Can Toyota Turn Its Utopian Ideal Into a ‘Real City’?

Just as it is every year, the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show was teeming with prototypes of products once thought to be impossible: flying cars, increasingly sophisticated surveillance tools, even a brand new city of the future. That last idea came from Japan’s largest automaker, Toyota, which recently rebranded itself as a “mobility” company with a focus on developing new technology to change the way people move. The company’s latest plan, announced at CES earlier this month, is to build Woven City—a 175-acre high-tech, sensor-laden metropolis—from the ground up, at the bottom of Mount Fuji in Japan.

The project is expected to break ground in 2021 at the site of a soon-to-be-shuttered car factory, and once completed, Woven City would essentially function as a living laboratory for Toyota’s latest smart technologies. As the company envisions it, buildings, vehicles, and humans will talk to each other through all kinds of sensors, and homes will be equipped with AI assistants that monitor everything from people’s trash to their health. Meanwhile, autonomous vehicles like Toyota’s own E-Palettes—a self-driving shuttle that doubles as a mobile retail store—will move people around as robots underground take care of deliveries. To mitigate the city’s climate impact, buildings will be made of wood, which has a smaller carbon impact than concrete, and the entire ecosystem will be powered through hydrogen fuel.

A lot of these new technologies are already in the works in various Toyota labs across the globe. The idea of Woven City, as Toyota president Akio Toyoda described it during a press conference at CES, is to test all the ideas in one place. It’s not unlike University of Michigan’s mock city, M-City, where the auto industry, including Toyota, has invested millions of dollars for autonomous vehicle research. But the ambition of the newly hyped utopia differs in one key aspect: “We considered creating another testing site for autonomy like M-City,” Toyoda said, “…[but] we thought, why not build a real city and have real people live in it?”

If Toyota’s ambition sounds familiar, it’s because the company is not the first to propose building a “real,” breathing city—from scratch—that will also a showcase some of their technology of the future. Disney had that same idea when it built EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) in the ‘60s, and more recently, tech giants Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company), Facebook, and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates have proposed or begun building their own high-tech communities. Even rapper-turned-entrepreneur Akon has aspirations to build a smart city backed by blockchain technology in Senegal.

Toyota’s plan suggests the appetite is growing for tech developers to experiment in “petri dish” environments, says John Jung, founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, a think tank that focuses on the social and economic development of modern cities. “Toyota and these other companies are looking to take advantage of what technology will be able to do for city building,” Jung says.

The upside is that such environments give innovators a blank slate to fast-track the research and development of big ideas without being stalled by all the regulatory hurdles of an existing city. “It would be a chance to collaborate with other business partners and … scientists and researchers to come work on their own projects [for] however long they please,” Toyoda said.

For its vision, Toyota has enlisted architecture firm Bjarke Ingels to take the lead on developing the masterplan, which aims to let pedestrians, cyclists, and cars coexist with one another. The main element is a grid-like design weaving together three types of streets: one designated for autonomous cars, another for lower-speed little vehicles, and a third—a “linear park,” as the architect Bjarke Ingels described it at the conference—just for pedestrians. The city will also have neighborhoods, parks, and a central plaza that serve as recreational and social gathering spaces for residents. The first 2,000 residents are expected to be employees and their families, visiting scientists, industry partners, retailers, and retired couples.

After that, Toyota is relying on the appeal of a “new way of enjoying life” to get people to move in. “If you build it, they will come,” he said at the press conference, quoting a line from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”

In the past, though, that’s been an overly optimistic outlook. Take Songdo in South Korea, one of the earliest “smart cities” built from scratch. Conceived in 2001, developers planned the city around a goal of 300,000 residents. But today Songdo is only a third of the way there, at 100,000 people. And despite lofty promises of a “thriving community,” residents told CityLab last year that they found their city to be cold, lonely, and eerily empty.

In Canada, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs continues to face considerable pushback to its proposal for a new experimental neighborhood from Toronto residents worried about transparency and data privacy. Still, Sidewalk Labs has only continued to expand its smart city ambitions in Toronto.

Critics of these projects point out that technology alone does not make a city. If other core elements of urban planning are not integrated into these plans, it’s not surprising that they won’t be positioned for human habitation, says Jung. “If it’s not started from a human-centric perspective, from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down, these aren’t real cities,” says Jung. “They’re not designed to get [people] to know each other.”

What’s more, Jung and other critics point out that projects focused on showcasing new technology in a vacuum often miss the real, more immediate urban challenges that confront the world’s cities, like pollution, social inequality, and housing insecurity. That Toyota plans to populate its city with people who he says are “signing up” to be part of the experiment also means that the company may not face as much resistance on ethical issues like data privacy.

In his book The Smart Enough City, Harvard researcher Ben Green criticized corporate-run smart cities for having a “narrow vision” that technology is the solution to what cities need to fix. “The persistent desire of technologists to build smart cities from scratch is the strongest indicator that technophiles perceive cities as little more than abstract staging grounds for efficient mobility solutions and service delivery,” he told CityLab in an email.

In his book, Green lays out a vision for the “smart enough city” as an alternative to conceptions like Toyota’s of a “smart city.” “History has told us that the world created under the influence of tech goggles is an undesirable one,” Green writes in his book. “We must instead pursue an alternative vision that bears no imprint of tech goggles. Toyota declined to address questions about these concerns.”

Jung thinks there is still some value in these kind of smart metropolis experiments, as existing cities do want to adopt technology like autonomous vehicles—which automakers are heavily invested in. But they risk being irrelevant “when you design for physical things and you forget the human at the center of it.” After all, he adds, “no city is a utopia.”

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Reviving the Utopian Urban Dreams of Tony Garnier

During the four years he lived at Rome’s Villa Medici as a recipient of the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome, Tony Garnier spent hardly any time on the study of isolated ancient monuments, as was required. Instead, the young architect from Lyon, France, focused his energy from 1899 to 1903 on what would later become his theoretical chef d’oeuvre: a utopian plan for an industrial city.

“If our structure remains simple, without ornament, without molding, bare everywhere, we can then dispose of the decorative arts in all their forms,” he wrote in Une Cité Industrielle (An Industrial City), published as a book in 1917. The book is a detailed collection of avant-garde designs for a socialist city of 35,000 people. This hypothetical city is heavily industrialized and zoned, divided according to four functions: housing, work, leisure, and health. Garnier advocated for the use of concrete in building, as well as the importance of greenery, natural light, and collective social amenities.

An Industrial City was a bridge between the utopian socialism of Charles Fourier and the Garden City idea of Ebenezer Howard, on one side, and Modernist city planning on the other.   

Another view of Garnier’s speculative city of 35,000. (© Musée Urbain Tony Garnier)

In 1919, Garnier received a letter from a young admirer named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who had just encountered An Industrial City. “It is a milestone clearly delimiting a past period and opening up all possible hopes… In ten years, [your book] will be the foundation of all production and be the first rallying sign,” he wrote.  

Today, Garnier is not nearly as well known outside of France as Jeanneret (or Le Corbusier). But “one could say that Garnier is to Lyon what Antoni Gaudí is to Barcelona,” said Catherine Chambon, director of the Tony Garnier Urban Museum, an open-air museum devoted to the architect in Lyon, France’s second-largest city. There’s not a neighborhood in the city where his presence isn’t felt.

This year and into 2020, the city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Garnier’s birth. The Tony Garnier Urban Museum has put up an exhibit; the municipal archives has, too, focusing on the fruitful professional relationship between Garnier and former Mayor Edouard Herriot. The city’s Renaud Foundation will display Garnier’s paintings, drawings, plans, and photographs.

Garnier, a son of canuts or workers in the silk industry, was born in the working-class Croix-Rousse neighborhood of Lyon on August 13, 1869. Growing up in modest conditions where people worked and lived in the same space led Garnier to consider the social aspect of housing from an early age.  

His youth also coincided with a crisis in the textile industry. Small workshops shuttered to make way for big, mechanized factories. With these economic changes came pulmonary illnesses, to which he lost his mother and two aunts. Sanitation and hygiene came to assume great importance in municipal projects during Garnier’s tenure as city architect.

Schooling was not compulsory at the time, but Garnier’s father insisted on educating him. He revealed himself to be a talented student and made it to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After spending four years on scholarship in Rome and one year traveling around the Mediterranean, Garnier returned to his home city. The mayor, Victor Augagneur, gave Garnier his first assignment in 1905: the construction of a municipal dairy. Augagneur then warmly recommended Garnier to his successor, Edouard Herriot.

It is impossible to talk about Garnier’s work without mentioning his decades-long collaboration with Herriot. “Here is a visionary architect dedicated to social progress. And here’s a radical socialist mayor, who has great ambitions for his city in terms of health and housing. They didn’t see eye to eye on all subjects, obviously, but their ideas about Lyon’s future converged,” said Chambon.

Garnier completed about 80 projects over his career, most of them in Lyon. Herriot commissioned what are now seen as hallmarks of the city’s architecture: the popular Halle Tony Garnier, which was originally built as a cattle market and slaughterhouse; the Grange Blanche Hospital, now known as the Edouard Herriot Hospital; and a stadium, the Stade de Gerland.  

The Edouard Herriot Hospital, one of many architectural projects by Garnier around Lyon. (© Noémie Delaire MUTG)

One afternoon in Lyon this past July, Elodie Morel, who works for GrandLyon Habitat, a social-housing management company, pointed me to a five-story building. “Come up,” she said. We visited a sunny two-bedroom apartment with a balcony, overlooking an open space planted with trees. We were at Cité Tony Garnier—a housing estate of 1,500 apartments with 3,000 residents in the Etats-Unis neighborhood.

In the early 20th century, this part of Lyon was neglected, so “the municipality decided to use it for a public housing project for workers in factories nearby,” said Morel. Garnier, an established architect by then, was hired for the job, and finished the estate in 1933. It was a model of social housing with the latest comforts. Every apartment had running water, a gas connection and a toilet, luxuries that were hard to come by in working-class neighborhoods at the time. For the sake of convenience, each building was standardized with only one type of apartment—one, two, three, or four bedrooms—and the buildings were organized in islands served by a network of orthogonal streets and courtyards.  

This new district was as close as Garnier came to his ideal city. “However, he could not include all the public amenities he envisaged, such as a swimming pool and a library,” Chambon noted. “The habitation was also more dense [than he initially planned], owing to economic constraints between the two wars.”

Toward the end of the 20th century, Garnier’s legacy was forgotten even in the housing complex that bears his name. The specter of demolition also loomed, because the buildings were run-down. Long-time residents got together and decided to try to save the estate.

Elsewhere in Lyon, a group of young artists and architects had just established CitéCréation, an initiative to create large-scale urban murals, inspired by Diego Rivera’s work in Mexico. Together, the residents of Cité Tony Garnier, the muralists, and OPAC du Grand Lyon, a social housing company, launched a major rehabilitation project in 1985. Today, there are 25 murals on building walls in the area, drawing thousands of tourists a year. Some of those murals showcase Garnier’s visionary designs.

During a recent walking tour in the neighborhood organized by CitéCréation, a group stood in front of a huge mural. A car slowed down and a man told them: “I live here. I know about these murals.”  Other local residents share his pride in this chronicle of their history and homage to Garnier, who once wrote: “There is enough ideal in the worship of beauty and benevolence to render life splendid.”

‘An Industrial City’ adorns a housing block in the neighborhood that Garnier planned. (CitéCréation)
Garnier himself is depicted in this CitéCréation mural. (CitéCréation, photo © Michel Djaoui)

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In a Dystopian Age, We Need a Revival of Utopian Thinking

Utopia, the work of inventing a better future with the powers of imagination, has never looked so out of reach and yet so urgent.

We live in difficult times. Technology, once heralded as an agent of human liberation, has only brought upon us rampant economic inequality and a dreadful resurgence of fascist filth. Runaway climate change, the bitter fruit of our industry, is consuming forests and melting glaciers and ice caps. Coral reefs are dying; heat waves are desiccating arable lands; cities and islands are drowning. Civilization is staggering on the edge of a precipice.

Our present is dystopian. As for our future—Leonard Cohen, pithy and savage, sang back in 1991, a lifetime ago: “I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder.”

It turns out it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine utopia. And the culprit is science fiction. Science fiction killed utopia. Science fiction failed us.


Nowhere is that failure more glaring than in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, loosely based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It is rightly hailed as a landmark, the prototype of modern dystopia. The movie takes place in a nominal now, in November 2019 in Los Angeles. It depicts a gritty, neo-noir, post-industrial urban landscape strewn with gaudy advertising displays that float in the air. Acid rain pours over street food stalls, and ambiguous androids are in the throes of an existential crisis. There are hints of off-world colonies, not doubt as wretched and insalubrious as Los Angeles.

The entire city has devolved into a sprawling oil refinery, a network of grimy conduits and pipes. It lights up the permanent sooty night with its gas torches and chimneys. Overlooking that derelict, toxic chaos sits the man at the top of the megacorporation, alone with his tremendous powers and his inscrutable schemes-within-schemes.

Blade Runner’s aesthetic of terminal degradation and ecological catastrophe was famously inspired by 1970s Hong Kong. Its influence on subsequent movies, and visual culture writ large, is seminal. No recent work of art has done more to define our imagination of the future city: a squalid, overcrowded, polluted, crepuscular wasteland.

Fredric Jameson once quipped that it is easier to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And so we feast on dystopia (from the Greek for “bad place”), to the point where it has become utterly pedestrian—a dull and repetitive mainstay of science fiction. We experience our everyday discontent with the world as it is through the narrative veil of high-budget nightmares. From Mad Max: Fury Road and The Expanse to The Hunger Games and The Matrix, all these present us with archetypal stories where anomie reigns and where the entire world, and indeed the future, are humanity’s antagonists, humanity’s enemies.

Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, and Jennifer Lawrence in the dystopian The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. (Murray Close/Lionsgate)  

This of course makes for marketable drama because it is the oldest of our myths, humanity’s fall from grace. It is retold and replicated (hence Blade Runner’s “replicants”) in seemingly infinite variations of the same narrative. Different costumes and different gadgets, sequels, and reboots, but the same old Christian apologetics, ad nauseam. The cheap thrills of dystopia work, or at least they entertain; that is, they sell tickets.


Utopia, on the other hand, is a lost art, a practice of the mind lost for lack of exertion. Today, the work of utopia is above all an attempt at recovering that art, to summon from neglect its “spirit,” as German philosopher Ernst Bloch famously called it.

Utopia sprang out of the European Renaissance, when political theorists began to probe the foundations and purpose of society. How should society be organized, and to what end? Should the goal of society be earth-bound justice? And which form of government, Plato’s Republic or Hobbes’s Leviathan, would best serve such noble and beneficial ideals?

Utopian literature flourished at first as a poetic strategy to criticize monarchy. It reached its zenith in the turmoil of the 19th century, with the likes of Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and William Morris. These radical authors attempted to imagine worlds in which the base of society would have changed.

Saint-Simon, a French economist and philosopher, recognized in the 1810s that science and industry would transform society. An “industrial class” would rise, people no longer beholden to aristocratic heritage and therefore free to improve themselves. Robert Owen, a wealthy Scottish industrialist and social reformer, imagined intentional, cooperative communities. In the 1820s he established a commune in New Harmony, Indiana, with free public education for both men and women and collective ownership of factories. (Owen’s experiment foundered, but New Harmony, the town, still exists today.)

Robert Owen’s utopian vision for a radically egalitarian society in New Harmony, Indiana. (Library of Congress)

Fourier’s ideas, along similar lines, led to the creation of several communes in America (for instance, Utopia, Ohio). He envisioned a society organized around passions rather than obligations. In his “phalansteries”—self-contained communities that ideally held several hundred people each—work was supposed to become play and pleasure.

William Morris, an English designer, craftsman, and socialist, described a future classless society in his 1890 classic News From Nowhere (“utopia” means literally “nowhere” in Greek). The book was written in response to Edward Bellamy, the American socialist thinker, who believed that technological progress and industry would bring about harmony and the good life under the tutelage of state ownership of the means of production. (Bellamy’s own novel Looking Backward, published in 1888, was a bestseller in America.) Morris countered that a post-industrial, pastoral stateless future was preferable: Old nation-states would disappear and cities would dissolve into strings of countryside communes where equality, economic and sexual, would finally be realized.

The 19th century was the golden age of utopian imagination. And then, nothing—or almost nothing. Utopian socialism gave way to so-called scientific socialism, under the pointed critique of Marx and Engels; in literature, utopia yielded to science fiction. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville predicted uncannily in Democracy in America, that science fiction would become the dominant art form of bourgeois democracy:

Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be; in this direction their unbounded imagination grows and dilates beyond all measure. … Democracy shuts the past against the poet, but opens the future before him.

You can count on your fingers the major speculative works of the past century that fully embrace a utopian orientation. There are Ursula Le Guin’s novels, the Strugatsky brothers’ sci-fi, and the work of Iain M. Banks. There are also a couple of H.G. Wells’s pulps, Black Panther’s Wakanda, and the Star Trek franchise.

Slim pickings—especially for a genre that purports to explore the future of humankind and that has risen from marginal status to near hegemony in today’s popular entertainment.

When you endeavor to search for the utopias of our times, you seldom find them in movies, prestige TV shows, or sci-fi novels. As utopian imagination deserted speculative literature, it found an unlikely redoubt in architecture and urban planning. Le Corbusier’s Paris plan, for instance, called for razing the city’s historic center in order to replace it with concrete high rises. Corbu’s modernist vision of rationalized, monumental space led to his construction of Chandigarh in India, as well as Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia (to mention the most well-known offspring of his vision).

Today’s utopias draw from that wellspring, but with new materials and new buzzwords. They are surface utopias. You encounter them in the glossy renderings of architectural competitions, smart and radiant cities on paper, sustainable business districts built on reclaimed polders, floating neighborhoods, orbiting space habitats, settlements on Mars or the Moon.

Saudi Arabia’s planned metropolis of Neom on the Red Sea, Lagos’s EKO Atlantic, Malaysia’s Forest City: All these share the same motif. They aim to provide the comforts and amenities of modern life but under extreme conditions. They are tabula rasa cities built on sand—the sand dredged and hauled from the bottom of the sea, or the sand of the burning deserts. They follow Dubai’s model of detached, pelagic luxury chimeras, dug out from seemingly nowhere in the most inhospitable of locales, by the combined miracle of financial leverage and the marshaling of cheap migrant labor.

In intent, these are non-cities, nowhere-cities—the original meaning of utopia—without any of the roots, any of the challenges, or any of the rewards of actual cities. They are climate-controlled and Instagram-ready. They are safe and they are clean. They could be located on another planet, on Mars even, because in a way they are, ringed and covered by invisible and yet very tangible protective domes. They erase all the frictions, the institutions and the worldly powers that will them into existence.

It tells you something that when the most avowedly utopian franchise in modern entertainment, Star Trek, decided to showcase a future city in space (in 2016’s Star Trek Beyond), it shot the exteriors in … Dubai.

These are the cities of the future that powerful monarchs and billionaire entrepreneurs dream of. They are erected on new, virginal ground. They elide what Rem Koolhas once evocatively called “junkspace”—the accumulated layers of (built) environments, weathered, eroded, and transformed by time, by usage, by life. On the surface, they are the opposite of Blade Runner’s dystopian 2019 Los Angeles. And yet.


Despite science fiction’s failure at imagining a future worth living for, the city remains the starting point and the contested terrain of today’s utopia. For the first time in the history of our species, a majority of humanity lives in urban areas. Demographic projections suggest that by 2050, more than two-thirds of us will live in cities. Conurbations and megalopolises are the future of our civilization. The utopias of yore used to be more Arcadian, like William Morris’s arts-and-crafts communes. It seems to me that today’s utopia, to be a useful engine for political imagination, must leave Arcadia behind and embrace the city.

Copenhagen’s anarchist commune, Freetown Christiania, offers a possible alternative. It started out as a squat in the early 1970s, when the so-called “Provos”—countercultural provocateurs—occupied vacant military barracks. It quickly became a focal point for the local art scene, attracting freaks and hippies eager to experiment with new ways of urban life.

The urban commune of Christiania in the 1970s. (Ritzau Scanpix/Steen Jacobsen/via Reuters)

This was not so much adaptive reuse as creative reuse. Christiania banned cars and built its own school, bakery, and cafes. Although it had to contend with some of the blight and difficulties of modernity (such as drug trafficking and tourism), it remained a self-governing, intentional community until the 2000s, when it was gradually “normalized” under Danish law. It has had a lasting and broad influence. Christianian ideals of low-impact sustainability and playful, recycled urban spaces—the “slow city,” as in “slow food”—are now mainstream.  

What made Christiania uniquely utopian was not so much the built environment as the distribution of political power in its midst. It stood as a counter-model to top-down real-estate development. The inhabitants themselves decided collectively—and oftentimes after long and contentious debates—on how their sliver of city would live and grow. In Freetown Christiania, at least for a few decades, utopia was not a place or a glossy plan but an everyday, egalitarian praxis. It was free from the yoke of traditional land and building ownership: The old barracks were abandoned public infrastructure, a disused, liminal space, a terrain vague as we call it in French.

The terrain vague delineates urban spaces that have been emptied not so much of people but of their original, intended function and semantic weight. It is made up of what has been rendered obsolete. Abandoned, it can thus can be reinvented and reinvested with new meaning. The terrain vague is up for grabs, up for recycling. Urban growth and social dislocations constantly generate new terrains vagues, almost like skin peeling off.

I believe that the terrain vague is the point of departure for today’s utopia, both as a work of imagination and as a practical, lived, political process, as a deliberation. The experiment of Christiania demonstrated that it is where the future is invented, much more surely than in the autocratic, climate-controlled towers of surface utopias. Any prologue to a re-enchantment of the future requires that we re-occupy and re-adapt disused spaces—both the concrete spaces and the imaginary, intellectual ones.

It is time to lay claim to the ruins of science fiction, to give birth to a better future.  

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