Rosemary Wakeman's ambitious book Practicing Utopia explains how the new town movement, which played a major role in regional growth strategies in the West, became a transnational movement during its golden age of 1945 to 1975. Wakeman notes in her introduction that she consciously resists any ultimate definition of what constitutes a new town because meaning must be dependent on the specifics of time and place. Her aim is to explore why the new town became “such a powerful talisman of the future” (17). To answer this question, she states, she will not provide a survey of new towns or physical descriptions of such towns, but instead will dissect these “visionary dreamscapes” intellectually (17). This contradicts the title of her book, which refers to illusionary utopia implemented in practice. It is regarding that practice, carried out by an international network of experts with a variety of institutional support in housing, urban design, and infrastructure development, that Wakeman's book is particularly illuminating. Failing to provide a tight definition of the new town movement allows Wakeman to cast her net far and wide, drawing in an astounding number of examples.

New towns were capital- and infrastructure-intensive megaprojects requiring mass state investments; exported to former colonies, they became pawns in the Cold War politics of containment; as instruments of postwar reconstruction, they were deployed to address the housing crisis, the congestion of inner cities, and the nightmare of sprawl; they were assets to the military–industrial complex, located next to sites of steel and oil production, mineral extraction, energy production, and aircraft manufacture, as well as near massive ports. In short, the construction of new towns was essential to national and international prosperity and development around the globe.

The book is organized into two parts: the first discusses the original ideology of the new town movement from 1945 to the 1960s, and the second dissects how the movement became enthralled with cybernetics and systems thinking in the 1960s and 1970s. The first three chapters are the strongest, as their case studies focus on welfare state investment policies. The argument of the last three chapters, which present a grab bag of cases vaguely linked to concepts of cybernetics, is less convincing. Wakeman makes little of the fact that master planning, at least in the Western world, became increasingly problematic in the 1970s, when it was attacked for requiring unnecessary governmental intervention and social control.

The first chapter reviews well-known Anglo-American characters such as Ebenezer Howard, Sir Patrick Geddes, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, Raymond Unwin, Clarence Perry, and Clarence Stein, some of whom developed the British model of new towns as a tool of regional development and exported it to other European countries, mostly before World War II. Chapter 2 discusses the implementation of such regional plans after the war. It raises the issue of “the futurology of the ordinary”—an allusion to the British man in the street who fought and won World War II and who deserved a better home and good employment when he returned home. After long years of war, the development of new towns integrated with a modernized industrial base was the accepted method for returning society to the human scale of integrated and balanced community life and for fostering a national industrial recovery. The British model of new towns linked to modernized industries was soon exported to Australia, Canada, the United States, Scandinavia, the Soviet Union, Poland, Ceylon, Ethiopia, and even Hong Kong—each place appending its own interpretation.

Chapter 3 follows the exportation of the new town model—this time as the catalyst for Walter Rostow's “take-off theory” of economic development. The United Nations used new towns as a method for resettling refugees in Palestine and Pakistan; in Malaysia, new towns served as a containment tool to stop the spread of communism; in Iraq, India, and elsewhere, they offered a community development technique for replacing informal settlements. A new network of experts and institutions developed—national town planning organizations, the Ford Foundation, the UN's Technical Assistance Administration and Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, and teams of Western consultants all spread the word around the globe about rationally planned new towns and regional development.

Chapter 4 provides a summary of cybernetics and systems analysis for atomic-age cities of the 1960s, including the RAND Corporation's research into linear and dynamic programming as well as methods such as location analysis and models projecting transportation corridors linked to land-use needs. The Soviets also developed secret cybernetic cities and deployed systems methodology to plan regional development and new towns in Poland and East Germany.

Chapter 5 covers the full blossoming of new town development based on systems logic applied to land-use planning. In the late 1960s, Britain embarked on a new wave of new town construction, locating these settlements along the nation's expanding motorway system. France also built new towns in the suburbs of its major cities. India constructed 112 such towns, while the United States embarked on a program of model cities and new communities. Even private real estate developers joined the movement, constructing the new towns of Reston, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland.

Chapter 6 summarizes the architectural avant-garde of the 1960s, whose members dreamed of megastructures and built Brutalist structures in space-age towns. These architects developed comprehensive master plans for Tehran and Paris, as well as other French cities. By now, however, utopian planning was becoming unpopular, and the new town movement was beginning to wane.

The book's concluding essay briefly examines new town policy after the oil crisis of 1973 put the final nail in the movement's coffin. The Middle East became and remains a laboratory for new town development, however, and ecotopias in the twenty-first century have given the movement a new lease on life in parts of the developing world.

Wakeman claims that in its golden age, the new town movement was an attitude, part erudition or rational planning techniques, part magical thinking, that was widely shared within international planning culture. It was based on assumptions about progress being good and the future perfectible. Not intending to offer a comprehensive survey, Wakeman nevertheless brings together many varied and complicated exemplars of the new town movement. Like all utopias, they have dystopic sides, which appear in flashes throughout the book. New towns linked to regional development ran into opposition from municipal authorities who preferred better housing within inner cities. Many saw the promotion of new towns as urban Shangri-las as high-octane propaganda for lucrative real estate deals. Because new towns were planned from top to bottom, with future inhabitants having no say in the design, some became alienating, isolating places that were vandalized and destroyed. Their undoing was that they tried to address too many evils of urban life, not to mention that they were too socialistic, too costly, and too controlled.

In spite of Wakeman's impressive understanding of the new town movement, it was a practical model exported to so many places, with so many different typologies and contradictory legacies, that a treatment of the movement requires careful delineation of differences and definitions. By focusing on a descriptive survey of the new town movement, Wakeman forgoes a deeper political and economic analysis. She offers little about the economics of land acquisition, costs of materials, and infrastructure that determined the success or failure of many new towns. Typological distinctions that affected acceptance or rejection—new towns based on traditional patterns of existing towns, new towns built on megacity platforms and Brutalist architecture, new towns constructed with uniform housing blocks and little transportation connection—also receive little discussion. Further, the topics of intended population groups and the politics of social reform and racial segregation are not explored.

Wakeman gives only slight attention to a few critical theorists. She mentions Karl Popper's argument that utopian social engineering is unachievable and that attempts to achieve it simply extend the power and control of the state.1 A full discussion of Popper's position is never presented, however; Wakeman misses an opportunity to elaborate his argument into a neoliberal critique of the welfare state and one of the reasons the new town movement died in the 1970s. Henri Lefebvre's extensive “Notes on the New Town,” in which he delivers a sharp and detailed critique, is reduced to a few lines emphasizing his ambivalent praise.2 For many the new town movement was a colossal mistake and a gigantic waste of money. Built on yesterday's dreams rather than on present-day needs, the concept of a balanced, self-contained community designed as a whole from the start was theoretically untenable and practically extravagant.

New towns were judged to be antiurban gestures, more in keeping with suburban ideals. They offered a picture of happiness and comfort—maybe an oversimplification, but the idea made sense to many ordinary people, who wanted to see what their towns would look like. Modern architects did indeed fail to offer them an alternative picture comparable in realism, vividness, and simplicity to the one they loved. Wakeman's book would have benefited from including some of these criticisms and accounts of new towns’ successes and failures, offering readers a better understanding of how to judge the contemporary rebirth of the new town movement in the twenty-first century.


Wakeman cites Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), chap. 3; and Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 5th ed., vol. 1 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966), 168.
Henri Lefebvre, “Notes on the New Town” (April 1960), in Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 1995).