Visionaries have tried for millennia to create the perfect community and now another bid is being made here in Scotland. Lori Anderson wonders if a perfect society is possible – and would she want to live there?
When Plato and Thomas Hobbes first contemplated the perfect society, neither envisioned a potato field in South Lanarkshire. The key to building the fabled Utopia is to close one’s eyes and picture a brighter, more desirable future, a future in which a potato farm in what was once Scotland’s industrial heartland becomes a community of eco-friendly homes, allotments, schools and businesses, all owned and run for the good of all. Or as it has been described: “a new international benchmark for utopian living.”
Owenstown, to be named after Robert Owen, the founder of New Lanark, will consist of 3,200 affordable homes in a low-carbon settlement, many of them built at a factory on the site to reduce costs and to help attract young families, 1,500 of whom have already applied, drawn from not just Scotland and Britain but all over Europe.
As the website for the proposed development states: “Imagine a town where you’d want to spend your entire life. A town with jobs, schools, open spaces and recreational facilities as well. A town which offered everything you could ask for and improved the environment at the same time. Hard to believe? Well there’s more – the town will be fully owned and run by the people who live there. Stop imagining, start living … Owenstown, the way it should be!”
Plato, the Greek philosopher, was the first person to attempt to figure out what the perfect planned society would resemble. In his book of dialogues, The Republic, dated to around 380BC, he imagined a city in which there were four levels of citizens “golden”, “silver”, “bronze” and “iron” with the golden elite groomed by 50 years of scrupulous education to become benign dictators capable of ruling with wisdom and kindness for the common good. It would be almost 1,900 years later that the actual term “Utopia” was coined by Thomas More for the title of his eponymous book, published in 1516, and constructed from the Greek words for “no where”.
In the book More imagined an island community in the middle of the Atlantic where there was no private property, no locks on houses and where goods were stored in central warehouses for the use of anyone in need. He envisioned this island as part of the New World only just being discovered and within 150 years his ideas were being put into use in the fledgling colonies of America. When Carolina was founded in 1670 the early colonists experimented with utopian ideas and when Georgia was founded in 1733, land was allocated equally and the purchase of extra land forbidden.
New ideas should have been able to take root in virgin soil, which is why the United States of America, after first securing its freedom from the old order through the War of Independence, was the scene of many utopian societies. A number of these were inspired by the socialist philosophies of Charles Fourier, a man from a nation which had also thrown off the shackles of a gilded elite with a view to building a better, fairer world, with decidedly mixed results, namely France. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne were both members of Brook Farm, a socialist commune set up in Massachusetts in 1841 which was based on a mixture of Fourier’s socialism and the new ideas of transcendentalism. At Brook Farm everyone toiled at the work they favoured most (one can’t help but imagine a lot of sewing and little manure tilling) and were rewarded equally. Unfortunately it collapsed within seven years after the main building burnt down and they ran out of money. A second similar commune, the North American Phalanx, set up in New Jersey in 1844, lasted 12 years before being defeated, once again by fire as well as a deep schism between members with opposing plans.
The ability of men to both construct a utopia and then tear it apart was a lesson that Robert Owen, the Welsh industrialist who founded New Lanark, was soon to learn. After setting up New Lanark he became disenchanted with his dealings with the local authorities in Scotland and headed west to set up a new utopian society, uncluttered, he hoped, by the intransigence of others. He was a man of the noblest intentions, as a letter, dated 1 January, 1816 made clear: “I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold: and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal.”
In 1825 Owen purchased a town in Indiana which had been set up by the Harmonists, a religious group, and which he re-named New Harmony. Unfortunately, what Owen envisioned as a “new moral world” became an economic failure within two years, with members bitterly complaining about inequalities and with no shared religious faith to bind them, it soon collapsed.
Yet the nobility and inherent fairness that lies at the heart of a Utopia continued to attract men who wished to increase the common good. In 1888 Edward Bellamy, a Massachusetts lawyer, published a novel, Looking Backward, that imagined America in the year 2000 as a socialist Utopia. The novel subsequently inspired Sir Ebenezer Howard, the founding father of the Garden City Movement, who imagined a planned, self-contained community surrounded by a green belt of land and which was first successfully constructed at Letchworth in Herfordshire, before being repeated in Welwyn.
It is this model that the pioneers of Owentown wish to emulate and they are heading in a direction that the Policy Exchange, an influential think-tank, actively supports. The Policy Exchange have been urging all the political parties to commit to building a new garden city as one way of filling the gap of 1.5 million homes predicted by 2020.
I’m not sure a new utopian town would be the ideal home for me. By its very nature residents are required to sign up to a collective vision and regardless of how beneficial it may be for the common good, I think I’m too much of a contrarian and individualist to play house with them – but that’s not to say I don’t support their right to give it a go. When South Lanarkshire planning department meet next month to decide the fate of Owenstown they should vote in favour of a noble idea rather than the tired status quo. We’ve been trying to reach Utopia for more than 2,000 years. While the coastline may be littered with failures, the secret is not to give up.