In the evolving campaign to combat climate change, big and bold solutions are increasingly easy to find, from the conceptual “water smart city” and ecologist Allan Savory’s vision for greening the world’s deserts to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to turn part of Governors Island into a “living laboratory” for climate research. Oyster reef restoration is occurring at nearly every critical junction along the eastern seaboard, from Florida to Maine. These are worthy efforts, and yet, when considered collectively, the onus for solving our climate crisis is being left largely to municipal governments and private actors, making most solutions piecemeal, at best. The success of one approach has little to no correlation with that of another. But what happens when all related solutions can be applied within a single, controlled ecosystem, when environmentalism and urbanism are not at odds, but working in concert? Enter the experimental city.
A half-century ago, the environmental movement entered the modern era with a sense of urgency. “Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity?” wrote Rachel Carson. “Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?” As the movement grew, anarchist factions of the mainstream—led by the likes of Edward Abbey and Earth First!—promoted hands-off approaches so extreme that their isolationist and anti-urban subtext wasn’t too hard to infer. Cities were considered the source of all our problems: vice, pollution, overpopulation, you name it. The era of urban renewal pitted Robert Moses on one side and Jane Jacobs on the other, fighting over the basic principles of urban development and preservation. On the fringes of that fight, a different breed of urban thinker emerged, one who saw solutions to our environmental woes simultaneously embedded in efforts to make our cities not just better but designed anew.
As it happens, my adopted state of Minnesota was once home to two experimental cities that should be on the minds of the building community, climate activists, and governments alike.
Athelstan Spilhaus was a futurist, inventor, and syndicated comic strip artist. From his post as dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology, in the 1960s, Spilhaus conceived of a new kind of city, modular and self-sustaining, to be located on a 60,000-acre swath of unincorporated land in Aitkin County, Minnesota, roughly 87 miles west of Duluth. His Minnesota Experimental City (MXC) would have been a shining example of intergenerational education, clean energy, and efficient mobility. It would be a malleable proving ground for new technologies, demonstrating in real time, what could be accomplished when the soundest principles of urbanism and environmentalism were spliced within a functional urban core.
The MXC presaged things like carbon capture and sequestration systems and integrated internet of things (IoT) solutions. Recycling, circularity, and reversible design would have been standard, and nary a combustible engine would be allowed within city limits. There was also a fair bit of planning and schematic work that went into this place, from envisioning a subterranean utilities network and intracity mass-transit system to mandating strict limits of the amount of land that could be paved over. The real genius of Spilhaus’ city, however, wasn’t to be found in any specific vision of the future, but in a future that could naturally beget other futures.
While the MXC was taking shape, a conservationist and Minnesota state senator named Henry T. McKnight was planning a more modest version of an experimental city, but in many ways no less ambitious. The planned community of Jonathan, Minnesota, located 30 miles southwest of Minneapolis, was envisioned as a “Work, Play, Live” alternative to the kind of poorly regulated sprawl that was by then commonplace, and that eventually placed enormous strain on the natural environment. Largely modeled after the “radical suburb” of Reston, Virginia, which itself was modeled after Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept, Jonathan’s communal village plan included a high-density core where businesses and services would be centered, and lower-density residential pockets along the outskirts. Modest backyards were interconnected to a community greenway, walkability was prioritized, architecture and the landscape existed in balance. But building an idyllic community of 50,000 residents, especially one situated beyond the outer suburban rings, required attracting middle-class families and young professionals, with more than visions of harmonious urbanism.
Integral to the Jonathan plan was affordability and a diversity of housing types, including everything from single-family and multifamily units to modular housing, stacked prefab structures, and an intricate apartment complex built into the trees. McKnight also wanted Jonathan to be a tech hub. He envisioned belt-driven sidewalks and emissions-free cars, a mass-transit rail line connecting the town center to the Twin Cities, and a proto-internet for the free exchange of community information. For a time, some of this worked out. In 1970, Jonathan was the first new community selected by HUD for financial assistance as part of the National Urban Policy and New Community Development Act. Homes got built. People moved in. Over time, though, it proved too difficult to lure urbanites as well as rural residents to live in a half-built city of the future. By 1978, HUD had foreclosed on the town, which eventually was annexed by the exurb town of Chaska.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the documentary film about MXC, The Experimental City, it should still come as no surprise to learn that, unlike the town of Jonathan, Spilhaus’ city never broke ground. And while that’s owed to a litany of political and economic factors, the fact is, deep down most people aren’t interested in the prospect of living in some version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City or under a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. Utopias, by definition, can never be, and even if that weren’t true, no one wants to be imprisoned inside what amounts to an elaborate social experiment, no matter how well intentioned. Still, the examples of MXC and Jonathan are worth re-examining, especially when considering the gravity of our climate emergency.
In the sage words of Edward Mazria, “The time for half measures and outdated targets is over if we are to stop the irreparable destruction of our cities, towns, and natural environments.” Interestingly, our current predicament isn’t some reckoning over a lack of bold ideas and concrete solutions. Far from it. It’s a reckoning with our political will (or lack thereof) and inability to take decisive action.
We shouldn’t pine too much for past attempts at utopia, whether it’s LBJ’s Great Society or the New Towns movement. Urbanism doesn’t need its own MAGA moment. That said, I would sooner see the burning of fossil fuels banned outright by government decree tomorrow than I would my local town council announce a community composting program. Both are great, but only one takes dead aim at the problem. If only more states and counties, super-injected with government funds and sound guidance from the building community, chose to pursue holistic experimental city models, then just imagine what future disasters may be avoided.
Featured image: The Experimental City model, via ArchDaily.