Welcome back to the Island of Utopia! Part I began the first installment of a three-article series commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the publishing of St. Thomas More’s classic book, Utopia. In Part I, the word “Utopia” was defined and several of the key geographic features of More’s fictional Island of Utopia were described. In Part II, we’ll delve into the some of the urban design characteristics of Utopian cities.
In the book, Thomas More tells the inhabitants’ story of passed-down knowledge that King Utopius (the Island’s namesake) is responsible for the original “platting” (or laying-out) of the cities in Utopia. More says, “King Utopius himself, even at the first beginning, appointed and drew-forth the platform of the city into the fashion and figure it hath now,” leaving the original design to “his [the king’s] posterity.” In other words, King Utopius platted the first and largest city, called Amaurote, allowing its design to be replicated by successive generations into a broad array of smaller cities spread throughout the island. Further on in the book we read that the platting took on political significance, as it involved dividing the city into four “quarters,” each headed by a Syphogrant (administrator), with one of the four Syphogrants elected by the people as Philarch, or mayor of the city.
The Capital City of Utopia
As mentioned, the largest city of Utopia is Amaurote, which also functions as the capital. Amaurote is built into the low-lying foothills of the highest mountain in Utopia, which lies in the center of the island. Amaurote is essentially a hillside city on sloping terrain that has upper and lower neighborhoods and districts. Thomas wrote that “the city standeth upon” the great mountain; and yet the city did not dominate the mountain since it would not in any way come close to encroaching upon its peak. From afar, sited at the mountain’s foothills, Amaurote would have appeared rather small and insignificant—in my view a shrewd urban design tactic for More, used to downplay the majesty of the city and present it as, quite paradoxically, a humbled place of power. This idea of “humbled power” is reminiscent of the modern Smart Growth movement, which seeks to preserve nature’s most valuable features while accommodating various kinds and scales of land development.
Fresh Water Supply
From where did the people of Amaurote receive their fresh water? Continuing on to the second part of the book, we learn that the greatest river in Utopia, Anyder, flows from a freshwater spring originating in the heights of Amaurote’s mountain and thus provides the fresh water supply for the capital city. As it runs down the center of the mountainside and passes through the city wall below, Anyder becomes “engineered,” channelized with brick, functioning as an urban canal like the L.A. River. (Of course, L.A.’s most beloved strip of concrete is not carrying potable water like Anyder but expediting stormwater runoff into the Pacific Ocean.) Still, More leaves no small detail unaccounted for. He tells us that as the main canal runs through the middle of the city, it is “conveyed down… in divers ways into the lower parts of the city.” For the dispersed districts within Amaurote where it is not practical for the brick canal system to provide river water, More describes how the canals “gather the rain water in great cisterns, which doeth them as good service.”
Streets, Housing and Social Life
Recall that in Part I, it was mentioned that all cities within Utopia had the same high level of quality, while still retaining distinctive characteristics. These characteristics were based on the location of the city within the Island, or else a particular function that the city performed, or both. In the book, Thomas More describes many city design features that encourage social relations. In my estimation, he well understood that the design of a city can greatly influence not just economic interactions but also social cohesion. All the cities of Utopia were designed along common principles to foster meaningful interaction that helped strengthen civic ties within the various communities.
Traversing a highway on approach to Amaurote, in the book, we read of a bridge over Anyder, “made not of piles or of timber, but of stonework with gorgeous and substantial arches.” We also read of Amaurote “encompassed about with a high and thick stone wall full of turrets and bulwarks.” These exterior elements of the city would certainly have made a lasting aesthetic impression on those entering or passing by from the outside. The closer one approached the city, the more its size and significance would have become apparent. The “humbling” effect that characterized the city from a far-off distance now gone as the city loomed evermore close and the surrounding mountain disappeared into the background of the vast landscape. In more dangerous times, high and strong walls would have been a sight of relief and even welcome for those coming in from long distances.
Next, we go from the highways to the local streets of the city. They are described as being “commodious and handsome,” with “houses of fair and gorgeous building.” Further, we read that the houses “stand joined together in a long row… without any partition or separation” and that the houses are “three stories one of the other.” Essentially, More is describing rowhouses. These rowhouses have backyard gardens, where dwellers grow their own vineyards, fruits, herbs and flowers. He specifically mentions that the interior streets are “twenty foot broad,” being highly convenient for “carriages.”
Regarding the housing, More tells us that each rowhouse had a “double leaf” doorway at the front entrance, and that not only were the doors physically easy to open and close, but that no one in the city locked their doors. He then goes on to reveal something quite incredible, which is that the purpose of this hospitality was so that “whoso will may go in, for there is nothing within the houses that is private or any man’s own.” Further amazing is that “Every tenth year they change their houses by lot.” He does not describe exactly how this happens, but no doubt it refers to families swapping or trading their homes on an equal basis, since there is no money (and hence no financial transactions) in Utopia.
With respect to the backyard gardens, More tells us that the gardens were so important for community life that “it may seem that the first founder of the city [Utopius] minded nothing so much as these gardens.” It is interesting to note that More describes these private backyard gardens as being of some contention within the community, in the sense that the people would compete to see who could maintain the most manicured garden from block to block. Yet, he states that this competitive atmosphere, while yielding benefit to the individual households, aroused “pleasure” (in this context, a kind of joy) in the people, whether they won a competition or not.
As mentioned earlier, each Utopian city is physically divided into four separate quarters that are relatively equal in size. Thomas writes that “in the midst of every quarter there is a market-place of all manner of things.” That cities need markets is no new revelation; that each district within the city possess its own locally-accessible marketplace recalls modern neighborhood design concepts such as “walkability” and “livability.” More goes on to describe how the residents of the quarters all bring their “works” (products of labor) into the marketplace, where there are ample “houses, barns and storehouses” that facilitate what we would today call a bartering economy. More says that every householder “carrieth away their [works] without money, without exchange, without any gage, pawn or pledge.” It is beyond the scope of this article to go into all the labor aspects of Utopia, but suffice it to say that Utopia (being a thoroughly urbanized place) has a very fine-grained and specialized division of labor, the kind that, as we understand today, only cities can provide. A full range of artisans, craftspersons, garden growers, etc. exist so that there is “an abundance of all things,” which More alludes to as a reason why no money is needed. Plenty for all to go around, with every person taking that which they need. But ah, there’s the catch. Concluding his description of the marketplaces, More explains that “covetousness,” caused by pride, a “superfluous and vain ostentation of things,” is a “kind of vice among the Utopians [that has] no place.” As mentioned previously at the end of Part I of this series, the citizens of Utopia are to be virtuous, for otherwise, this system of living would not be possible.
Concluding Thoughts on Design
In this article, we have only briefly skimmed the design aspects of Utopia’s cities as they relate to social and economic life, covering primary features such as city platting, site selection, water conveyance, aesthetic appearance, housing, streets and markets. Though only 130 pages, Utopia is a tremendously dense book and packed with just the sorts of vicissitudes that die-hard urbanists love to experience and talk about. Even in a three-part series, I cannot do the book justice and therefore encourage all to read it.
In Part III, the finale, we’ll conclude with reflections on contemporary city-making and what Utopia has to say about it.
Photo Credit: Map of Utopia by Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598). Source: Wikimedia Commons – public domain