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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the unwanted or unattractive suburban sprawl of a city

When a large city extends outwards, adding suburban developments to its fringes at the expense of the surrounding greenbelt land, that’s subtopianism.

Subtopia was a term coined by the English architectural critic Ian Nairn in 1955 to describe Suburbia—or the collective suburbs of a city—as an undesirable or unattractive concept.

Although the word is little more than a portmanteau of suburb (a decidedly modern-sounding word that has in fact been with us since the fourteenth century) and Utopia (Sir Thomas More’s term for a perfect society, coined in 1516), the chance inclusion of the prefix sub– here gives it some added flavour.

Sub essentially meant ‘under’ or ‘close to’ in Latin, typically but not always in a prepositional sense referring to the location, situation or standing of something relative to something else; it’s this purely locational meaning that appears in suburb. But sub also came to be used more figuratively to form words with a sense of being less than or not as good as something else, and ultimately somehow insufficient, incomplete or imperfect. This overtly negative sense is found in a number of sub– words in English like subpar and subhuman—and, despite not being a morphologically inherent part of the word, Nairn’s subtopia too.

From Nairn’s introduction of the term subtopian in 1955, the noun subtopianism was first used the following year to describe the unsightly or unwelcome sprawl of a city—especially at the expense of a city’s surrounding countryside. To render an area of greenbelt land as subtopian, and thereby swap green trees and fields for houses, offices, shopping centres and concretes, likewise is to subtopianize it.

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