Imagining a Greener Future: Why Utopias Matter.


The article “Urban Ecological Footprints: Why Cities Cannot be Sustainable — and Why They are a Key to Sustainability” of Rees and Wackernagel states that the loss of habitat space is the major thread to humanity and the increase of the size of our footprints further accelerates this process. This footprint increases because the cities of the world have increasing needs for water, energy, materials, transport and food. Large cities play a major role because of their low metabolism efficiency, combined with the high amount of pressure on the direct environment and the increase of global urbanization generate a huge footprint with has catastrophic results for the environment (Rees and Wackernagel, 2008). Right now the urban footprint is estimated to be 1,5 times the size of the earth (GFN, 2007).

In the article the pros and cons for ecology of high density human settlements are elaborated and result in recommendations from the authors. Cities have to be less dependent on each other and need to improve their connection with their hinterland. The reducing of the footprint is the main challenge of the cities and a shift towards a more circular economy is unavoidable. The only viable option is to drastically re-think and re-design our cities to obtain a footprint equal to, or better: smaller than, one earth.

Problem definition

The problem is the absence of spatial concepts that can vigorously reshape our cities. This article questions the current direction of sustainable development and addresses the lack of conceptual envisioning. Simply put: we know the answer to “what”, now we need to know “how”.

Sustainable development is often seen as substituting polluting parts of society with less polluting parts (Hopwood et al., 2005). Examples are the cleaning of our energy net by making use of renewable energy sources, reducing the footprint of industrial processes (Huber, 2008) and resource saving measures at household level. The similar aspect of these sustainable developments is that they are designed to fit in the bigger picture of the current unsustainable paradigm. This is a major problem because there is, according to Rees and Wackernagel a pressing need to change the way cities function, not only the means by which these cities are able exist.

An alternative approach is needed to be able to successfully address the multitude of problems that resulted from the current paradigm. A conceptual tool that has the potential to overcome the lock-in effect (Leydesdorff, 2001) of our current civilisation is The Natural Step framework (Holmberg and Robèrt, 2000). Their second step is what differentiates it from other methods because it forces the user to ignore the practicalities and realities of our present society and imagine an optimal future.


The idea of envisioning a perfect place at a future point in time is not exclusive to The Natural Step framework and has been widely applied in history to affect societal change. These daring concepts are called “utopia’s” and often envision a world of harmony where state of the art technology is combined with the thoughts on ethics, economy, ecology, religion and philosophy (Tod and Wheeler, 1978). Two historic utopias and their impacts on society will function as examples of successful change. These examples are chosen because they focus on changing cities which is exactly what is stressed by Rees and Wackernagel.

In Dessau, Germany the Bauhaus school taught and applied a functionalist approach on architecture and design in the twenties of the previous century. The removing all decorative elements from architecture and focus on mass production resulted in the origins of modernistic architecture. Their ideas only came to life after the war when there was need for cheap affordable housing and reshaped the cities on an immense scale. The key concept was Le Corbusiers Dom-ino model that allowed building floors without supporting facades (Fishman, 1982). The Ideal city associated with this globalist architecture was le Corbusiers “plan voisin” (Jencks and Corbusier, 2000). It optimized all values that made modernism thrive: economics of scale, efficiency, uniformity and mass production. Figure 1 shows an aerial drawing which shows a clear resemblance with post-war building. This influential plan shows us in hindsight what went wrong with modern society: lack of appreciation for individuality and not taking the limits to growth (Meadows et al., 1972) into account. Exemplary is Le Corbusiers famous quote “A house is a machine for living in.” (Jeanneret, 1923)


Figure 1: Plan Voisin

In the sixties, when the progress in science boosted the interest of the public in science fiction and futurology, architect collectives like Archizoom, Superstudio and Archigram started to explore the edges of architecture and technology. Instead of neat drawings and academic papers they published their work with colorful collages. Archigram were even called “the Beatles of architecture” (Davies, 1988) because of how they revolutionized the role of urban planning. Where le Corbusier tried to precisely design every detail of his utopian city the Archigram studio tried to use their ideas to spark the imagination of the public. While they never actually built anything their impact has been substantial. Novelties like modularity of buildings, adaptive architecture, system design and the realization that architecture and humans and architecture have a reciprocal relationship which means that a perfect utopia is a constantly changing system instead of a static city are the products of this movement and are the foundation of post-modernistic architecture (Cook, 1999).

archigramFigure 2: Achigram poster

There are still architects and urban planners working on this abstract level. A good example is the New Urbanism movement that states that neighborhoods should be walkable and have a good public transport system (Katz et al., 1994). The architecture should remind to old (European) cities because they are proven to be favorable to the public and are the only form of urban fabric that has the potential to last for centuries. The important difference between New Urbanism and previous utopias is that New Urbanism has no blueprint or optimal form. Therefore New Urbanism is more a guideline or an approach than an utopian vision.

new urbanism

Figure 3: New Urbanism


Cities need to drastically change in order to face the future. History learns us the immense impact a spatial idea or concept can have on the built environment. What are the big spatial ideas of our time? There is a void for architecture on the conceptual, academic level. Concepts like “circular metabolism” and “the self-sufficient city” and “cradle to cradle” need smart, inspiring and convincing blueprints and visualizations to become the utopias of our time. Where are the Archigrams and Superstudios of our time?


Cook, P., 1999. Archigram. Princeton Architectural Press.

Davies, C., 1988. High tech architecture. Thames and Hudson.

Fishman, R., 1982. Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright and LeCorbusier. The MIT Press.

GFN, 2007. The Global Footprint Network.

Holmberg, J., Robèrt, K.-H., 2000. Backcasting—A framework for strategic planning. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology 7, 291-308.

Hopwood, B., Mellor, M., O’Brien, G., 2005. Sustainable development: mapping different approaches. Sust. Dev. 13, 38-52.

Huber, J., 2008. Technological environmental innovations (TEIs) in a chain-analytical and life-cycle-analytical perspective. Journal of Cleaner Production 16, 1980-1986.

Jeanneret, C.-É., 1923. Vers une architecture. Crès.

Jencks, C., Corbusier, L., 2000. Le Corbusier and the continual revolution in architecture. Monacelli Press.

Katz, P., Scully, V.J., Bressi, T.W., 1994. The new urbanism: Toward an architecture of community. McGraw-Hill New York.

Leydesdorff, L., 2001. Technology and culture: The dissemination and the potential’lock-in’of new technologies. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 4.

Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.H., Randers, J., Behrens III, W.W., 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report to The Club of Rome (1972). Universe Books, New York.

Rees, W., Wackernagel, M., 2008. Urban ecological footprints: Why cities cannot be sustainable—and why they are a key to sustainability, Urban Ecology. Springer, pp. 537-555.

Tod, I., Wheeler, M., 1978. Utopia. Harmony Books New York.


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