Photo credit, reproduced with permission from Unholy Vault Designs and A. Marshall, 2016.

Journeys towards Ecotopia 2121

Imagining how our cities will evolve in the 22nd century gives food for thought on their sustainability

This year, 2016, marks the 500th anniversary of an iconic idea—that of utopia. Thomas More, an English statesman, published his book ‘Utopia’ about a mysterious and faraway ideal island-nation. In celebration of its half-millennium birthday, the book Ecotopia 2121, will be released exactly 500 years after More’s Utopia was published. The exact publication date of Utopia is not precisely known but it was sometime in the late autumn of 1516. Ecotopia 2121 is a graphic artwork exhibition of 100 future Green cities from around the world. The artwork is then interpreted through 100 original stories that detail each city’s transformation into a super-ecofriendly utopia by the year 2121.

From Utopia to Ecotopia

Some historians believe Thomas More’s Utopia was inspired by European explorers, like Christopher Columbus and Vespucci Amerigo, who brought back tales from the New World. These included stories about the social forms of American native tribes. Other historians believe Utopia was just a parody of life in England under King Henry VIII. This probably explains why he published the book in the Latin language, in Belgium. Eventually, Thomas More had angered Henry VIII one too many times about the need to obey the dictates of the Pope in Rome. His head eventually ended on a pike on the London Bridge.

Yet, the idea of Utopia has survived for over five centuries. It has now flourished into an endearing concept, albeit a little too radical for some, in the world of arts and literature, as well as in philosophy and politics. In this vein, I like to think of Ecotopia 2121 as a book radical in its imagination and radically Green. It offers myriad alternative visions for the future of the world’s cities – emphasising both social development and technological change.

The work ‘Ecotopia 2121’ showcases cities near and familiar but also many exotic and faraway. Some of the cities may even sound fictitious: El Dorado, is included, for example, along with Timbuktu, Xanadu and Shangri-La. All of these cities actually exist. The colorful nature of the book is best explained by taking the example of a city from Ecotopia 2121, which incidentally is the city where Utopia, the original 1516 book, was born. This city is Leuven in Belgium.

Sustainable city of Leuven 2121

The story of Leuven in 2121 starts with a question about revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara and Aung San Suu Kyi. Why are there no photographs of these revolutionaries eating cabbage? One theory suggests that children who positively refuse to eat their cabbage go on to become great revolutionaries. Let me explain in greater details.

In the ecofriendly age of the 22nd Century, it will probably be considered impolite to insult any green organism. But let’s face it, for children all over Europe, cabbage is still likely to be regarded as one of the vilest foodstuffs in the entire universe. Just a small whiff of cabbage bubbling fetidly away in a cooking pot will likely make future kids gag just as it does today. Despite this, cabbage seems to remain a popular dish in northern Europe.

One theory for this strange circumstance is the use of cabbage as a parenting tool. Most children would happily go through the whole week obeying their parents’ every whim just so they could be allowed the one misdemeanour of not eating their cabbage at dinner time. Something great revolutionaries refuse to subject themselves to. Thus, this could explain why no photographs exist of Lenin, Guevara and Suu Kyi eating cabbage.

But of course, as people mature, a taste for cabbage is often acquired. In the Belgian city of Leuven 2121, they have turned cabbage into an art form as the city promotes itself to be the ‘Winter Vegetarian Capital of the World’. Every winter day is classed as a Veggie Day, where restaurants and schools serve vegetarian meals. Cabbage is the ‘queen of vegetables’ in this season. It is also a darling of ‘sustainable food’ since cabbage production does not require heated glasshouses–it quite likes cooler climates. What’s more, if you don’t mind eating it with a few insect bites in it, cabbage does not require pesticides to grow. Finally, cabbage can also be grown wild to add to the biodiversity of the Leuven cityscape. Maybe, by 2121, it will be a plant considered worthy of monumental regard in cities like Leuven.

Word view of sustainability

Leuven is just one city, of course. And in a world suffering from a global environmental crisis, the good ecological deeds of single cities may be of little global significance. However, the Ecotopia 2121 project–and the book of the same name–tells stories about 100 different cities, with 100 pieces of artwork, across all seven continents. Some of the stories and artworks are much more serious and scientific than that portrayed here for Leuven.

Arguably, when dealing with cities and societies so far into the future, there needs to be at least a little touch of the fantastic involved. But even in the more fantastic scenarios, there is an attempt to convey the way diverse cities can potentially adapt their local customs and knowledge to help make their small part of the globe more sustainable.

Many researchers exhibit trepidation about making projections for very long-term futures. However, most of us would admit that one thing is for sure: eventually the 22nd century will roll around. And, at that time, cities will still be a popular form of social organisation. Indeed, some projections cast humanity to be 80 percent urbanised by the end of this century. So, it is not a waste of time to think about their futures; even though readers will not likely be around to see it. In exploring our ideas of future cities, we bring into sharp focus our own assumptions about better tomorrows for humanity. And we can then go on to debate these prospective futures, via science, via social science, or via politics, as needs be.

Alan Marshall

Alan is a Lecturer in the environmental social science program of Mahidol University, Thailand. His research for the Ecotopia 2121 project, and for other environmental projects, has seen him work at universities and institutes all over Europe, Asia and Australasia.

Featured image credit: reproduced with permission from Unholy Vault Designs and A. Marshall, 2016. Image inserted within the text: Utopia Map (by H. Holbein, 1516).

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