The Literary Method of Urban Design

Smothered in soaking tropical heat, I’ve been chasing my two-year-old as he runs through fields of strange flowers, treads around frog-filled ponds, and attempts to climb the local banana trees. He’s having a ball, feeling adventurous and free, but his mum and I are drenched in sweat as one of us tries to film him and the other tries to keep him from jumping into the water with the frogs. The resulting footage has since transformed into this short environmental film:

We are here in South East Asia to study and teach urban ecology at a university in Thailand. As part of our research into the eco-challenged character of urban settings, I’ve come up with a certain technique to predict and plan for future cities. I call it the Literary Method of Urban Design and I use it to engage with students and professionals about what our urban futures might be like. As you can see from the short film, it involves lot of “envisioning” and, thusly, it calls for a lot of art.

Dragging up long idle skills from my high school years, both the visual arts and literary arts became research tools and expressive channels that we could use to foster public debate about the future.

As its name indicates, the Literary Method of Urban Design places literary art at the base of urban studies, exploring the complications and possibilities of our potentially catastrophic unfolding urban existence. Literary art might seem to some like an unwieldy pathway by which to plan a city but my argument is that literature usually does far more than just entertain; it narrates upon the complicated challenges of life – often from the point of view of individual characters as they engage with the wider social world.

The future, I contend, is not opened up by advancing technology alone. It also involves an array of personal responses to the changing patterns of society as this technology is taken-up, fought over, celebrated or rejected, and then also used by the powerful to control the powerless. Works of fiction have often explored just how complicated and varied these changing techno-influenced patterns can be – as they unfold their plots with unique characters, highly specific settings, peculiar moral quandaries and particular cultural conflicts.

Thus, anyone who contemplates the future of cities in any way could benefit from the Literary Method of Urban Design since it may very well prompt a broader outlook in the “making” of a city as it is pushed, gently or roughly, into a different form.

In pop media, and in the public mind, the future is a key cultural battleground. So far, the techno-warriors (not the eco-warriors) seem to be winning, as Silicon Valley and the big players of the military-industrial complex lobby both leaders and the public with seductive ideas of Smart Cities, super-fast transport links, and the supposed beneficence of omnipresent AI. Through my work with youth, I’ve discovered that if you ask an urban schoolkid to draw a picture of their city’s future they will most likely dot the canvas with futuristic techno images of flying cars, super-sized sports stadia, and rocket-trains, though there’s often a splash of sea-level rise here and there as well.

If the future is a battleground, my contribution – the Literary Method of Urban Design – might seem like a completely neutral party, since there’s plenty of literature out there promoting visions of hi-tech super-gadgetized utopias (especially within the science fiction genre). However, the way I’ve utilized the Literary Method till now might suggest otherwise, and the best way to explain this might be by looking at some case studies.

CASE STUDY 1: THE FUTURE OF LONDON AS INSPIRED BY THOMAS MORE’S UTOPIA

Utopia by Thomas More as republished by Wisehouse Classics. Illustrator: Ambrosius Holbein

In 1516, during the reign of King Henry VIII, a little novel called Utopia was published. It was about an idyllic island which suffered none of the ills of Henry VIII’s London. No corruption, no poverty, no plagues, no tyrants. Just happy people living free in an ideal land.

Henry celebrated Thomas More as a great scholar but they would soon have an almighty falling-out over who should lead the Church of England. Thomas More thought it should be the Pope and Henry VIII thought it should be Henry VIII. Therefore, King Henry charged More with treason and jailed him in the Tower of London before, finally, executing him.

London, nowadays, is maybe a little fairer. Except for all the homelessness and economic inequality and toxic air and dangerous traffic, that is.

Here though, inspired by Utopia, is an alternative future; a child-friendly, clean and green London with urban forests instead of paved roadways.

You might think this is only a dream but if London becomes a “UN child-friendly city,” children may claim a right to decide urban policies. Probably, they’ll vote for fewer cars and more green spaces to play in. Whilst in a homage to Thomas More, they may repurpose the Tower of London, to keep out the tyrants, and to keep out the air polluters.

London as a Green Utopia. Illustrated Alan Marshall.

CASE STUDY 2: THE FUTURE OF SINGAPORE AS INSPIRED BY JONATHAN SWIFT’S GULLIVER’S TRAVELS

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift as republished by Sterling Classics. Illustrated by Scott McKowen.

Gulliver’s Travels follows an 18th Century explorer to fantastic lands across the globe.

During one expedition, Gulliver discovers a city floating in the sky. Named Laputa, it hovers over an island in the Asia Pacific. Motivated by this setting, here’s a design for the future of the island city of Singapore.

Whereas Laputa floated via magnetic forces, Singapore is held aloft by hydrogen balloons. The hydrogen is produced by electrolysis of sea spray, a process taking place within the solar-cells painted upon the balloon’s membrane.

So, what’s the point of a floating city? Well, up here, Singapore can escape the rising sea levels cause by global warming.

Yet just as the tales within Gulliver’s Travels are often laced with satire, the same might be said of this design, for if this is how cities are to survive sea level rise, it might be easier just to slow down or stop climate change.

The Floating Bubble City of Singapore. Illustrated by Alan Marshall.

CASE STUDY 3: THE FUTURE OF INGOLSTADT AS INSPIRED BY MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley as republished by Simon and Schuster. Illustrated by Oscar Dominguez.

Most of us are familiar with the creation scene of the Frankenstein story: an ambitious scientist labors with strange technologies to invent a new human creature from dead body-parts. However, as soon as the creature flickers into life, the scientist is overcome with horror and runs away.

The original novel was set in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt. When the monster wanders through the city, townsfolk beat him away with rocks. To escape this trouble, he leaves the city to live in a nearby forest where he joyously communes with the unbiased company of nature.

In his forest home, the monster becomes fond of a refugee French family. The family have been exiled from their homeland because of the French Revolution and are living in a little cottage in the forest. Though the monster doesn’t dare show his face to them, they nevertheless inspire him with hope. Socially outcast like himself, the family seem to be loving and happy. Perhaps,  the monster thinks to himself, love and happiness might some day visit upon him as well.

Every day, the monster wanders amongst the trees to collect food, laying the bounty secretly at the door of the family’s cottage. The family never discover who their kindly helper is. Maybe a “forest angel,” they conjecture.

Motivated by the creature’s elevation from “monster” to “angel,” we arrive at the following design for future Ingolstadt.

The main feature is a bat-faced noise barrier whose monstrous 3D faces, drawn from the structure of real-life bats, reflect traffic noise pollution back at the cars and trucks moving on the highway. In this way, the forest may remain peaceful.

The Bat-Faced Noise Barrier of Ingolstadt. Illustrated by Alan Marshall and Nanthawan Kaenkaew.

CONCLUSION

These three case study cities of the Literary Method of Urban Design are not fantastic escapes from reality. They are explorations of alternative urban life. The Literary Method expands the toolbox to predict the future of cities and to plan for that future, all the while encouraging the use of wisdom held within the world’s literature.

If none of the stories above seem very relevant to you, you can instead draw inspiration from your own favorite novels or local literature. These works may then help you to creatively pre-vision a design for your own city’s future. And then to forge ahead anew with whatever project you might have to better fit into that future.

(Top image: The future of Birmingham, England set within a restored Forest of Arden, as inspired by William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy As You Like It.)

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Alan Marshall is a scholar in the field of human ecology and he has explored the relationships between “Nature” and “Humanity” from myriad perspectives: philosophical, political and artistic. He’s now engaged with seeking out the potential future relationships between humans and their urban environments through a variety of projects, including The Ecotopia 2121 Project and the Frankencities Project. Dr. Marshall has a BSc (hons) from Wolverhampton University (England), a Masters degree from Massey University (New Zealand) and a doctorate from Wollongong University (Australia). Currently, Marshall is a full-time visiting professor at Mahidol University (Thailand).

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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