Part II of III of the Utopia 500th Anniversary Series

It's been 500 years since Thomas More penned his classic Utopia. Los Angeles Area planner Jodie Sackett thought it would be both interesting and informative to review More's ideas and consider how they hold up against modern planning concepts. In this second of a three-part series, Sackett looks at More's ideas for planning a Utopian city. In particular, Sackett looks at More's ideas on regional platting, water supply, streets, housing, social life, and shopping (actually trading) for daily necessities and not-so-daily luxuries, as well as More's ideas on political hierarchy and the urban form for a "capitol" city. For more details, please see the source article, as well as part one in the series. 1

Map of Utopia by Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598).
Map of Utopia by Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598). © Wikimedia Commons


Regional “Platting”

In the book, Thomas More tells the inhabitants’ story of passed-down knowledge that King Utopius (the Island’s namesake) is responsible for the original “platting” (or laying-out) of the cities in Utopia. More says, “King Utopius himself, even at the first beginning, appointed and drew-forth the platform of the city into the fashion and figure it hath now,” leaving the original design to “his [the king’s] posterity.” In other words, King Utopius platted the first and largest city, called Amaurote, allowing its design to be replicated by successive generations into a broad array of smaller cities spread throughout the island. Further on in the book we read that the platting took on political significance, as it involved dividing the city into four “quarters,” each headed by a Syphogrant (administrator), with one of the four Syphogrants elected by the people as Philarch, or mayor of the city.

The Capital City of Utopia

As mentioned, the largest city of Utopia is Amaurote, which also functions as the capital. Amaurote is built into the low-lying foothills of the highest mountain in Utopia, which lies in the center of the island. Amaurote is essentially a hillside city on sloping terrain that has upper and lower neighborhoods and districts. Thomas wrote that “the city standeth upon” the great mountain; and yet the city did not dominate the mountain since it would not in any way come close to encroaching upon its peak. From afar, sited at the mountain’s foothills, Amaurote would have appeared rather small and insignificant—in my view a shrewd urban design tactic for More, used to downplay the majesty of the city and present it as, quite paradoxically, a humbled place of power. This idea of “humbled power” is reminiscent of the modern Smart Growth movement, which seeks to preserve nature’s most valuable features while accommodating various kinds and scales of land development.