Philosophy of the Possible or Utopianism in the 21st Century Urbanism

By Anna Koledova

‘If I could wish for something, I would wish for neither wealth nor power, but the passion of possibility; I would wish only for an eye which eternally young, eternally burns with longing to see possibility’.

(Søren Kierkegaard, 1849)


Historically, the search for a model of a good city has been a quest, equivalent to the search of a precious object or knowledge of a venerated narrative (Hall, 2002). Due to a significant contextual influence of actual difficulties of the city, those of economics, sociology and politics, it is problematic to assume that such models existed unaltered through time and space. Yet, paradoxically, as Amin states (2006, p. 1010) the history of practical efforts to enhance the experience of city’s inhabitants ‘has also been influenced by universalistic imaginaries of the good life, with cities placed at the very heart of the various projections on offer’.

It is important to remember that a good city debate is by all means a debate about utopia or ‘no place’, which in turn always implies an ideological dimension of looking at and of portraying the city form. Thus, city planners such as Howard, Haussmann, Le Corbusier, were pushing radicalism in addressing the evils of Victorian cities. Utopian vision of modernist planners, often underpinned by shire environmental determinism and associated with the belief that society was not riven by contradictions, argued that a good, clean city could make a better society  (Fishman, 1982, Beauregard, 1996, Hall, 2002). Such urban imaginations, however, proved to be problematic when realising ideas into brick and mortar. London, Paris, Barcelona, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have all undergone significant urban interventions and transformations, which left cities as symbolic, highly expressive of power and status places, yet depressingly incapable to serve all wider social purposes (Hall, 2002).

Today, it can be argued, planning practitioners conceive their duty more modestly. Fainstain (1997) believes that the concept of visionary leaders imposing their perspectives on the urban populace is in disrepute, whereas the notion of an identifiable model of a good city meets skepticism. Hence, the aim of creating a good city over the last decades ‘has been content with theorising itself unencumbered by the economic and political realities of the global capitalist system and has been self-referential within a singularly contained mainstream ideology’ (Banerjee and Sideris, 2011, 57). Along this line, Amin (2006) suggests that utopia has lost its gist, appeal and organising force, as meanings of the good city shift to immediate, temporary, private and hedonistic projects.

There has been an extensive academic debate on the topic of utopian thought and its role in the creation of modern day urban landscapes. The 20th century in particular saw many negative depictions of the good city, including Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. On the contrary, academics like D.Harvey, H. Lefebvre, J. Jacobs, L. Sandercock, D. Pinder and others believe, although there can be no one good or neutral city like those imagined in the past and driven by totalitarian practices, ideals of processes and objectives can determine fair and flexible practice in generating urban change. Drawing on the example of London and two of its urban narratives, this essay discusses whether utopia as a process in contrast to utopia as standardized urbanism can be seen as a germane approach to raising questions about cities and their development.

Got an idea? Got IKEA.

Urban development of London and its East End has been under considerations of politicians, academics and city’s populace over the last few years. Olympic Games of 2012 have definitely assisted in pulling the trigger in the process of this urban change, especially for the Stratford area. Millions of pounds have been invested into several large-scale interventions dedicated to expansion and renewal of local transport infrastructure, public realm, housing stock etc. The case of Strand East or IKEA city, urban planning project launched by Swedish home-furniture giants, is of the particular interest to this paper.

The idea of the project, said the head of the LandProp (a real estate subsidiary of the Inter Ikea Group) is to bring a very Scandinavian model of urban design and ‘managed living’ to turn the ‘post-industrial wasteland surrounded by goods-shipping canals and highway ramps’ into a flourishing neighbourhood titled Strand East (the, 2012). This IKEA city will boast ‘480,000 square feet of office space, yoga studios, a crèche, a Marriott hotel and shops’ all these on the 26 acres of land acquired by Landprop in 2009 (independent,, 2012). By the plan, 1,200 residential units are very much family size as well as price orientated, cars will be kept off interior streets in the underground parking garage, leaving only bus lanes and accessible pedestrian walkways cutting across neighbourhood, which will also enjoy numerous squares and public spaces. ‘The whole thing is designed to create the sense of felicity and discovery you get when wandering around a historic European neighbourhood’ (, 2012).

anna 1

(, 2012)

anna 2


Although, it seems like a better urban design than most of the centrally planned neighbourhoods that have infected British cities for the last 60 years, the IKEA city does pose some questions as a modern-day urban planning project. Firstly, the IKEA Empire encompasses more than 300 furniture stores in 27 different countries. Swedish brand’s furniture designs are known and appreciated by various consumer groups mainly for three outstanding features: pleasant appearance, simple to assemble and bargain price. When interviewed, developers of the IKEA city repeatedly state:

‘this place will not be an Ikea. There will not be Poäng armchairs adorning the living rooms and Billy bookcases covering the walls. The houses will not require Allen keys to assemble. Meatballs in lingonberry sauce will not be served at the restaurants’.

Nevertheless, all those wanna be’s Strand East’s residents will be offered three possible types of interior design for their new apartment along with vouchers for IKEA stores. In this respect, it can be argued, although IKEA might dominate the way people furnish their homes, it can be problematic when the brand comes to design the whole district. While interior design is private-urban design should remain a strong public component that claims to have an unalienated collective right to make the city (Harvey 2000, 2012; Jacobs 1989; Sorkin 1991; Soja 2000). Also, the concept of a ‘sense of place’ as characteristic of a good city often emerges from an experiential appreciation of the uniqueness and distinctive feeling of a particular place, one connected to history, culture and locality (Hall, 2002) something that even the best creative minds behind IKEA city project can hardly provide.

Secondly, the IKEA city is not only a private urban development project but also an all-rental private neighbourhood, which is run and overseen by a company that will supposedly impose an artificial order of selecting those who gets to become a resident as well as limit and control the rights of the community to adapt the neighbourhood according to their needs. This brings us back to the critic of the utopian urbanism that in Pinder’s (2000) opinion, while opens up possibility of improvement in what is known, simultaneously attacks the dynamic of change to a single outcome. At a larger scale according to Amin (2006), today, place urbanization is labeled with homogenization, referring to ‘the imprint of globalization that duplicates urban experiences in different places.

Thus, while utopic representation remains within dominant values and ideologies it still fails to offer a mode of critique, ‘it takes status of myth or collective fantasy’  (Marin, 1990) and creates a plausible environment for conjoining of technologic creativity, commodity culture and endless capital accumulation (Harvey, 2000). It can be suggested that the IKEA city project, which is by all means a nowadays utopian urbanism might on the first sight constitute a model of a good city. However, it still lacks a vision of urban and social future of East London as those who will practically fill it with meaning can imagine it; it counteracts the cynicism of urban form and attend purely utilitarian or materialistic regime (Liscombe, 2006). Harvey (2000, p.406) describes it as ‘politics of contempt and neglect’ that is moving nowadays planning.

Warehouse Culture. Hackney Wick, Fish Island case.

To the West of the Olympics’ Site is located the area of Hackney Wick, Fish Island. In the beginning of the 20th century HWFI was a hub for diverse industrial activity including food processing, importing and processing of raw materials and engineering works. During the war, part of HWFI suffered severe bomb damage, which led to extensive residential housing clearance and further development as predominantly industrial zone (, 2012). The latter, defines much of HWFI character today with a mix of industrial buildings, ‘ranging from two and three-storey brick warehouses and factories dating from the 19th century, to more recent post-war buildings of up to 6-9 storeys, including factories, mix-use buildings, storage and distribution units’ (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets, 2012). Currently, residential population is very small (approximately 800 people) party due to the industrial character but also because planning policies have restricted residential development except a limited number of live/work blocks. The existing residents are relatively young with 40% aged between 25-49. (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets,2012).

What about HWFI that is of the essence for this particular paper is the radically different mode of development that has brought about seemingly successful urban change in this area. Although, lacking planning in its conventional manifestation and led by a pioneer community of young creative practitioners, local urban living in simple terms is based on ‘recycling’ of already existing structures no longer suitable for modern requirements. Individuals are taking advantage and re-using fragments of former factories and industrial warehouses as living-working spaces designing them exclusively up to their taste, needs and lifestyles. Research undertaken by the London Development Agency (LDA) identified over 600 live/work studios and small businesses across Hackney Wick and Fish Island area; occupiers include designers, media practitioners, artists, galleries and a variety of supporting businesses from printers to financial consultants (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets, 2012). Also, a number of buildings are transformed into multifunctional cultural platforms accommodating church services, community festivals, licensed music events and theatre performances what invites people from the neighbouring areas and from other parts of London into HWFI.

anna 3

(, 2011)

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(, 2011)

A few years of existence and bottom up growth have gained HWFI district a substantial level of attention within official planning institutions and received practical support from economically powerful development agencies. Thus, in 2010, Thames Gateway Development Corporation (LTGDC) has published a report identifying that although HWFI is showing a high potential to become a successful creative hub in this far off part of East London its growth is presented as dependent on a set of basic and then more advanced ‘hygiene factors’ ranging from intermediate public realm (connectivity and porosity of the area) to improvements to on going affordability and security of tenure for creative businesses (LTGDC, 2010).

A model of HWFI’s creative neighbourhood was not so much as a goal of urban development (initially at least) has been generated by pluralistic imaginations and practices of its residents. Academics such as Jane Jacobs 1989, Michael Sorkin 1991, Edward Soja 2000 and Leonie Sandercock 2003, supported such alternative interpretation of a Good City, one that can grow out of local climate, custom and culture, one that is discovered instead of imposed condition of civic life. The ability to envision a transformative potential of the physical landscape of HWFI and its future has interrogated the status quo of modern-day urban living and efforts of town planning. The greatest lesson one needs to learn from utopian thought in creating cities of the 21st century, as suggested by a number of academics and this particular paper is the on-going questioning of our assumptions about urban futures.

Philosophy of the possible.

Calvino (1979, cited in Pinder 2002, 232) urged, ’cities like dreams are made of desires and fears’. In fact, the discourse of how the cities are imaged and how these imaginations come about in reality is crucial for understanding how cities are thought, conceived and lived. Hence, what is happening in modern day urbanism according to Harvey (2000), is that much of the creative urban thinking concentrates on how to escape from urban ills and from the so-called conditions of ‘otherness’ in order to protect those with money, whilst the capacity to imagine and conceptualise social transformation and different urban futures is itself thrown in doubt. Jane Jacobs, also castigated planners for attempt to impose an artificial order, as if ‘a city is a recalcitrant child who must be forced to obey those who think they know better’ (cited in Alexious, 2006, 5).

In course of this paper we have looked at the urban narratives of IKEA city and HWFI creative district in dialog. It is clear that both of narratives have a particular utopian dimension to them, although epicentres of analysis vary. Ikea city project offers us a model of a good neighbourhood as it is portrayed and in this case literally pre fabricated by a private development agency. Despite the intentions of developers to include considerations of the significance of history of the area, its local identity, environmental concerns and issues of affordability in the master planning it is done in a fixed way like there is one defined solution to a problem. It can be argued, that IKEA city just as almost any other example of modern urbanism takes form of an utopian degeneration, a project that does not radiate a transformative move but takes the status of a myth, of a collective fantasy (Pinder, 2000). Such projects of spectacular architectural entertainment and fantasy spaces that are ordered secured and controlled, as Harvey (2000, 168) points to in his sharp criticism are substances of ‘developers utopia’.

Therefore, in the times when urban experiences and representations have been colonised by private concerns – progressive utopia, one that has more to do with becoming rather than with achieving and being, is scarcely in demand (Scherpe, 1992). Utopia in this case should be understood as a social project concerned with living together and celebrating difference in the urban landscape, where the agency of the possibility to portray city in a desired way is distributed in a more equal manner among various stockholders inhabiting this city. To put it simple, planning practices should consider modes of social interchange that recognise difference and resist suppression by one other group (Jane Jacob, 1989; Sandercock, 2003; Liscombe, 2004). For Healey (2003, 110) planners should evaluate planning practices according to normative concepts of the just city. Although, it is argued, concepts of the ‘good’ and the ‘just’ are themselves constructed in a dialog of knowledge and power, the processes of articulating values and the manner in which these might become embedded in established discourses and practices of urbanism are important. In addition, process should not be understood merely as an ultimate outcome, but equally have process results.

The case of HWFI’s creative district discussed earlier serves an example of a collective action in attempt of transforming a derelict area into a new functional space through preservation of its existing physical landscape. The interplay of industrial past and the continuation of a creative productionist character of the area today reproduces its historical narrative and by doing so preserves local identity so much important for the sustainability of an urban landscape. Along this lines, when thinking about architecture, urbanization and utopia Yona Friedman (2007,203) stated that city’s architecture is a continues process with no terminal phase where details are of a special importance for the daily life. However one cannot always plan details and that for every domain. ‘We plan too much. Reality is in state of equilibrium.’ In this way, he believes that architecture should not be rooted, as we are incapable of predicting how it is going to be used, its evolution.

The vision of possibility of the industrial ruins points to the anticipatory moment in thinking about conventional urban living of its inhabitants. Such an alternative way of envisioning a model for a good city has trigged a reaction within conventional development agencies; it has attracted their minds in a way what could be done further to help HWFI to thrive into a creative hub of East London. As suggested by Sandercock (2003), working towards more creative and sustaining cities, we need some new models of planning system, which expands the language of planning beyond instrumental rationality and the system world; one that speaks about negotiating, hope, organizing fear, mediating memory and daring to break rules as well as developing the habits of critical and analytical mind.

There is a certain danger in longing for one model of a good city because it will be constrained by the frames of a moment in time and its context. Nevertheless, conceptualizing utopianism as transformative in its intentions one which accepts the contestation and anticipation in the production of space as in need of acknowledgement rather than something to be hidden plays a significant role in the questions about cities and what they might become (Sandercock, 1998, Pinder, 2002).