Utopian Urban Futures Conference Report

By Rebecca Madgin

The final conference in our Utopian Urban Futures project was held in Leeds from 27-28 June 2016. The conference was held at the Headingly Arts and Enterprise Centre (HEART) and was well attended by academics from a number of different countries including the UK, America and India. Over the two days, four themes: Histories of the Future City, Imaginations, Possibilities, and Comparative Utopias guided the discussion. The four panels comprised of two plenary speakers per session plus 3-4 shorter, 15 minute papers and the conference was concluded with a roundtable by the academic organisers, Ayona Datta, Will Gould, Rebecca Madgin and Anu Sablok.

DAY #1

Histories of the Future City

The day started with an introduction to the project by Madgin and reports from the previous city workshops by Datta (Navi Mumbai, Nashik), Gould (Varanasi) and Sablok (Chandigarh), longer versions of which can be found on the project blog here. The first theme: Histories of the Future City was opened by Nandini Gooptu who took two utopian visions: 1. Civic nationalism in the early-twentieth century and 2. The techno-modern imaginings of the twenty-first century city. Through a wonderfully illustrated presentation Gooptu deconstructed the language used within utopian visions to debate how notions of inclusivity and exclusiveness are intricately bound up within the politics of utopia. Prashant Kidambi followed in his plenary with a discussion of the relationship between crisis moments and utopia to question the reactionary nature of utopian visioning and how this vision is an inextricable connection of past, present, and future.  Both Gooptu and Kidambi adopted a long-run historical approach to their analysis and demonstrated how a combination of urban history and urban studies approaches can provoke productive points for exploration.

The remaining speakers in the session discussed a range of different topics ranging from the empirical and the conceptual and took in India, Egypt and the UK. Faiza Moatasim discussed the role of informality within utopian planning and set up a key theme that the conference would return to throughout and in the closing plenary: notably how can existing, often informal spaces and practices, be seen as integral part of the conversation about utopia. This was a theme that was picked up by Debapriya Ganguly as she presented emerging PhD research which explored how the role of the poor within the masterplan of Visakhapatnam. Aya Nassar then turned to present research on Egypt in the 1970s through the lens of the Unknown Solider monument in Cairo to question the role of ‘chance’ within the creation of utopian futures. Finally, Daryl Martin provided a fascinating and conceptually rich paper that juxtaposed Cedric Price and Henri Lefebrve as he asked the audience to consider the role of the non-plan and the unbuilt in utopian futures with particular reference to the M1, Montagu Country and Constable Country. Martin probably provided the quote of the day when as he repeated Price’s belief that one could improve Oxford Street by improving retail facilities in Hendon. The session provoked lively debate, particularly around the role of the informal, and was summed up by an in-depth discussion of the role of eco-houses, self-design and self-build as conference participants attempted to strike a balance between the needs of top-down utopian planning and personalised creations of improved urban futures.

Aya Nassar presents ‘Staging the State: 1970s Cairo, Nasr City and the Afterlives of Post-Independence Futures’

Utopian Imaginations

The session after lunch was aptly named Utopian Imaginations as the session traversed the mediums of fiction, film, poetry and song to convey the ways in which utopian visioning can be expressed and thus researched. First up was Malcolm Miles who took us on a wonderfully enriching journey of novels and urban thinkers to put forward a notion of the paradoxical city. He started off the presentation by provocatively stating that “progressive urbanism is inherently anti-urban” and then used Ebenezer Howard as a way to explain this. Miles then moved on to discuss ruins and to argue that ruins are a form of modernity that can also be seen as utopian. Again, this notion of utopia as top-down and sanitized was being subverted by the speakers. Nick Dunn followed this with a lively deconstruction of the utopic imagination by drawing on film, photography and cartoons.  Dunn asked the audience to consider the role of design in creating preferable features and also picked up on a theme first articulated by Kidambi about the ways in which the past, present and future fuse within the social imaginary.

The remaining speakers in the session discussed a range of different topics in relation to Indian cities. Cathy Turner started the shorter papers with a discussion of the role of artists within the city. Turner adopted Lefebvre to discuss ‘transductive utopianism’ with particular reference to ‘performing Srinagar’. Turner powerfully argued that we should consider the role of performance art and the ways in which this helps us understand the utopian meanings within cities. Turner won the prize for best image of the day as she showed us a photograph of the ‘Srinagar Cabbage Walker’ as a way to provoke an analysis of the absurd and to protest against war and violence. This paper was followed by Caroline Herbert who used Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda poems to examine the somewhat grittier elements of urban life such as trash and street dwellers and returned us to a point raised in the first session about the role of the everyday and informal spaces and practices within the ways in which we might think about alternative forms of utopia. Tanu Priya Uteng followed this with an examination of transport and how policy-makers and practitioners could look to cities in the developing world to improve transport systems. This was achieved through an examination of Scandinavia and the concept of shared mobilities. Ramya Khare, developed the role of fiction within research on urban utopias by drawing our attention back to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. This influential book could, Khare, argued, allow us to consider how cities are imagined in literature and how this may differ from architectural depictions. Bringing literature and architecture together through a case study, in this case, Chandigarh, Khare argued, is crucial to developing our understanding of our how we can research the essence of a city. Tahl Kaminer wrapped up the papers for Day 1 with an examination of the role of utopia and planning. He argued that in each phase of planning, the plans have not adequately been prepared to meet the needs of people. Kaminer thus returned us to this recurring theme of who creates utopia and for whom is it created.

Day #2

Utopian Possibilities

The second day started with a focus on methods and brought the role of embodied experiences of place into the minds of the participants. Sophie Hadfield-Hill presented a richly detailed analysis of her ESRC Future Leaders project in which she examined the views of children and adults in Lavasa to argue for a greater recognition of locally embodied and felt spaces within urban planning. This was followed by Netra Shirke who was able to provide the perspective of the practitioner rather than an academic. Speaking from her position as an Elected representative, Shirke gave an impassioned talk in which she critiqued the idea of smartness and again brought us back to the role of the citizen within urban utopian planning.  These plenary papers were again followed by shorter papers as a number of different Indian cities were again considered by the speakers. Nat Marom following Kaminer offered a critique of planning but this time located it within the Mumbai masterplan to question the potential of slums, an organic form, within an urban future. Leon Morenas brought us back to the question of technology by drawing on the invasive consequences of subscribing to the technological revolution within the creation of (dystopian) smart cities. C. Ramachandraiah turned to examine Amaravati and in particular the role of Singaporean and foreign investors in developing the city and opened up a key line of thought surrounding the role of global forces in conditioning local urban futures. Finally, Thomas Oommen closed the session with a theoretical examination of Spivak’s work to ask the extent to which planning theory and practice could evolve to listen to the voices of the subaltern and thus further developed a theme that had developed over the course of the two days.

Sophie Hadfield-Hill presents ‘Voices, Encounters and Dreams: Living on the Land of Urban Utopia’

Comparative Utopias

The final session of the day turned towards an examination of non-Indian cities and also papers which examined a number of different urban examples. Hyun Bang Shin opened with a talk on the economics of utopian urban planning by examining the development of Sangdo city in South Korea. Shin brought the role of economics, land values, and real estate into a conference that had thus far not really engaged with this dimension of utopian city planning. Rosemary Wakeman followed with a chapter from her forthcoming book on New Towns by discussing the different approaches of the USA and Russia towards utopian planning bringing in a diverse array of references including from the space race and the Cold War. Taylor Sawyer presented her emerging findings from a well-constructed Masters dissertation in which she compared the role of nationalism within the creation of the Welsh Senedd and the Scottish Parliament building and was able to deconstruct the ways in which national identity is built into the design of these new governmental buildings. Tom Bellfield turned the discussion towards a consideration of ‘utopia as method’ rather than as product through a discussion of the planning of schools in Sheffield and a particular focus on the transformative potential of misinterpreted events. Finally, Keira Chapman and Malcolm Tait closed with a well-crafted and richly detailed paper that provided a re-interpretation of Jane Jacobs’ work and in particular the role of time within planning theory.

Hyun Bang Shin presents ‘The Myth of Asian Smart Urbanism: The Making of Songdo City, South Korea’

Key Themes

The conference finished with a summing up of key themes that seemed to have emerged from across this conference and the four city workshops by the academic organisers: Datta, Gould, Madgin and Sablok. A number of issues were mentioned including the role of history, and the construction of power but over the course of the conference it became apparent that there needs to be much more of a focus on the role of the citizen within their local context. A number of speakers had considered this issue throughout the Leeds conference but we left asking the question whether those durable elements of the local environment identified by local citizens who are embedded in the everyday routines of cities are actually the real versions of utopian cities. If so the challenge appears to be narrowing the gap between this everyday experience and the imagined desires of urban professionals and national governments.


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