The Literary Method of Urban Design

July 23, 2016

After years of research, and countless field-trips to cities around the world, and after imagining and re-imagining again and again how cities may change to become Green Utopias, the book of the Ecotopia 2121 project was finally released  in 2016 (exactly 500 years since Thomas More published his famed 'Utopia' book).



Ecotopia 2121 contains 100 full-color pics of real geographical cities, as they would appear if they were to become super-ecofriendly by the year 2121. It's a book eminently suitable for social activists and eco-practitioners alike; as well students and scholars and professionals in urban studies, environmental studies, social studies, design studies, future studies, and literary studies. 


However, I'm thinking that just a quick gaze at the cover artwork may well prompt many to ask  "Are you serious, Dr. Marshall, or is this fiction?" My answer (to both parts of this question) is 'YES!' 


By 'YES!' I mean I seek to advance two guiding principles about literary fiction, future studies, and scholarship:


A) literary fiction is useful in design scholarship since it offers scholars alternative pathways to novel ideas/practices.

B) the future is a useful conceptual tool for social studies and urban planning since it is on the cusp between reality and the alternative.


For those scholars looking for more, maybe I should outline the research and teaching methodology for the Ecotopia 2121 project -- which was a four step process:


-1) an investigation into the environmental problems of 100 chosen cities,


-2) an investigation into the socio-cultural background of these 100 chosen cities,


-3) an investigation into how  ALL the social and environmental problems of these 100 chosen cities can be resolved by the year 2121AD,


-4) an investigation into the way these 100 chosen cities can be graphically illustrated as ‘Green Utopias’.


The literary and art history scholars among you will be intrigued to learn that as these investigations proceeded into written and graphic form, the literary techniques utilized by Thomas More in his 500 year old book 'Utopia' also came to the fore as I composed Ecotopia 2121. Thus, Ecotopia 2121 is filled with as much satire and comedy as it is with urban design and urban ecology. 


Now, I'm not sure if the methods and principles of the Ecotopia 2121 project can be classified as a success or not from a scholarly angle but I do think that they might offer up an interesting way for urban design and urban ecology to be pursued (in either the classroom or in future research projects). This 'interesting way' can be called the 'Literary Method of Urban Design''. It comprises four steps, too:


1) Choose a  favorite novel (Yes, this is easy for arts students but not-so-easy, I believe, for architecture, landscape ecology, or urban design students),


2) Design an urban plan for any chosen city based on that novel,


3) Investigate which elements of the resulting urban plan are desirable and/or undesirable, and why,


4) Identify which cities in the world possess--or may soon possess--these desirable and undesirable elements.


Ecotopia 2121 was the first iteration of this process; a test-case if you will, using Thomas More's book 'Utopia' to investigate 100 geographically real cities in the world today.


Since 2016, though, I've been researching a second test-case, choosing Mary Shelley's novel 'Frankenstein' as the guiding text.  So now I'm conducting research  into the urban settings of the future that will express the acknowledged themes of 'Frankenstein' (themes such as alienation, monstrosity, horror, abandonment and technological hubris).  For preliminary results, see this article in the Urban Transcripts Journal or see this article in The Conversation or see this Frankencities website, as well as this movie below:






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