First written by Sir Thomas More in the 16th Century, the word ‘utopia’ was created out of the Greek word ou-topos meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’, and was simultaneously a pun on an identical word eu-topos which meant, ‘a good place’. Over the centuries, many variations of this perfect imaginary world have emerged from thinkers, writers, and even idealists who have attempted to build it into reality.
A philosophy sits at the core of each variation of utopia that have been attempted. Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier have proposed entire towns organised along modernist principles with Chandigarh being the one that got built. Biosphere 2 proposed the idea of living in a completely enclosed, entirely self-sufficient system which included its own food production capabilities alongside air, water and waste recycling systems. And if one is in search of a feminist utopia, there is Herland, a place imagined by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1915 where the absence of the male species has led to a world with “no war, no crime, no hunger, no waste, no vanity, no jealousy, no heartbreak”.
What would a place created and run by youths be like? What would it look like? How would it function?
In 2019, Singapore’s Ministry of Community, Culture, and Youth (MCCY) commissioned an extensive public engagement and co-creation exercise to imagine the youth precinct known as the Somerset Belt. A variety of engagement methods including a design sprint, live idea prototypes, and community pop-ups were conducted to inform the eventual placemaking masterplan. Led by consultants, supported by civil servants, and co-created with a sampling of youths across the island, this may not have been a traditional ‘masterplan’ but was still a few degrees short of a utopia.
The academic exercise offers a path to get closer to the elusive land. Youths armed with some domain knowledge offers a unique mix of depth and innocence to explore alternate thinking; a semester offers time and space for exploration; and the suspension of some commercial and political realities releases the shackles on ideas. This publication shows the results of the exercise. But what if we could go even further?
Imagine a precinct, completely run by youths. Where all decisions including technical, financial, and operational matters, are decided by youths. Imagine an urban area, perhaps sandboxed from the rest of its neighbours, that is regulated and managed in any way that the youths saw fit without fear of their political capital or career trajectories. Imagine a place that repels non-youths by design. “Carparks? We don’t need carparks since we don’t drive.” “No busking, no skating, no smoking zones? Let’s have no rules zone instead!” “Finance? We’re all broke anyway so lets launch an ICO (Initial Coin Offering) and run the entire precinct on our own cryptocurrency!” “No more paternalistic government youth support schemes! Yes to mutual aid communities!”
This utopia for youth, or as this academic studio calls it youth-topia, sounds impossible, dangerous, and slightly perverse. Such a precinct would probably be chaotic and even resemble anarchy, but what if utopia looks like that for the youths? What if a place truly for youths is just like being in that life stage: confusing and strange? Can we accept that utopia? Or even if we don’t understand nor accept it, could we allow our youths to have that space for themselves?
While people-centred approaches to city-making such as participatory design and placemaking have come to the fore in recent years, this post-2020 world will demand more from citymakers. Beyond the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, we are also facing a shifting social, political, and technological paradigm. Ideas such as lab-grown meat, blockchain systems, and universal basic income have gone from fringe concepts to impending realities, and yet most of our cities across the world is still fundamentally capitalistic in nature and controlled by a few. Perhaps academic exercises like Youth-topia is where we can examine the recalibration of the power dynamics in our built environment. Perhaps this is where we can harness our optimism and creativity to make a utopia for youth more eu-topos than ou-topos. It may be nothing more than a mental or academic exercise today, but as Rutger Bregman writes, ”Every progressive milestone of civilization — from the end of slavery to the beginning of democracy — was once considered a utopian fantasy.”
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This essay was written for a Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) studio publication that explored Somerset Belt as a potential site. Details of the design studio, the students’ projects, and publication featuring other contributions can be found here.