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by John Q McDonald --- 18 July 2016

Designing Utopia

John Ruskin's Urban Vision for Britain and America

by Michael H. Lang

The American Dream includes a particular vision for the perfect small town, the place that typifies American life and lifestyle. It is Mayberry, USA, a soft-focus vision of tree-lined streets and kids going fishing. We like to think this is the real America, the one in which the average person is good and kind, democratically motivated, and concerned with his or her neighbors. It's the America that shows up in a lot of political ads, and it has been simulated by the Disney company in its built-from-the-ground-up town of Celebration, Florida. The ideal town is situated in time and place, somewhere in the early part of the 20th century, and probably in farm country, certainly not in any of the big cities. The thing is, that every era has had its vision of an ideal community. Every era, it seems, imagines its ideal to be roughly that of its grandparents or great-grandparents. That's the America we're supposedly yearning for. But this is a notion common also to other countries and cultures. We always suppose the ideal was met sometime in the past century or so. But certainly not today. And yet, probably, sometime in the next several decades, our Millennial era will be seen as the better world for which we yearn. Hard to imagine?

In the mid to late 19th century, a movement grew in Britain and, later, in the United States, a movement that laid out a vision for communal village life in opposition to the growing sprawl of industrial cities. Indeed, the growth of industrial technology was the evil against which writers such as John Ruskin and William Morris fought. To reach a new vision of small town life, a semi-urban existence of self-sufficiency, community idealism, and vernacular charm, they outlined a world in which they dreamed to live. Ruskin, not really known for his urban design, was, nevertheless, a relentless critic of the industrial world that grew around him. In his poetic and oblique writings can be found many specific visions of a world of creative freedom and vernacular craft. He saw a world of small villages living on the sweat of its own labor, driven by a non-mechanical non-technological craft of hand-made goods, hand-grown food, and hand-wrought housing. In later decades, his followers would found many small alternative communities based on this ideal. The charm of Britain's Cotswalds might be traced to this movement of Arts & Crafts lifestyle. Drop by Chipping Campden and find, a century later, some of the institutions founded in this movement.

This short but dense scholarly book outlines the links that tie John Ruskin to the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain and the USA, all the way through the 20th century, to rest today in the new urbanist movement. The historical lines pass through many well-known urban and town planners and theorists on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, millennial culture has shifted in favor of urban densities, walkable cities, and an environmental (if not entirely social) sensitivity. We want even our suburbs to have at least some semblance of dense core that encourages human interaction and a reduced dependency on our automobiles. These visions are less driven by a need for alternative industrial culture, however, and have a more corporate program than the hand-drawn life and socialist community envisioned by Ruskin and his immediate followers. Still, Ruskin's diffused but long reach continues to run in the kind of small-town communities that are now and have always been the dream and ideal of American and British culture. Alternative communities from every era of the past century still linger in our landscape, from the early Arts & Crafts and Garden City experiments down to communal experiments of the 1960s to the co-housing movement of the early 21st century. Despite our love of corporate culture and industrially produced consumer goods, we continue to dream of the rural hand-crafted ideal. In service of context then, this book is an almost exhaustive overview of these movements and the world of which they dreamed, despite their limited success in changing the culture at large, due largely to the social inertia facilitated by a global industrial economy run amok.

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See also: [Utopia by Thomas More]

[Other books about Urban Studies and Architecture]

[Other History and Biography]