Utopia has endured as a concept ever since philosopher Thomas More imagined the word and such a world more than 500 years ago. For centuries, novelists and scholars have adopted utopia as a muse to imagine living in a better place.
In his new book “City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present,” Alex Krieger gives a domestic history by tracing different movements and promises in the U.S. for paradise. Since this country’s founding there’s been Thomas Jefferson’s blueprint for an egalitarian republic (albeit only for white men); the idealism of the small town; romanticizing the suburbs as an escape from the disease-ridden, overcrowded city; Walt Disney’s carless EPCOT new town vision; and the epicenter of accessible pleasure for all, Las Vegas, Krieger notes in his book. Failures abound, too: Manifest Destiny, Native American removal, ugly urban renewal and a host of terrible housing policies cementing segregation.
“The search for utopia hardly ever produces utopia. I’m not naive to believe that but that does not prevent the search for utopia or ideal aspirations,” said Krieger, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The Chicago native gave a rescheduled spring utopia lecture on Monday, but virtually, sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Center.
Krieger crisscrosses the country in the book, and of course often lands in the middle — in Chicago. It’s where industrialist George Pullman’s paternalism attempted to marry company and labor; where the World’s Columbian Exposition put the city on a pedestal for tens of millions of people to see; and where — long before Henry Ford — the precision of assembly lines in the stockyards anointed Chicago as “Hog Butcher of the World.” Our greenspace, park design and lakefront are unmatched. Renowned Chicago planner Daniel Burnham made no small plans.
Krieger also describes Chicago as the original Amazon, connecting railyards and the Great Lakes to deliver goods.
“Chicago certainly was the logistical utopia of the planet towards the end of the 19th century,” Krieger said, referring to the catalogue shopping of Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward. “You could acquire anything — dresses, homes, guns.”
In the book, Krieger writes that there are not many accounts of Chicago as utopia.
“In fact, there was much to dislike and even fear about this unruly cauldron of urbanization in the decades before and after the arrival of the twentieth century,” Krieger writes. Reformers condemned the exploitation of workers during industrialization, as activism sought to change those conditions.
During his talk Monday, Krieger said the lessons learned a century ago from the activism of Jane Addams ring true today especially as society is in a COVID-19 paralysis. “One of the things I want us to return to is Jane Addams’ sensibility of sharing our wealth and our options,” he said.
Krieger said it’s hard to predict what land use policies or even utopian visions emerge from the pandemic. Will sidewalks be wider, as urbanists have long advocated for? Will there be more green space in cities as social distancing stays with us like nighttime summer mosquitos?
“We did not stop building skyscrapers in Manhattan after 9/11 even though that was predicted immediately afterwards,” Krieger said. “Yet, I think this [pandemic] will have a slightly longer impact for two reasons.”
He said density will be a concern and people will be wary of urban environments. And it has become much more difficult to find a place to live in cities because of inequality and housing costs.
But Krieger said there’s something else more important to take on with these issues of inequity, the built environment and the air we breathe.
“If we consume a little bit less or move a little bit less, maybe we’ll gain a little bit more time to tackle on the most important challenge, which is not the pandemic,” Krieger said.
The real catastrophe is climate change, and recognizing the great correlation between it and the current pandemic, he said.