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Lessons from Disney

I had the very good fortune to be able to spend last week in Orlando, FL, with my family doing the things that a family of four would do while in Central Florida. We spent a few days at Disney World, went to the ocean, did a lot of swimming and going out to eat and enjoyed some important time together. My parents -- retired teachers from Minnesota -- had rented a condo down there for the winter and so my wife, two daughters and I spent the week at their place.

Now I'm a Disney junkie. I wrote last year about how my early experiences at the theme parks was a gateway drug that got me into Strong Towns and, ultimately, into the New Urbanism. In fact, last week I kept thinking about an article that my friend Dan Bartman had sent me just before I left. It was a blog post titled, "in defense of "green day" urbanism," and it used punk rock as a metaphor for what I had also experienced. Here's the opening paragraph:

People sometimes complain that "New Urbanist" or "town center" developments like Downtown Silver Spring are fake and sterile. But the way I see it, these projects are to urbanism as Green Day is to punk rock. They may not be "authentic," but if done well, they can get people to seek out the "real stuff" later on.

I visited New Orleans in 2001, which was during the first stage of my conversion from engineer to whatever it is I professionally am now. Hated it. Through my eyes it was dirty, smelly and run down (and this was before Katrina), a huge departure from the sterilized car-centric environments I had grown up in (and grown accustomed to). I could not figure out why people liked the place.

I visited New Orleans in 2010 and again in 2011. Loved it. Same place, but my eyes saw it and I experienced it much differently. What an amazingly rich environment, full of life and activity. One of the truly great cities of North America. I could not understand why every place did not yearn to capture their own local variant of what was going on there.

The story of that conversion is a complex one (you'll have to read the book) and has left me with this challenge: How do I help others understand their places differently without their having to go through the long, painful and confusing path that I took to get here? 

Disney World -- and to a lesser extent Disneyland in California -- presents to me an opportunity for a short cut, one that goes right to the core of what middle class, suburban America is seeking.

From a layout and design standpoint, the Disney World resort complex is the ultimate strong town. There you have places (theme parks, resorts, commercial areas and other destinations) that are connected by roads. Those roads accommodate fast moving cars, buses, monorails and even travel by boat. Internal to each of those places are networks of streets -- largely devoid of cars but, where cars are present they are slow moving and pedestrian-compatible -- that provide access to these places and support a complex environment.

People shell out thousands of dollars a week to come to this strong towns environment. They live in accommodations that are spartan in size but generous in quality. They spend little time in their own private space but instead voluntarily press the flesh with the subset of humanity affluent enough to afford to be there. They travel by public transportation -- even buses -- and stand in line for nearly everything. While I'm sure there are nightmare stories, my experience has been that people traveling here generally adopt the Disney approach and treat others with a degree of deference and -- dare I say -- respect not commonly found in most American environments.

In short, ordinary middle-class Americans pay exorbitant amounts of money to spend time in an environment that they pay exorbitant amounts of money to avoid spending time in back home. Sure, back home in the sterile suburbs they don't have the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Disney princesses and the fireworks spectacular, but in terms of time spent, those things are such a small fraction of a typical trip. The majority is spent in Disney's ongoing social experiment, an environment that most people find very rewarding when they experience it.

Because of where my parents' condo was located, I got to experience the STROAD hell that surrounded the park as contrast each day. In California, this can be seen right outside the gates of the park where hotels, fast food, strip malls, wide roads and fast cars dominate. Walt Disney was appalled at what happened in the land surrounding his California park so, in order to avoid the same fate in Florida, he purchased what is essentially an entire county. (If you want a good book about this, I recommend Chad Emerson's Project Future.)

Unfortunately, instead of eliminating the mindless, over-engineered blight, it only displaced it. It was six miles from my parents' place to Downtown Disney. My GPS would always tell me this is a trip that should take 22 minutes. Four minutes for the three miles on the streets/roads within the park and then 18 minutes for the three miles of STROAD outside the park. Here's what the latter looks like in Google Earth.

I have to relate a couple of stories though just to demonstrate how ingrained the American development pattern is for our society. On the way home one day, after spending time in a place my entire family found delightful, we were in our car stopped in the six lanes of congestion on the above-pictured STROAD when a complaint on the traffic was heard from within the car (I'll not name the complainer except to say it was not a female). Not a family to complain without suggesting a solution, the next breath contained the "obvious" approach necessary to end this traffic crisis: more lanes and a few more traffic signals. When I objected and explained how it was the signals and the lanes that were causing the problem, how this same traffic flowed freely a few miles back where there wasn't all this junk along the highway, I was dismissed.

Back at the gated condo, a warning was issued about the speed of travel through the access road one must cross to get to the pool. This complaint was voiced from the passenger seat again later when we were driving to go out to eat, with the classic solution this time being the installation of speed bumps. During this discourse, we rounded a corner that used a tight radius and an approaching car was forced to yield for a second or two while we passed. "They need to widen out that corner," was the analyses from the passenger seat. I pointed out the connection between the fast speeds and the sharp turn, but it was not heard. I actually would have had more credibility had I suggested a pedestrian overpass or traffic signal.

At Disney World, I see thousands and thousands of people each day embracing a built environment whose basic structure they otherwise loath. There's a lesson to be learned here, although I've not figured it out myself yet. More importantly, I've not quite figured out how to transmit it, but it gives me some hope.

If you'd like to learn more about Disney's approach to design, building great places and how gingerbread is the perfect Spring compliment to pirates and ghosts, consider signing up for our Strong Towns tour of Disneyland. This April 14 in Anaheim, CA, just prior to the APA conference, I'll be giving a planner's tour of the Disneyland park. This is a fundraiser for Strong Towns with the donation of $200 which includes a park ticket and lunch with us. There are only five spots remaining so sign up today.

And finally, I love this little tilt shift video that highlights transportation within the place known as Disney's Magic Kingdom. Enjoy (and it's okay to smile a little too).


If you value what you read here, consider a donation to help support the Strong Towns movement. Your support -- at whatever level -- will go a long ways towards giving us the resources and credibility we need to spread this important message. And tell a friend about us. It all helps us spread the Strong Towns message.


Friday News Digest (abbreviated version)

While Chuck is enjoying the warm weather in Flordia, we're doing a little of the same here.  If only Minnesota had a Disney World!  This is my inaugural authorship of the Friday News Digest.  It's an abbreviated version since I read no where near as many articles in a week as the regular author of the FND does.  Feel free to share interesting things you've read over the past week in the comment section.

Here goes nothing, enjoy the shortened version of this weeks news:

  • Planning geeks collectively rejoiced when they heard the news that SimCity is making a triumphant return in 2013.  Let's hope that we see Strong Towns sprouting up all across the virutal landscape. 
  • Looking for a fun way to spruce up your downtown?  Why not try some unconventional public furniture?  My personal favorite is the MUU bike table-  both functional and fashionable.
  • We've all heard of the bike sharing programs in cities across the country but how about a scooter sharing system?  You could sure cover some serious ground scooting around with those.
  • The cool, hip and always innovative Apple Inc., has decided to build a new mega-campus. Unfortunately, it doesn't vibe with the Strong Towns paradigm
  • Dropping a 40-unit condo building into the middle of a quaint, residential neighborhood can often be a difficult thing to do, even if it does promote "smart growth."  Sometimes these things just need to develop organically. 
  • Happy St. Patrick's Day Everyone, enjoy the weekend! 

Planning to be in L.A. for the APA conference in April? Live in the Anaheim area? Are you a fan of Strong Towns and Walt Disney? As a fundraiser for Strong Towns, we are providing a special opportunity for six people to get a "planner's tour" of Disneyland. See the Happiest Place on Earth through the eyes of Strong Towns. Click here for more information and to register. This is going to be a really fun time.


New Form Follows New Function

At Strong Towns, we’re part of a growing chorus, spanning across disciplines, bearing a message that communities making forward-thinking, high-return public investments will be positioned more strongly for the future. The mechanisms of growth we’ve outlined at Strong Towns are each unsustainable in the long run, as is a great deal of the development they have enabled us to produce.

Form follows function.

While I am always reluctant to quote secondary online content, I would be remiss to skip the following Wikipedia commentary about the origins of this phrase, which architect Louis Sullivan (evidently) made famous:

Sullivan developed the shape of the tall steel skyscraper in late 19th Century Chicago at the very moment when technology, taste and economic forces converged violently and made it necessary to drop the established styles of the past. If the shape of the building wasn't going to be chosen out of the old pattern book something had to determine form, and according to Sullivan it was going to be the purpose of the building. It was "form follows function," as opposed to "form follows precedent."

Sound familiar? Reader, we are together part of a dialogue about how to harness all the interrelated processes that cities accomplish, in ways that secure tandem environmental and fiscal sustainability. We don’t have a choice. Truly functional places in the future – Strong Towns – will house spaces that perform at much higher rates of return than what we currently have. They will produce energy as well and use less of it. They will perform more than one role at once. Our definition of function is shifting rapidly, hence will form.

On that much we all agree. The dialogue gets more colorful at finer grain, however. An aesthetic approach, for example, prioritizes fostering of attractive places that will draw talent (especially talented younger people), cultural vitality, private investment and job creation. An operating approach, for lack of a better term, establishes higher-amenity areas based on criteria ranging from proximity to transit, existing infrastructure, or job concentrations. More broadly, a regional approach emphasizes investment in connecting productive nodes (of employment, housing, et cetera) into a network. Urban/suburban rhetoric doesn’t fit in any of these approaches. They overlap. One size won’t fit all.

What is common among the successful cities of the future, and the neighborhoods and submarkets that bind them together, is functionality. Effective networks of people and institutions, vital job markets, courageous civic leadership are essential for transition to a new form. But each is undermined by the burdens of unproductive land use and infrastructure providing low return on investment.

The key function of modern cities is to harness the talents and skills of its people. The form that follows is a city of intentional and high-return infrastructure and design.