Science Fiction and Planning

As planners, we often engage in visioning processes with communities to identify and elaborate on the kinds of communities we want to plan. Our vision plans build an image of what could be in order to inform the agenda, strategies and policies we then develop and implement as planners. Vision planning can be an imaginative space to respond to the needs and desires of a community’s stakeholders and to consider alternative ways of negotiating and organizing our communities within existing constraints.

Science fiction also offers an opportunity to envision a different world. Science fiction creates images of worlds free from poverty, capitalism and war and/or consumed by futuristic technologies, tragedies and disease. Science fiction, unlike planning, is free to imagine beyond reality and constraints from our social structures and norms. This opportunity has become the foundation for an emerging movement of social justice science fiction writers who are free to dream new realities.

The inspiration for many of these social justice science fiction writers comes from author Octavia Butler, a black science-fiction writer whose protagonists were young women of color, primarily black women. One of the most exciting works from this new movement is Octavia’s Brood, an anthology of radical science fiction by activist writers.

toshi reagon
Toshi Reagon. Photo by Bernie DeChant.

While planners and science fiction writers have so much in common in the work they do, I’ve never really heard of any overlapping work between the two…until now! This semester, musician and activist Toshi Reagon begins a multi-week, multi-year DisTIL (Discovery Through Iterative Learning) residency through Carolina Performing Arts. This innovative arts fellowship intends to cultivate productive intellectual and creative relationships between artists and academics, which for Toshi will be primarily with the Department of City and Regional Planning. Toshi has created a new opera based on Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower. The opera blends science fiction with African-American spiritualism, and through her DisTIL residency, will further blend in ideas and concepts from city and regional planning. Toshi’s DisTIL residency is also meant to bring planning faculty and students into her world to engage in imaginative and creative thinking about the future of human civilization.

Toshi will return to the UNC Chapel Hill campus for the second time during the week of March 27th to engage in conversations with planning faculty members around systems modeling, housing policy, hazard mitigation and disaster recovery, environmental justice, and negotiation theory. Hopefully, her presence will encourage planners to vision beyond the confines of reality for a just a moment, to tip toe into the world of science fiction and to dream a new world.

About the Author: Hilary Pollan is a first year DCRP student specializing in Economic Development and pursuing a dual degree MPH in Health Behavior. She is interested in workforce development, participatory planning, and building healthy communities, and she strives to be a planner for social justice. She is thrilled to be the Graduate Assistant for Toshi Reagon’s DisTIL Fellowship through Carolina Performing Arts.


Flanders, Laura. “Why Science Fiction Is A Fabulous Tool In The Fight For Social Justice”. The Nation. N.p., 2017. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

“UNC-Chapel Hill Receives $1M Grant From The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation For Innovative Arts Program – The University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill”. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.