- Hans Holbein
The word “utopia” is made up of two Greek words, together meaning “no place.” The word suggests that no place on Earth could possibly be perfectly egalitarian, free of conflict, and sustainable.
That didn’t stop people from trying, however. The Puritans believed in creating a utopia while escaping the Protestants in the 1600s. In the 1960s, as hippie subculture was at its apex, people again strove to form utopian settlements.
Today, the tech elite are putting new kinds of utopian projects forward, promising total sustainability, the end of cooking, and other modern communal living concepts that people in previous centuries could only dream of.
Since dreaming of utopia is not a new phenomenon, it’s important to look back and learn about the attempts people have already made to build perfect societies.
Here are brief histories of a few utopian settlements, and where they are today – if they’re still around.
The Hancock Shaker Village was founded in 1783.
- Richard Taylor/Wikimedia Commons
An 18th century utopian settlement that promoted celibacy, pacifism, and self-sustaining homesteading, the Hancock Shaker Village was founded by Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright. The Shaker sect of Christianity, which still exists, emphasizes gender rights, communal living, and socializing through song and dance. The Shakers got their name through their ceremonial dances, where they’d appear to shake.
The Hancock Shaker Village was the third of 19 built around New England, New York, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.
But the Industrial Revolution drove members away, whittling down membership.
- Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
The Hancock Shaker Village hit its peak in 1840, when it owned 3,000 acres of land and had over 300 members.
But during the Industrial Revolution, members of the village started moving to cities. By 1900, only 50 members remained. Buildings started to get demolished, and some of the land was sold off.
In the 1960s, a few remaining members of the village decided to preserve it. You can still visit Hancock Shaker Village’s remaining 750 acres today, where over a dozen houses are preserved. There’s also still an active Shaker community in Maine.
Brook Farm was started in 1841.
- Berkshire Country Day School/Flickr
Brook Farm was a transcendentalist utopian settlement close to Boston that attracted many intellectuals curious about forming the perfect agrarian society. The community was founded by George Ripley, a transcendentalist and former Unitarian Universalist minister, along with his wife Sophia and a group of 15 other members.
The Ripleys wanted the settlement to uphold classically transcendental values: humane, non-toxic relationships and harmony with the land. The community also valued daily physical labor, calling it an exercise in mental as well as physical well-being. Labor was meant to be distributed in a way that prevented classism.
“Everyone must labor for the community in a reasonable degree, or not taste its system in operation,” Elizabeth Peabody, a Brook Farm resident, wrote in 1842.
By working 300 days, a Brook Farm member would receive free tuition at the community school and a year’s worth of room and board, according to Mental Floss.
But insufficient labor was its downfall. Today, little remains but the printing house.
- midnightdreary/Wikimedia Commons
The farm wound up attracting many intellectuals with little practical experience, and the community didn’t strictly penalize members who didn’t fulfill their physical labor obligations. So members started taking up more clerical or academic roles.
According to the Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society, “the community had no shortage of ministers and littérateurs, but not a single shoemaker, carpenter, or blacksmith. Ripley realized that the ‘purely democratic, Christian principles on which he had established the community wouldn’t provide even a single meal for seventy Brook Farmers living on a dairy farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.'”
The settlement wound up thousands of dollars of debt, and fires broke out in the farm’s newer compounds, so Ripley shut down the farm in 1846.He took up a job at the New York Tribune and repaid his debts by 1862. Most of Brook Farm is now gone – today only a boarded up print shop remains.
The Oneida Community in Kenwood, New York was created in 1848.
- Public Domain
Vermonter John Humphrey Noyes started the Oneida Community in 1848 as a haven for “Perfectionists” to commune and put their beliefs into practice.
The Perfectionists embraced communalism, free love, and equality. The commune shared pretty much everything from incomes and belongings to partners. Noyes instituted “complex marriages,” in which every man in the community would be married to every woman. The members were encouraged to reject monogamy and have multiple partners.
The Perfectionists believed their practices would shape a man-made Eden.
“The new commandment is that we love one another, not by pairs, as in the world, but en masse,” Noyes said in 1848.
In 1862, the Oneidans erected a mansion, called the Oneida Mansion House, which contained 250 rooms to house over 200 members.
Today the Oneida Mansion still has 47 residents.
- Jim McKnight/AP
Noyes fled to Canada for sex-related crimes in June 1879, and that August, the community stopped enforcing complex marriage, according to the New York Times.
But the community continued for more than 100 years. Men and women started partnering up in monogamous marriages, and the community remained closed to the public until 1987, when the remaining Oneidans created private apartments, eight guest rooms, and a museum dedicated to the history of the community.
The 47 people who currently live in the mansion are a mix of Oneida descendants, local retirees, and people who have no connection to the mansion’s original inhabitants.
Arcosanti was founded in 1970 to be the architecturally efficient city of the future.
The town of Arcosanti is located about 70 miles north of Phoenix, and was founded by Paolo Soleri, an architect and urban planner.
Soleri designed the 25-acre town to be an applied form of “arcology” – a term he coined that combines “archaeology” and “ecology.”
The town was a way to get around one of the biggest challenges in city-building – namely that cities always have to tailor new systems and solutions to the flawed foundations already in place. For instance, in large cities, sprawl and inefficient transportation makes life easier for people who can afford to live in the center than for those who commute from far away.
Soleri’s solution, therefore, was to design an entirely different town for the future. The large buildings were made of concrete and wood, and designed to be dense and multi-use. Each was compact and could house many people, giving all residents easy access to the small town’s amenities (without a car) and keeping more land undeveloped.
Arcosanti remains a tourist attraction today.
- Cody/Wikimedia Commons
Over 40 years, 7,000 people came and went from the town, according to the New York Times.
Soleri died in 2013, but Arcosanti remains open to the public. The town still includes a visitors center, a cafe, a gift shop, apartments, public spaces, an outdoor amphitheater, a community swimming pool, office space, and accessible roofs. It manages to bring in 50,000 annual visitors for tours, sustainable living workshops, and conferences.
Today the site is maintained by 75 workers and artists, whose wages are paid through donations, public events, and the sale of wind bells, unique handmade bronze bells sold through Cosanti, Soleri’s studio.
The Harmony Society existed from 1805 to 1905.
- Snapshots of the Past/Flickr
The Harmony Society was formed by Catholic Separatist George Rapp in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Immigrating from Germany to the Americas, the Harmonists started a community that centered on piety, shared ownership, and celibacy, stemming from a belief that Jesus Christ’s second coming would arrive at any moment.
When a member joined the Harmonists, they’d hand over everything they owned to the Society. In exchange, the Society would give them everything they needed to live comfortably.
The Harmonists particularly excelled in textile manufacturing and agriculture, and each of these trades allowed the community to flourish until the early 20th century.
The Harmony Society no longer exists, though its three settlements have museums dedicated to them.
- Lee Paxton/Wikipedia
The Harmony Society is gone, but the three settlements it created are now the towns of Harmony, Pennsylvania; Economy, Pennsylvania; and New Harmony, Indiana.
The Harmonists saw unmarried, celibate lives as morally superior to married ones, and that respect for celibacy was their undoing. In 1847, George Rapp died, and the group went into decline, despite having formerly been economically industrious. The group dissolved in 1905.
Today, much of the land around the Harmonists’ settlements in Pennsylvania is managed by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The Commission oversees seventeen restored historic structures, buildings, and libraries built by the Harmonists in the mid-19th century.
Fordlândia was Henry Ford’s attempt to build a utopian American suburb in the Brazilian rainforest.
- From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Ford Motor Company.
In the early 1900s, when American manufacturing was still in its prime, Henry Ford wanted to plant American workers on Brazilian soils so they could start rubber farms and export the product back to America. To do that, he started a town called Fordlândia in 1928.
Fordlândia’s mission was simple: to recreate Michigan in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest. Ford had houses built on a 6,000-square-mile plot of soil in the region of Aveiro, miles away from any large city.
In short order, the town had homes with water, electricity, and even swimming pools that were designed to give workers the impression they were living in a suburban sanctuary.
Today, there’s nothing left but crumbling buildings where the dream failed to sprout.
- Amit Evron/Wikimedia Commons
The town had troubles with production – rubber was better harvested in Southeast Asia, where there were fewer rubber plant predators, according to Gizmodo.
Plus, synthetic rubber started being manufactured in the 1930s, making Ford’s rubber plants obsolete. He sold the land back to the Brazilian government for today’s equivalent of roughly $200 million, and fully abandoned the settlement in 1945. What’s left today is a set of crumbling buildings.