Utopia or Bust

Paradise-road-sign2

In a perfect world, there would be no war, no hunger, no hate, and I would have eight hours a day to write without losing my house and becoming a regular at the local soup kitchen. While dystopias are all the rage right now on e-readers and the big screen alike, the flip side is far from forgotten.

The concept of a utopian society has been around for millennia, long before Sir Thomas More coined the term in his book Utopia back in 1516.

Generations of grandparents have insisted life was far better during the days of their youth, even considering the miles they had to walk to school, in a blizzard. From the Garden of Eden to the Greek’s “Golden Age,” people have been longing for a utopia that supposedly existed back in humanity’s good old days. In both examples, humans lived in harmony with each other and with nature, living off the bounty of the earth without the need for so much as a horse-drawn plow. No work and all play, yet human nature being what it is, our ancestors turned greedy and screwed up the sweetest deal ever.

Throughout history, people the world over have been trying to recreate their version of paradise. Most religions urge their followers to an otherworldly one, whether it be literal as in Christianity’s heaven, or a state of being like Buddhism’s nirvana. Then we have Plato, who in his “Republic” advocated an earthly utopian society based on a strict system of socioeconomic classes with a highly educated ruling class and outside mercenaries for defense. Not particularly PC nowadays, but a great basis for a fantasy novel. Perhaps George R.R. Martin’s slave cities in “Song of Ice and Fire” are Plato fans.

We also had the so-called Hippie Communes, which rose in popularity during the 1960’s and ‘70s seeking to recreate the self-sufficient agrarian-based villages of the past. Though, the Shakers were really the first to take the back to the basics route beginning in the Revolutionary War era with a much more puritanical philosophy and far greater success. While only one tiny community of Shakers exists today, the religious movement included over 5,000 members in its mid-1800s heyday. One thing both of these communities had in common was work, a lot of it. Unlike Adam and Eve, Shakers succeeded in part due to their strong work ethic, plus their views on social, sexual and racial equality. The same couldn’t be said for their beliefs on celibacy. Not most people’s idea of paradise.

Today, people’s vision of what a future utopia should look like varies widely.

Literature and movies are full of fictional utopias, including the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar. On the far away moon of Pandora, a humanoid race exists in Eden-like bliss until greedy human soldiers come to pillage the world’s natural resources. Similar depictions can be found throughout the sci-fi genre. Sometimes the race is highly evolved, sometimes…not so much. Either way, us earthlings are usually depicted as the bad guys. So how can us villains be expected to do more than screw up perfection?

Last year the Huffington Post published an article on nine real-world utopian communities, or more accurately stated, nine communities that are striving for the utopian ideal. Seven are in the U.S. and two them are in rural Virginia, one less than an hour from my home. So close to paradise and I didn’t even realize it!

Songdo Central Park RenderingAll of the communities described in the article are based on living a simpler, more agrarian lifestyle similar to the old Hippie Communes, except Songdo, South Korea. This planned metropolis 40 miles southwest of Seoul takes a high-tech lifestyle to a new extreme. With high-speed wi-fi on the subway and city-wide sensors that monitor energy use, traffic flow and temperature as if the city were alive, Songdo is intrinsically wired to perform tasks traditionally developed communities aren’t. A recent Washington Post article calls Songdo an aerotropolis, a city built around an international airport for more efficient transport of people and goods. And as the article goes on to point out, “in the era of globalization, efficiency is paramount.” Or at least that is the philosophy of the co-author Greg Lindsay in his book “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.”

But there is a another side to Songdo, and it is a beautiful shade of Kermit green. Six hundred of the 1500-acre city is green space, including a 100-acre central park, not to mention 16 miles of bike lanes and a canal system with water taxis. Buildings within the city are required to pursue LEED Certification, an internationally recognized green building standard. The city itself is part of the LEED Neighborhood Development Pilot Program, which “emphasizes neighborhood connectivity, access to transit, energy efficiency in building design, efficient infrastructure design and the provision of open space and habitat for residents of all kinds.” And the green technology doesn’t stop there:

  • Zero emission buses with hydrogen fuel cells,
  • A city-wide greywater system to conserve potable water,
  • Vegetated green roofs which not only treat stormwater but mitigate the urban heat island effect,
  • And a centralized pneumatic waste collection system connected to your kitchen, eliminating the need for garbage trucks. How cool is that?

So maybe Songdo’s master plan isn’t that different from the traditional utopian vision after all. Surely, any future utopia would need to combine advances in both technology and sustainable living.Ecotopia Cover

From the complex network of bridges linking concentric rings of aqueducts and green terraces in Plato’s fabled city of Atlantis to Ernest Callenback’s Ecotopia published in 1975, the concepts of smart growth and sustainability aren’t new. Though, the preferred terms seem to change faster than the traffic lights in my congested suburb as community planners attempt to combat the conservative opposition.

Songdo is the type of modern utopian community I have used as the basis for my New Adult paranormal, Seducing Death. Or Songdo on steroids. The first phase of the new international city opened in August 2009, and like any real-world attempt at utopia, it has experienced a few glitches. But those glitches are what makes for an interesting story.

Come back next week to read the next installment of this series with a look at dystopias. While few would want to live in one, they’re a world building dream.

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