Walt Disney and Jane Jacobs on urban design

Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT)

Most urban designers would agree that Jane Jacobs has had a profound impact in the way we think about planning. While it might not be apparent, her views have much common with the way Walt Disney envisioned the ideal community. So what connects an urban activist to one of the founders of multi-billion dollar corperation?

As a journalist living in Greenwich Village, New York Jane Jacobs made the case for a more people-centered urban planning. Before Jacobs, urban planners laid out the designs of streets, neighborhoods and cities, considering only their personal views of what a city should look like. Jane Jacobs showed that living in the city is about people, not planning. Instead of top-down orchestrated plans, she favored bottom-up planning originating from local communities.

By focusing on people, Jane Jacobs figured out three principles that should guide urban design: mixed-use, density and permeability. These principles contribute to creating livable communities. Mixed use goes against all notions of separating different uses of space physically. According to Jacobs, a mix of different activities make a place more lively. And she is right. If a neighborhood has some offices, some houses and some shops, there will be people on the street around the clock. Not only does this contribute to livability, but it also creates more safe neighborhoods. In functionally mixed neighborhoods there is no need for CCTV, because there is social surveillance.

In addition, Jane Jacobs makes the case for high density building. This might seem odd, seeing as most people regard high-rise developments as bleak and unattractive. But consider the following. A high building density allows for less car use, because coupled with mixed functionally, people will have to travel less to access the same amenities and are thus more likely to walk. This is not only beneficial for the local economy, but also makes sense in the current era of climate change; if people have to travel less, they become less dependent on polluting means of transport. Not to mention the beneficial health effects of using an active mode of travel.

Central Park, New York

Finally, this can be connected with Jane Jacobs view of permeability. She argues that people should have a choice of different roads and paths so that they can efficiently navigate the urban environment. An imposed grid structure of roads is never optimally efficient for everyone and curbs creativity. By allowing people to walk around and find their way freely  they are more engaged with and more likely to interact  with the urban environment and with one another. This well illustrated by comparing  the potential for interaction of a park to an alleyway.

So how do the views this self-developed urban designer -who is said to be largely responsible for resisting the plans of a highway through Greenwich Village- relate to one of the founding fathers of a multi-billion dollar corporate imperium?

No-one would deny the impact of the Walt Disney Company on the entertainment industry,  but the personal efforts of Walt Disney for the sake of urban design are much less well known. Most of us will know one of the 14 Walt Disney amusement park – and love or hate them- but they certainly are not examples of community in the vision of Jacobs. The town of Celebration, Florida, that was developed by the Walt Disney Corporation, does showcase a certain ideal of community. However, this town was developed after Walt Disney’s death and his influence on the developed is unlikely to have been great. Walt Disney’s ideas of community and urban design are not best represented by these places. Instead, Walt Disney’s quest for community is better illustrated by the plans that he made.

Walt Disney and EPCOT

Walt Disney was a strong proponent of observing how people use space. For instance, he argued that instead of building paths in advance, it would make more sense to just people walk around and see where the tracks in the grass appear. These tracks should then be used as blueprint for paved paths or even roads. Throughout his ideas, Walt Disney adopts a playful approach to space; he goes against imposed planning and instead focuses on the creative nature of people. He relies on the self-organization of people in order to build strong communities. Walt Disney envisioned  the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” that was to become a showcase of how he believed our communities should look like. Somewhat ironically, what Walt Disney had envisioned as the physical manifestation of his utopia became part of the first Walt Disney theme park in Florida as EPCOT.

In effect, Walt Disney adopts a similar approach to urban design as Jane Jacobs. Both non-trained urban designers, they developed a view of urban development that was well ahead of their time. Both were in favor of bottom-up, community-focused grass-root developments. In their view, top-down urban planning destroys communities and curbs creativity. By giving people the freedom to explore, interact and shape their own community better places to live can be created. It is remarkable that notions of bottom-up and grassroots development are just recently finding their way into mainstream urban planning. In addition, the ideas of self-organization are presently spreading throughout many fields of science under the name of “complexity theory”.

Walt Disney and Jane Jacobs were ahead of their time and shared their view on urban environments. With the passion that Jacobs thwarted the development of the highway through Greenwich Village, Walt Disney developed plans for an utopian city. It is astonishing that two people with such corresponding views on urban design have had such a different impact on the world we live in.

Mannheim, S. (2002), Walt Disney and the quest for community. Ashgate: Alderschot
Jacobs, J. (1972), The death and life of great American cities. Penguin books: Middlesex

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