the old “city on a hill” model, the Equality Colony was an excellent example. At the end of the 19th century, a number of America's socialists groups rallied around a plan by the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth to create interlocking unions and socialist colonies. Interestingly, the BCC drew from a more successful plan in American history, the mass immigration of abolitionists to Kansas in the 1850s. Securing endorsements from prominent leaders like Eugene Debs, the BCC readied to build its colony.
What Happened: However, the initial unity fractured as some of the Equality Colony's most prominent supporters ended up diverting their efforts to other co-ops or political efforts. Nonetheless, they had some success, building apartments, public buildings and some local small-level industry. The population swelled to the hundreds, but internal divisions still plagued the movement and some Equality Colonists moved to found the nearby Freeland in the early 1900s. Rivalries almost grew violent at some points. In 1906, someone burned down several of the colony's major buildings, and it never recovered.
6. Shenzhen, China
The Plan: Chairman Mao's body was barely cold by the time the more conservative part of the Communist Party started planning ways to reach some rapprochement with foreign corporations and laissez-faire economics. In this case, they envisioned turning a sleepy coastal town into a massive industrial metropolis that would act as a hub for technology, education and trade, becoming one of the most massive industrial bases the world has ever seen. The oligarchs had great plans for the first “Special Economic Zone” as the showcase of a powerful, modern China.
What Happened: Shenzhen is now responsible for a staggering amount of the world's electronics and heavy industry, the linchpin of the biggest manufacturing base in the world. China's experiment in creating an industrial center from scratch worked in that respect, and a major portion of the shiny technology the Western world's gulping down comes from Shenzhen's massive factories.
The cost — and it's a brutal one — is massive pollution, second-class citizenship for much of its people and working conditions so poor companies have to set up suicide nets. Shenzhen might have created a utopian level of wealth for China's oligarchs and some of its business class, but for the people driving its factories, it's another story indeed.
7. Dubai, United Arab Emirates
The Plan: The combination of oil wealth and a freewheeling playground for the global financial class, Dubai has been built rapidly since the 1990s. Its nature as an absolute monarchy also means that it can build or demolish with relatively little curb.
When Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum took over the United Arab Emirates in the '90s, he had grand plans to create a city so modern Le Corbusier would be envious in the afterlife. Al Maktoum also sought low tax rates and enough luxuries to attract the elite from elsewhere.
What Happened: The oil wealth talked, and Dubai quickly built up huge skyscrapers (including the world's largest), an Internet City, a Media City, a Maritime City, the world's largest indoor ski range and custom islands galore.
Dubai's sham prosperity also rests on masses of slave labor ruled over by a brutal aristocratic regime and an effort to cut taxes to draw in western economic grandees who resent having to pay for some contribution towards their own societies. Per capita, it's the worst polluter on the planet and occasionally throws travellers into black hole prisons on trumped-up “drug charges” for good measure.
While it was hit by the economic downturn, so far it's managed to dodge the upheaval that neighbors like Bahrain saw. (Of course, the fact Saudi Arabia showed it was quite willing to roll in troops to suppress such uprisings probably helped.) But if history is any guide, a slave society governed by hateful, petty royalty supported by a single resource isn't exactly on the firmest of foundations. When history comes calling for the House of Maktoum and their hangers-on, it will be richly deserved.
8. Pyramiden, Norway
The Plan: Svalbard, home to some of the northernmost settlements on the planet, is a strange place, a resource island with pockets of settlements from different countries. In 1927, the still relatively new Soviet state purchased the coal-mining town of Pyramiden. The Soviets turned Pyramiden into an example of Soviet grandiosity at its best: giant Lenin heads, a cultural center with a grand piano, big apartment blocks and modernist architecture. While far from the only one, it was intended as a showpiece, especially to the other countries on Svalbard.
What Happened: When the USSR collapsed, the massive subsidies that kept Pyramiden, a city in such an inhospitable clime, afloat became far shakier, and in 1998, the town was abandoned.
Today, Pyramiden is the site of the world's northernmost abandoned grand piano. Too bitterly cold to be a tempting target for looters, it remains a surprisingly well-preserved example of a communist utopia that never was. That might also lead to its eventual revival: The state mining company that now owns it is renovating its hotel and slowly turning the town into a tourist attraction.
9. Harappan, Pakistan
The Plan: Unsure, because scholars still can't read the Indus Valley civilization's script, but excavations reveal a city with massive drainage systems and an incredibly well-planned interaction of homes, public spaces, administrative centers and infrastructure. Some of the infrastructure, and the population it would support, were among the most advanced in the world at the time and would have been cutting-edge even into the medieval era.
If a utopian city is a civilization trying to react to the problems of its day and perfect its vision of humanity with every means at its disposal, then Harappan certainly qualifies; it might even be the first known example.
What Happened: Harappan and its sister cities were eventually abandoned for reasons that still aren't particularly clear. Theories range from drought to invasion. As countless other humans would discover over the ensuing millenia, sometimes the best plans just don't work out the way you would expect.
David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He spends way too much time investigating the bleak parts of the present for local papers and the stranger parts of history, politics and culture for his own curiosity. He’s written for NSFWCORP, Sunlight Foundation, Coilhouse and his own intermittently updated blog, The Breaking Time, among others.
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