Ursula K. Le Guin: Urbanist

Ursula K. Le Guin is describing her process of imagining an ideal city:

What about technology?  I think that there would be no cars or helicopters in and above the streets; this follows from the fact that the people of Omelas are happy people.  Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

In the middle category — that of the unnecessary but undestructive … — they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here: floating light sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold.  …

I inclined to think that people from towns up and down the coast have been coming into Omelas on very fast little trains and double-decked trams, and that the train station is Omelas is actually the handsomest building in town …

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.

Of course a big city has other needs if it is to provide for equitable happiness while growing beyond a certain scale — possibly including subway trains — but Le Guin is using necessary in a philosophical sense here: not what is necessary for a city, but what is necessary for happiness.

Le Guin, who passed away last week at the age of 88, never learned to drive: not because she couldn’t but because she didn’t like it, and she was fortunate to have a family who could do it for her. Cars were necessities in her place and time, but given the choice in her fiction, she often did without them, or made them recede into the background. She praises Venice as a city where you can hear “the sounds that humans make,” because you can’t hear motors. 

One of her most powerful young-adult books, Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, features a teenager who doesn’t want the car that his father gives him at age 16, because he really loves walking.  This is part of his desire to be something other than what’s dictated by the society around him.

In any case, what matters in Le Guin is not so much her specific references to cars as the ethics behind them, and the quotation above lays that out as clearly as anything. And it’s from a story that you must read, for reasons explained here.


2 Responses to Ursula K. Le Guin: Urbanist

  1. Michael Dawson February 11, 2018 at 9:30 am #

    Thanks for this. The ethics behind cars is a topic that gets no play, but is huge nonetheless.

  2. Ron February 12, 2018 at 11:35 am #

    Of course automobiles are necessary for the functioning of a city (and by extension to the happiness of its residents): even if all personal travel is on foot or transit, one still needs to deliver goods to stores and restaurants, collect the trash, etc.

    The idea of hiding vehicular traffic below city streets (e.g. lower Grand in Los Angeles) was popular in the 1950s and 60s and even into the 70s when this story was written. As it turns out, removing cars from the streets also removes a lot of street life. Ten years ago I lived in such a residential development in California (built in the 70’s): all housing units connected by safe, car-free and empty walkways, as people mostly drive through the underground tunnels to their underground garages, while hardly anyone uses their front door. These days, Tel Aviv is bringing the pedestrian plaza of Dizengoff Square back to street level. The 1978 level separation was supposed to ease traffic congestion and improve pedestrian safety — and it accomplished both goals, but at the cost of most street life around the square.