‘News from Nowhere? Sustainable urban development, resilience and utopia’ by Drs Idalina Baptista, David Howard and Johanna Waters


Snakeshead printed cotton designed by William Morris (1876) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Morris’s fantasy utopian novel, News from Nowhere, set at the turn of the 22nd century, has been heralded as a ‘manual’ for sustainable living, community building and societal progress. Irrespective of locality or region, Morris sets out the development goals for a socialist society in a revolutionary millennium that places the individual as central to the collective good. The significance and influence of News from Nowhere (1891) is thus not bounded by the Thames Valley in which his socialist vision evolves, but reflects more substantively on globalisation and urban development.

The text forms the starting point for a forthcoming panel at the annual Development Studies Association conference during which we will set our current research initiatives within this broad and controversial framework. The panel addresses themes of sustainable urban development, resilience and utopia, and assesses the relevance of that utopian vision today, taking examples of new empirical research in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia as potential benchmarks for a global development agenda. Three papers by Idalina Baptista, Jo Waters and David Howard, all Associate Professors with the Sustainable Urban Development Programme at Oxford, tackle the wider themes of energy supply, shelter, education and poverty, reflecting on Morris’s controversial ruminations, resilience and libertarian socialism in order to reconsider his ideas, and ideals, in the context of 21st century global development concerns.

As the Millennium Development Goals – the overall focus of the conference – sought to confront inequalities, poverty, poor housing and labour conditions, Morris too presented a foresight not just of the localities of an urbanising rich country, but questioned contemporary practices and charted new trajectories for uprooting gender inequalities, introducing fair labour practices, and widening access to affordable housing and education opportunities, which collectively mapped out a polycentric and decentralized form of living. Emerging out of the negative consequences of rapid urbanisation and capital accumulation, News from Nowhere presented a radical, aspatial and yet globally-rooted forethought for ‘modernity’, mixing progressive as well as arguably myopic perspectives on human livelihoods and living conditions.

Idalina Baptista is presenting a paper on ‘Infrastructure provision and the future of sustainable urban development in African cities’ in which she explores the contention that Africa’s infrastructure ‘crisis’ serves often as an anchor point for dystopian views of urban livelihoods in the continent. Her discussion reflects on these dystopian views of unsustainable urban development in light of Morris’s ideas by examining the usefulness of Abdou Maliq Simone’s idea of ‘people as infrastructure’. In particular, the paper examines the emerging practice of prepaid electricity provision in Sub-Saharan Africa as a potential pragmatic and progressive solution to the uncertainty and provisionality that underlies the urban livelihoods of low-income households. She draws on ongoing research in Maputo, Mozambique, where prepayment is now the default means of accessing electricity for the city’s population. The paper examines this case in relation to Morris’s controversial vision of libertarian socialism to discuss the possibilities for energy justice, security and sustainability in highly informalised and poorly resourced urban contexts.

‘Credentialism and the role of transnational education in ‘building’ sustainable cities’ is the title of the talk to be given by Jo Waters. She examines the role that transnational higher education (TNE) is playing in creating an ‘educated’ workforce within contemporary Hong Kong, discussing the differential value attached to different Higher Education credentials (‘domestic’ credentials, those obtained ‘overseas’, and those delivered by overseas universities but delivered locally to local students). The paper draws on the findings of a recent ESRC-funded qualitative project, as well as her previous doctoral work, and argues that there is a distinct hierarchy of credentials, attached to particular sectors of the labour market. TNE graduates subsequently find that they are shut out of the most desirable jobs, whilst those educated overseas are well-placed to secure sought-after positions within the private sector. This has consequences for how graduates see themselves and for how they are seen and valued by wider society. This link between education, status and the value of labour is thoroughly explored, and upturned by Morris in his work, who would have had much to say about the consequences for Hong Kong’s vision of itself (a top-down vision) as a highly educated, knowledge-based society.

Finally, David Howard questions resilience-thinking, in particular drawing on perspectives from his current research in Kingston, Jamaica. Resilience as a development goal and seldom-critiqued concept is challenged in this paper, in which the interconnections between urbanism and socially sustainable development policy and practice are assessed. Pursuing William Morris’s critique of profit-driven development and the failure of globalising market conditions to facilitate sustainable, humane and productive livelihoods, his ethnographic research in downtown Kingston forms the empirical basis to explore the notions of resilience and vulnerability. Both concepts are widely promoted as being inherent to ideas of sustainable urban development, yet are often uncritically used to refer to a built environment or urban society, without exploring the notion that low-income populations, and not least individuals, may not be resilient, may not wish to become resilient to enforced poverty, and remain vulnerable under current neoliberal economic policies and forms of governance. The main focus of the paper will be to analyse the renewed emphasis on formalising housing tenure in low-income neighbourhoods as a means of releasing capital for residents to gain access to basic services, such as water and electricity, which are increasingly delivered by public-private partnerships.

Martin Neubert, a DPhil candidate on the Sustainable Urban Development Programme at Oxford, was also planning to join MSUD members to discuss his research on land tenure in Polynesia, charting the transition from communitarian to individual ownership. William Morris proposes an anti-hierarchical system, shaped by the decentralised and common ownership of the means of production, including land. Land ownership and household tenure similarly lie at the heart of understanding urban development in the Pacific islands. Martin’s research addresses the relevance of sustainable urbanism in the context of small island developing states, focusing on the island of Tonga and the capital of Mu’a, and in particular re-evaluates ideas of kinship, tenure and household livelihoods in the central historic neighbourhood of Lapaha. Land and the means of production are commonly owned and managed in many Pacific islands, of which Tonga is no exception. At the same time, many Polynesian island societies are shaped by rigid social hierarchies, exhibiting clearly set boundaries for communitarian systems, which govern land tenure and use. Arguably, this dualism is about to be reversed: the communitarian part of Morris’s utopia, which has prevailed in Polynesia for centuries, is now reversed to a capitalist understanding and handling of land as a commodity. At the same time, the hierarchical control systems within this communitarian system are being replaced by democratic, anti-hierarchical and individualistic forms of social organisation. Among the results becoming evident are rising individual land ownership, increasing numbers of vacant plots and a growing, speculative land market. While gaining one part of Morris’s utopia, the island societies are arguably losing another. The wider project, incorporating empirical research in Tonga and Samoa, questions the relevance of sustainability in the context of improving welfare conditions for small island societies that have become dependent on a world economic system reliant on commodity exchange and trade. Incorporating a combination ethnographic research and plot-specific discussions with local focus groups, and documenting land use from archival and satellite imagery, the wider research project analyses the transition from communitarian to individual land tenure over the last decade.

Outwith the conference world, Morris’ work is also part of a new exhibition, Anarchy and Beauty, which heralds his contribution to socialist, or one might provocatively suggest communist, approaches to balancing art, labour and love. The conference and exhibition combined promise a thoughtful and busy time ahead.

Dr Idalina Baptista, Dr David Howard and Dr Johanna Waters are Associate Professors with the Sustainable Urban Development Programme, University of Oxford.

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