Walt Disney World, Celebration City, and Problems of New Urbanism

While the New Urbanism movement is enticing on the surface – with promises of integrated communities, shared use zoning, and more pedestrian (and user) friendly designs of living spaces – it also has significant drawbacks, specifically racial and socioeconomic prejudice and an aura of artificiality. New Urbanism advocates moving away from the “sprawl” that proponents say has consumed the United States in the form of suburbia, and returning to the town model where people work where they live and enjoy a combination of their work and home lives. This goes against the contemporary norm that divides the home and work space and taken form largely as suburbs where people live and commercial or business zones where people work. Also stressed as part of the movement are pedestrian friendly designs and straight streets. (Sander 214) One of the greatest and most evident manifestations of the New Urbanism model in society is with the Disney theme parks and land outside Orlando, Florida. The use of conceptual models and social theories in alignment with New Urbanism by Walt Disney, and later his company of the same name, in the design of Walt Disney World and environs (namely Celebration City) highlight both the benefits and ultimately the pitfalls of the New Urbanism approach. While the Disney endeavors deliver great amounts of spatial (and in some senses also social) order on the surface, serious problems tying into the aforementioned racial and socioeconomic diversity underlie these efforts. Moreover, as is the case with much of New Urbanism, the nature of the project itself gives off and extremely artificial sense.

2 The Walt Disney World project, a 43-square mile site developed and opened in the 1960s by the Walt Disney Company as an eastern theme park, sought out more than just to develop a financial behemoth in central Florida. The man himself – Walt Disney – had substantial social motives centering on combating the modernism that he viewed had overtaken and surrounded Los Angeles (site of his first theme park) and much of the rest of the country. Walt felt that greater social control was needed to combat the ills of modern and eventually post-modern society that he foresaw as taking over the entire country. Embodiments of this type of control are evident throughout mechanisms at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World for staff, visitors, and anyone else who must come in contact with the park; having visitors queue in specific lines, dress codes for employees, and clear paths of direction are all elements of these parks that illustrate the desire for greater social control of the space. At Disneyland, at the heart of Anaheim city, Walt only had a certain degree of control of the land as his theme park was surrounded by nonDisney vendors who did not have to adhere to his rules. However, in developing Disney World, his control of the vast space of land and the nature of the Orlando environment to be in his view uninfected by the ills of modern society allowed him to exercise greater creative social control in the area. One Disney historian writes: “Significantly, Disney’s mission in Florida was less to build another theme park then to create a new, orderly type of community…” (Archer 325-7, 33) The type of order that Walt wanted transcends all elements of the Disney experience from Main Street USA built when the park opened, to EPCOT Center, to the more recent Celebration City – a community that is outside the park itself. Celebration City is a 5000 acre, multi-use residential community outside but within close proximity to the Disney complex itself, built and run entirely by the private

3 Disney corporation. It is based on the ECPOT model designed by Walt to create community living with integrated living spaces and full of citizens with similar values. In almost every respect it models the New Urbanist plan for city design and development and serves as the epitomic example of the best and worst of such designs. (Archer 333)

On The Downfalls of the New Urbanist Movement A number of major problems face New Urbanist projects like Celebration City. First, New Urbanism projects a social system on the people who lives there and removes a degree of choice in how they live. Secondly, such projects go against widely held contemporary social norms and views of autonomy and self-determination. And finally, such projects create a sense of false nostalgia and artificiality in their designs. At their core, New Urbanist projects force a cultural and social schema on their residents. This is evident not only in the form they take by mixing land use, but also in the type of people that these projects attract. New Urbanist communities impose a valuejudgment and schema of the type of life that people should want to be live. That is, rather than give the choice in the current system of separating business and work, it assumes that everyone who lives in a given location wants work and home life to be integrated in the same space. As our system is now, if you want to live by where you work you can, but if you don’t (as most people choose) you do not have to. However, in a New Urbanist community, such as Celebration City, this choice goes away and everyone by default must live close to their work in higher density communities. This imposition of a valuejudgment on how people should want to live (with work and home close in proximity) stifles diversity of views and lifestyles and imposes social and cultural controls to a much

4 greater degree than modern suburban life does. New Urbanism allows people less of a choice of how they want to live in that it assumes that everyone wants to live in a neotraditionalist community with work and home life together. By making this assumption and confirming this value-judgment, even if you only have selected New Urbanist communities interspersed with more modern suburbs, thus giving residents a choice to live in this model or not, it still results in a lack of diversity due to self-selection. Essentially, the people who choose to live in New Urbanist developments will only be those people who want to live where they work. And because this is an ideological choice to do this and oppose the mainstream model of choice, the types of people who live in these new communities will be more homogenous and less diverse. Less diversity means lower amount of unique cultures mixing and ultimately less cultural production, which goes directly against what the New Urbanist movement was trying to reclaim – cultural production and genesis. Furthermore, the degree of socioeconomic and racial diversity in such projects is equally hampered as many people of different socio-economic backgrounds or of different races lack the desire and means to live in these communities. (Fulton 6, 25) And in excluding the socially and economically marginalized groups of society form these communities by default, they do not address the problems that we have today with urban deterioration and how to help the underclass. (Harvey 2) New Urbanist projects also move away from the democratic and independent oriented axes that characterize modern life. In stressing the communal and collective well-being, New Urbanism sacrifices a degree of self-autonomy and control. In the suburbs, personal space and choice are prized assets – reflecting the norms of many

5 Americans. The ability of everyone to have a yard or some space surrounding their residence to call their own, and the size of this space in general is a hallmark of the suburbs and a major coup for all who live there. Such personal preferences on space evaporate under the New Urbanist model as the residential space becomes more tightly compacted and higher-density. Living where you work and working where you live requires a sacrifice of personal yards surrounding residential buildings. This requisite condition of the New Urbanist model of decreasing or in some cases altogether eliminating the yard-space of residences opposes the democratic principles of selfautonomy and independence that characterize modern American political and social ideology. People like to have to their space and the mindset of a yard for everyman in America that he can call his own would be a tough vision to shatter for many people in this country. It is not that such reengineering of space that the New Urbanist movement demands by reducing individual autonomy and control over land by the owner is a bad thing in general, but instead that it is difficult and in some senses socially dangerous to undertake such a move when cultural norms and public sentiment wants the independence. Finally, New Urbanist movements are surrounded by an aura of artificiality and a forced nostalgia. New Urbanist models were developed as reactionary models to the growing suburban nature of society in the post-World War Two era, as seen by Walt Disney’s example discussed earlier. In being reactionary in nature, New Urbanism attempts to create a type and style of life (or rather recreate a style of life) that has since passed in this country. (Fulton 4) Suburbs continue to blossom and their growth has not decreased, and yet at the same time the New Urbanist movement works to move against

6 them. It is not as if the suburban model was exhausted the New Urbanist model moved in to fill a void, but rather that it attempted to force a now-defunct model of life onto the social and spatial fabric. Moreover, even if people living their do accept this new community as reality and genuine, are they actually accepting the community into their lives or just the façade of living a new community? Will substantive changes actually accompany the new design of life? (Harvey 2) Attempts to force such structures and plans in areas where they would not be viewed as naturally appropriate in the modern context creates a sense of falseness and fakeness that it doesn’t quite fit in with the surroundings. One excellent example of this can be seen in the focus on straight streets and the grid pattern that the New Urbanist movement stresses. In trying to reclaim the designs of many decades ago, New Urbanism re-emphasizes the street axis and the straight line as an orienting tool in daily life. (Duany 34-5) Straight streets culminate and organize space in such a way as to draw attention to buildings, monuments, parks, or other major structures. Contrastingly, curvilinear streets that are characteristic of the modern suburb lack the focus on orientation of axis and instead rely on a softer integration with the environment – not drawing attention to as much as one winds a bend of enters a cul-de-sac. The point here is that following the New Urbanist model of space organization and using straight streets and lines to draw attention to significant structures in a neighborhood or area that lacks such structures manifests the very sense of artificial space organization that I have discussed above. At times, New Urbanism seeks to force the spatial reality of a community to bend towards its plan of how to organize the space, even if the space doesn’t fit the mold.

7 On Disney and the Problems of New Urbanism The above mentioned problems, some of the many associated with the New Urbanist movement, are directly applicable and evident in the development of Disney World and the Celebration project. As previously discussed, in developing Walt Disney World, Walt did so in response to the modernism that he saw as a negative influence on the country. He wanted to create a community and place where people who shared his views on the nature of life and neo-traditionalist patterns and schemas of organizations could come together. His strict imposition of controls on how life operated in his theme parks directly reflects the nature of New Urbanist projects on a whole – to engineer life and behavior by organizing space. The perfectionist attitude exemplified by Walt coordinates nicely with New Urbanist ideas of ideal communities that integrate life and work together into one system. Additionally, in both the design of places like EPCOT Center and Main Street USA, Walt created real-life, physical idealized versions of how he thought communities should be, regardless of the particularities of each situation. Walt had a view of how the world should operate and how life should be lived and designed his space accordingly, very similar to New Urbanist models of designing the space with the mindset that people should live with work and home together in one integrated system rather than giving them the choice of deciding how they prefer to live. Walt and New Urbanists also fell in line on the neo-nostalgia of these places. Walt’s idealized main street and the New Urbanists designed communities are in many ways simply physical representations of nostalgia. While this is not negative in of itself, focusing too strongly and becoming preoccupied with nostalgia and the past hampers efforts to move towards future plans

8 with any real success. Even EPCOT Center, the future community designed by Walt and as a model for Celebration, now has a nostalgic sense of how people in the past though the future was, rather than reflecting how modern society views what the future communities will be like. Both Walt and the New Urbanists run the risk of becoming trapped in their own nostalgia and not being able to move forward into the future. New Urbanism is not an entirely bad idea, and Walt Disney World is by far from a horrible endeavor. Rather than consider these items as failures or as things to be correct, it is instead important to understand the connections between the two and the overall limits of the New Urbanist movement. These limitations include a lack of choice and diversity in the communities, the imposition of a specific social vision on a community, and the artificiality of the environment and forced nostalgia. Working to manage these problems and mold New Urbanism to minimize their effects could be beneficial for future developments and may be able to lead to a truly sustainable community form for the future.

Works Cited

Archer, Kevin. “The Limits to the Imagineered City: Sociospatial Polarization in Orlando.” Economic Geography. Vol 73, No 3.: July 1997.

9 Duany A., et al. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press, 2000. Fulton, William. The New Urbanism: Hope or Hype for American Communities? Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1995. Harvey, David. “New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap.” Harvard Design Magazine. MIT Press: Winter/Spring 1997. Sander, Thomas H. “Social Capital and New Urbanism: Leading a Civic Horse to Water?” National Civic Review. Vol 91, No 3. Fall 2002.