Changing the world: Urban experiments in the United Kingdom, 19th-21st centuries

Ophélie Siméon's picture
Call for Papers
June 9, 2017
Subject Fields: 
Architecture and Architectural History, British History / Studies, Government and Public Service, Urban Design and Planning, Urban History / Studies

Changing the world: Urban experiments in the United Kingdom, 19th-21st centuries


Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris

June 9, 2017


The United Kingdom has long been a fertile ground for utopias and urban experiments. From Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) to the New Towns of the 1950s and 1960s and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), British society has inspired the critical discourses of countless visionaries and their attempts to rethink society. In the 19th century, some of these pioneers tried to put their visions to the test while their country was being blighted by anarchic urban growth and forced-march industrialisation. The British society they lived in served as a foil to their urban dreams, while providing them with the necessary tools (whether capital, new techniques and political organisations) to make them come true. This rationale was to be found first in the model villages of New Lanark, Bourneville, Port Sunlight and Saltaire, built by industrialists with somewhat ambiguous motivations in mind. The 20th century was for its part dominated by “New Town” experiments, first designed by individual visionaries as a response to urban woes (Ebenezer Howard), and then by the state in the context of national reconstruction. In the 21st century, Tony Blair’s government focused on Urban Renaissance and Gordon Brown’s on Ecotowns, while the Coalition’s and the Conservative government’s local agenda put the “locally-led garden cities“ project to the forefront, bringing back this new incarnation of the “New Town“ to solve housing shortages.


In addition to these experiments in town planning, many urban social experiments have emerged in reaction to capitalism, whether to reject it, overthrow it or at least mitigate its effects. 19th century socialists - the Owenites and Chartists in particular - had tried to redefine urban spaces with the help of cooperative stores and collective modes of sociability, usually as preparation to future life in urban and rural alternative communities. In the 1960s, under the influence of American political trends and the dominance of contesting attitudes towards social and economic structures, experiments in citizen participation flourished at the local level, with the support of some town councils, in order to give city dwellers a voice in the planning of their communities. Following “the rediscovery of poverty” in the mid-1960s, the Wilson governments implemented Community Development Projects, as well as Comprehensive Community Programmes later in the 1970s, with the joint aim of reducing poverty and encouraging cooperation between citizens and local authorities. Even though the Thatcher years were not particularly favourable to political and economic decentralisation, they paradoxically fuelled numerous experiments in Labour and far-left controlled towns and cities (like the Greater London Council), in reaction to government national policies. Likewise, the New Labour years (1997-2010) were characterised by several initiatives conducted by local authorities but financed by the state in relation to both the New Deal for Communities and National Strategy Action Plan programmes against social exclusion. Since 2010, British governments have joined forces in defence of localism, that is, experimenting with local-scale solutions to local issues, with a financial help from central government.


This workshop on urban experiments in Great Britain will therefore focus on the urban projects that have been implemented since the 19th century as a means to transform towns and cities, if not sometimes British society in its entirety. Papers may focus on the town planning and social aspects of such experiments, as well as their origins, their influence on society, and more generally speaking, on the interaction between macro-national and meso-local levels of action, including the organisations and actors behind said experiments.


Please send a 700-word abstract and your biography to both these email addresses

David Fée

Ophélie Siméon

Proposals are to be sent by December 15, 2016.

Presenters will be notified in January 2017.


David Fée, Professor in contemporary British Studies, Sorbonne nouvelle University

Ophélie Siméon, Associate Professor in modern British History, Sorbonne nouvelle University


Department of the Environment. Policy for the Inner Cities. Cmnd. 6845. London: HMSO, 1977.

Department for Communities and Local Government. Locally-led Garden Villages, Towns and Cities. London: HMSO, 2016.

Fishman, Robert. Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1982.

Howard, Ebenezer. Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1898.

Marcuse, Peter (ed.) et alii. Searching for the Just City. Oxford: Routledge, 2009.

Moret, Frédéric. Les socialistes et la ville. Grande-Bretagne, France 1820-1850. Lyon: ENS Éditions, 1999.

Social Exclusion Unit. Bringing Britain Together: A National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal. Cd 4045. London: Cabinet Office, 1998.

Social Exclusion Unit. A New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal, National Strategy Action Plan. London: Cabinet Office 2001.

Urban Task Force. Towards an Urban Renaissance: Final Report of the Urban Task Force. London: Spon, 1999.

Contact Info: