California Forever is an American 21st-century utopian vision, a new city to be built on 60,000 acres of dusty farmland 50 miles outside San Francisco. This latest plan for ‘safe, walkable neighbourhoods’, unveiled late last year and yet to be approved, is financed by Flannery Associates, a consortium of tech venture capitalists led by a former Goldman Sachs trader. Despite its ultra-modern backers, California Forever looks nothing like a modern city. Its promotional material is pure English nostalgia, something close to Metroland, with dreamlike vistas, charming streets, rowing boats, bicycles, sunrises and endless trees. If renderings are to be believed, the future is Blytonesque.
This idyll is the latest expression of a seemingly universal hankering for urban life that looks and feels like country life, rooted in nature and magically free from pollution, noise and chaos. California Forever’s artistic renderings came too late for Des Fitzgerald’s The City of Today is a Dying Thing. But they support his premise that this yearning for ‘green cities’ represents ‘a collective anxiety’ about the near future mixed with sentiment and unfocused nostalgia.
Green cities, Fitzgerald suggests, are often contradictory and an impossible fantasy. They are little more than a salve to the horrors of impending ecological disaster: what the Financial Times journalist Alexandra Heal has called ‘fighting climate change with saplings’. Fitzgerald is a professor of social sciences and medical humanities at University College, Cork. His style is spirited and outspoken, poking fun at the absurdity of received opinion, mad initiatives and confused policies with energy and charm. He writes in the style of pro-urbanists such as John Grindrod and Barnabus Calder, both of whom have drawn general readers into debates about architecture and cities which many would prefer to be left to insiders.