Michael Sorkin (1948-2020) – an obit

On March 26, 2020, architect and publicist Michael Sorkin died after he was infected with the coronavirus. Sorkin was a strong advocate of “green urbanism”. He proposed building blocks with vertical farms and greenhouses, roofs with horticultural plants and solar panels. He aimed for a city with a high density of buildings, which uses clean energy and with more space for greenery than for cars. Architect Harrie van Helmond reflects on his legacy and wonders how Sorkin translated his ideas into a design. Is there a relationship with the starting point of the Biotope City foundation, in which not only climate adaptation is important but also a fundamentally different philosophy about the relationship between man and nature?


In 1993 I was given a tip: read the book, Local Code by Michael Sorkin. The contents turned out to be a kind of catechism for urban planners and architects.  Statements such as: “Every inhabitant has the right to see the moon from their bedroom window” remain but are a thorn in the side of contemporary urban planners.

Sorkin was also called the political conscience of our profession in the US (born and raised in New York). He himself lived in a small, cheap, rented apartment, which was certainly not financially necessary for someone in his position. He strongly opposed the privatization of public space, which has taken place since the advent of gated communities and the ever-growing malls that also housed urban functions. A fellow urban planner typified his approach with: he designs bottom up, implementing the use of organic patterns.

In addition to his working as a teacher, he had his own studio, Studio Sorkin and Terreform: a non-profit organization that develops proposals to promote social equality in urban planning in a very broad sense which also included food supply, waste management, energy production and transport. An excellent example of Terreforms’ work is the publication, Stupid Cities: a dystopian utopia, the city after climate change. Sorkin gave a lot of advice in China because of his ecologically inspired city designs.

That brought me to the idea of looking at how Sorkin’s principles took shape in his designs.

Perhaps the most spectacular are the proposals for Xiongan and its delta: the new city south of Beijing where the government apparatus and important institutions had to move to relieve Beijing.

The new area to be developed is heavily polluted, not really ideal for achieving ecological objectives and all of it within a very tight schedule. It pertains to an area of 200 km2, an investment of 295 billion euros, a planning/building period of 30 years and the relocation of 2 to 6 million people. The new Xiongan stadium is part of a gigantic urban area.  Together with Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin it concerns 110 million people.  The name of this economic development zone is Jing-Jin-Ji.  Foreign investors are not welcome! It proclaims that Xiongan and its delta should be a model city that puts into practice and implements all the ideas about inclusive and healthy cities. Certainly a showcase of contemporary communist urban design.

The management of this operation has been disconnected from the usual government planning; a (more decisive) model has been chosen for this project. There are now 58,000 workers working on the project. A high speed train to Beijing has been built.

The assignment includes the construction of a very large city including all facilities as well as making the polluted delta healthy, safe and habitable. The polluted water has already changed significantly  as a result of large-scale interventions in water management and fish farming. The delta is being deepened and hills are being created with the silt. 14 million trees will be planted. The extraordinary thing about this project is that it looks as if it will also be physically made as originally thought out and planned.

Of course, competitions were set up for both the urban planning of the new city and for the ecological development of the delta area. Sorkin participated in both competitions (in 2017 and 2018 respectively).  The winning plan for the city came from SOM and TLS landscape architecture. It is not yet known who the winner is for the delta plan.

Sorkin’s proposal for the delta area is the sum total of logical, feasible and very idealistic elements. I don’t yet know if this plan has won.

How does Sorkin translate his ideas into a design? And is there kinship with Biotope City Foundations’ starting point, namely, “the dense city as nature” in which not only climate adaptation is important, but also a fundamentally different philosophy about man’s relationship to nature?

The explanation of the proposal on his site reads like an urbanistic utopian fairy tale: that you can build a large city from scratch, in the water, where all the attractions of the European cities that have grown over time can be found. And that in China with a totally different political system and in a very short period of time.

The name given to the amphibious water city is: “village of villages”, 8 connected islands. The cars go underground, slow traffic gains the upper hand. The Baiyang Lake is currently 366 km2 and needs to be increased.

Seven of the 8 islands are artificial, the eighth island is the old town of Anxin which will be surrounded by a heavy dike to withstand high tide. In the middle, between these 8 islands a botanical wetland garden will be created.

Each island village has its own function: campus, university, children (?), Conference Hall, start-ups, high tech, environmental research, as well as a commercial and cultural center, Big Island.

Lifestyle, as described in the competition submission, is described as: innovative, creative and inclusive. A mixture of scientists, artists, inventors, academics, skippers, ecologists and poets. Food supply and waste processing must be solved in every village. Buildings must be passive in terms of energy consumption.

All in all, this therefore reads as the sum total of idealistic principles, one that is difficult to  imagine actually happening and whereby the quality of growing communities can also be achieved. A place where the weather is always nice and everyone can join in the fun.

It may be intended as a strategic document to win a competition, assuming the jury is naive or wants to display these high-minded ideals.

At the same time, it is clear that the smart cities in Asia are not inclusive (affordable for all income groups) and involve privacy restrictions, not to mention the possible consequences of the Corona pandemic in the use of the public domain in the future. This type of thinking has yet to begin.

The aim of the dense city as nature (Biotope City) is presented only as one-dimensional in the plans. Nature is already abundant here in the form of the water landscape. We also see neat green roofs on the renderings, which will probably be fine. The key question for me is whether Sorkin really thought that it possible to create a new utopian community in the Chinese context (with all the advantages of a system that knows how to tackle things but is also rigid in steering personal freedoms) in creating a new and very different utopian relationship between man and nature.

The bottom up design of communities that Sorkin stood for should – within the vision for the archipelago cited above – be the essence of creating the real design. I miss the strategic follow-up in the proposal and I also think it is unfeasible given the planning period and social and political preconditions. In his explanation of the competition proposal for the city of Xiongan itself (north of the delta), Sorkin indicates that the presented design of the final situation will of course transform into daily reality when elaborated. Here’s the thing: how can the designer ensure his plan will be realized in such a way that the key issues remain intact?

Harrie van Helmond, Eindhoven, April 2020

Foto: Entwurf für Xiongan, Michael Sorkin Studio.