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The Environmental Movement and Utopian Visions of the City of the Future

Norman Crowe
University of Notre Dame and University of New Mexico

Summary Statement

This paper argues that today’s most influential proposals aimed at shaping future urbanism share certain forces present in the ongoing environmental movement.  While New Urbanism and other currently influential physical planning paradigms are not of themselves utopian (they are instead designed to be straight forwardly practical), they are inspired by a utopian vision of urban form, one that has evolved over eons and is in that sense analogous to biological evolution.  By this means, traditional urban form and its essential attributes are regarded in contemporary planning paradigms as having come about “naturally”, compared to “artificial” inventions of developers and planners of the Twentieth Century who are responsible for suburban sprawl and the corresponding demise of quality urban environments in American cities.  Further, as nature tends to be regarded increasingly from a spiritual perspective within the environmental movement, urban design theory has expanded to consider cities more fully in relation to the natural world in which they reside.


The topic involves an exploration of the presence of a transcendent sense of nature in current urban design paradigms as influenced by the ongoing environmental movement.

The Biological (or “Natural”) Analogy 

In the early twentieth century as western technological prowess grew, its promise inspired the popular imagination.  Fanciful versions of “the city of tomorrow” proliferated.  Unassailable advances in medical science, transportation, manufacturing and communication inspired visions of a bright future where human potential, now fully liberated by our marvelous technological prowess, could finely flourish.  In contrast to this, beginning largely in the 1950s there arose a marked disenchantment with technology as the harbinger of a bright future.  Unintended consequences of our technological prowess—acid rain, polluted lakes and streams, dying coral reefs in the oceans of the world, habitat and species depletion, snarled traffic and hovering smog, and the eventual realization of the overall effects of global warming—have led to questioning what technology has indeed wrought. This in turn impacted concurrent ideas about the future of cities.[1]

In contrast to the pro-technology pro-automobile images that preceded it, Smart Growth, New Urbanism and certain other proposals for urban reform today have tended to draw on long evolved, largely pre-industrial urbanism following on the heels of the environmental movement that had begun to emphasize organically grown food as counter to industrial agriculture, shifts away from non-renewable and polluting energy sources, replenishment of forests as a means to restore a healthy carbon cycle, and so fourth—stressing natural processes as a guide to correct the unintended consequences of laze-faire technological development.  Soon, a transcendent sense of nature began to characterize the environmental movement.  As may be expected, a growing interest in nature-biased analogies among ongoing urban design theories followed suit.  The Congress for the New Urbanism for instance promotes application of the transect as employed in biology as a means to study the “natural” distribution of urban densities, functions, street types, and building typologies along a section from the city’s agricultural and natural hinterland through various sectors or zones that transition to the city’s dense urban core.  The “urban-to-rural transect” as it referred to, is offered as a tool for both analyzing and controlling urban growth, analogous to its use in biology as a means to analyze what takes place along a section through a typical set of related healthy habitats in the natural landscape.[2]  The urban transect, as well as the design of streets and of buildings as they relate to streets, and the design of parking lots and other vehicular accommodations, are seen to condition human interaction and ultimately to effect community formation and a positive sense of place.[3]  A healthy urban transect has been compared to a healthy biological transect by those responsible for promoting its application to cities, its healthy condition revealed by the model of traditional urbanism contrasted with developer’s and planner’s invented practices that stress short term economic development, mono-functional zoning, and the primacy of the automobile.[4] 

A Sense of the Sacred

Prominent writers associated with the environmental movement who have suggested a return to a sense of the sacred in nature include Loren Eiseley, Wendell Berry, David Suzuki, James Lovelock, and Edward O. Wilson.  While most have not addressed urban quality specifically (the exception is E.O. Wilson), their influence on the prevailing wisdom surely carries over into the reform of cities.[5]  The preamble to the Charter of the New Urbanism, for instance, stresses “the conservation of natural environments” as one of the goals for re-establishing denser and more pedestrian friendly urbanism.  While that does not emphasize a sense of the sacred, it nonetheless promotes a sense of cities in the landscape of nature as integral to a broader world view that sees “the creation” (as E. O. Wilson has described it) as potentially evocative of a spiritual dimension.[6]  Jane Jacobs, sometimes referred to as “the mother of the New Urbanism” and cited by New Urbanist literature, compared cities to nature because, as she put it, “Human beings are, of course, a part of nature . . . . The cities of human beings are as natural, being a product of one form of nature . . . “7

Ideal urban environment, combining vehicular and pedestrian circulation and commerce in a verdant-yet distinctly urban setting.  (courtesy Congress for the New Urbanism).

Intended Conclusions

Predominant urban theories today are wary of the more recent proposals that tend to sweepingly re-invent urban form each time some new problem arises, and instead propose to take the best from the past and modify it to accommodate selected modern needs without loosing sight of past “naturally evolved” accomplishments.  It is the sort of design principle described by Robert Campbell, architectural critic for the Boston Globe, as “innovating on the edge of tradition.”  This approach parallels what is happening concurrently in the broader environmental movement that seeks to return natural habitats to intrinsically stable (or what is more accurately referred to as “dynamically stable”) conditions.  Especially, it is a rising sense of nature and natural processes as things that are sacred—with the goal to institute “naturally evolved” ways of shaping urban spatial order in distinct contrast to approaching nature as a commodity to be exploited.

[1] Significant among foundational arguments for building on traditional urbanism as a means to address current urban problems are: Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities, (1961); James Howard Kunstler (see footnote no. 2); Peter Calthorpe, The Next American Metropolis, (1993) and Peter Katz, The New Urbanism, (1994).  An important principle argument against our infatuation with technology as having led to the dehumanization of modern life and cities is Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, (1964).

[2] The idea of applying the transect from biology to urban form is credited to Patrick Geddes who, in the early 20th century, described the importance of relating a city to its broader natural setting.  Direct application of the transect to urban design was outlined by Andrés Duany of the architectural and planning firm Duany & Plater-Zyberk & Co. in the 1990s, in particular as a measure against mono-functional zoning.

[3] Preamble to the Charter of the New Urbanism, for instance states, “We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.” Michael Leccese and Kathleen McCormick, editors, Charter of the New Urbanism, (New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2000).

[4] James H. Kunstler has perhaps been most strident in his condemnation of development and planning practices that are seen to have damaged the central city through promotion of suburban settlement patterns [The Long Emergency (2005); Too much Magic (2012); The City in Mind (2001); Home from Nowhere (2001); The Geography of Nowhere (1993), as well as in numerous articles with similar objectives in both popular and professional publications].   

[5] E.O. Wilson recounts New York City’s successful efforts to ensure continuation of its water supply from the

Catskills by purchasing natural watershed lands and maintaining them as a nature preserve, and Atlanta’s discovery that a massive tree planting program produces the same flood control results as constructing a correspondingly massive culvert and storm-water drainage system, and at much lower cost and with many additional advantages concrete culverts storm sewers do not provide.  Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).

[6] Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (2006). 7  Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, (New York: Random House edition 1993, p. 579 / Originally published 1961).

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