“Dichotomies” Series: Utopian Towns vs. Company Towns

Utopian Towns and Company Towns were both part of the same reaction of congestion within cities during the Industrial Revolution. In contrast to the tenement housing, settlement housing, and progressive era responses to congestion in cities, founders of Utopian towns and company towns believed it better to leave the cities altogether, that more productive and healthy environments had to be achieved at lower densities and with physical configurations different from those of the 19th century industrial city. 

You can think of the main difference between Utopian towns and company towns as the difference in emphasis. Utopian towns placed emphasis on building a healthy society in its own end. Industrious work was seen as a virtue by which a healthy society could be attained. Examples of Utopian towns included Robert Owens’ New Harmony, Charles Fourier’s Phalanxes, Shakers’ towns and the Oneida perfectionists. Green space and roads were meant to provide access to nature and communal services for the betterment of society. 

Company towns, on the other hand, placed much more emphasis on efficient production. These proposals were based upon the fact that more healthful, controlled societies (as contrasted to the noxious, chaotic and inefficient congested industrial city), would yield higher returns for investors. A good example of this is Lowell Massachusetts, a company town that recruited women and controlled every facet of their lives, from meals to housing, to daily schedule, which yielded 19% returns for its investors.

What are the legacies of Utopian towns and company towns today? Interestingly, last week I had the opportunity to see Leigh Gallagher, author of the new book End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving , (here another review) and a lot of the precursors to the 1940s suburbinization that Gallagher talks about can actually be traced all the way back to these Utopian towns and company towns.

Why did the suburbs of the 1940s form? Much for the same reasons why Utopian towns and company towns formed their day. Some people choose them for their social  resources, much like the Utopian towns of the industrial revolution. They escaped congested cities for better schools, safer communities, value structures that were “like theirs”. Others were pulled, like the company towns, by more the lure of efficiency . This was the rationale for corporate campuses, highways, auto-mobile centered planning. In fact this article even traces the history of single-industry towns like those of Facebook, Google and Microsoft. 

In the end though, as with all the conclusions I will probably make in my “Dichotomies” Series, the dichotomy is a good way to trace patterns, but is not completely clear-cut, especially with the passage of time. Shakers (Utopianists) became to be known for their handiwork crafts and the Oneida perfectionists for their china (I had know idea before this semester that they were so… eccentric), for example. Today, the “company towns” of Mountain View and Menlo Park are thought of by some as the holy grail of corporate amenities and quite “Utopian”. In any case, history is continuous!


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