Where are the Visionary Developers?

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

"The secret of Disney is doing things you don't need, and doing them well, and realizing that you needed them all along...Walt Disney was ahead of everyone, always."

-Isaac Asimov, interviewed by Leonard Maltin

 Walt Disney and EPCOTAmong my friends and colleagues, I tend to get pegged as the Disney guy. That's fair - I have an undeniable obsession with Walt and his team of Imagineers, and the unique creations they brought into being. There are obvious reasons- the Disney approach to theming and attention to detail are responsible for fascinating built environments. And in the years before his death, he got obsessed with urban planning and put plans in motion to build an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), a planned technotopia that would house 20,000 people. So there is plenty of fodder for someone interested in architecture, planning and public space to chew on. 

But after obsessing over Walt's futurism and vision for years, I've been asking myself, "Why? Why is this long-dead animator still as interesting to me as more rigorous urbanists like Jane Jacobs or Jan Gehl?" In truth, his vision for EPCOT was naive, and was a fairly uncomplicated take on Ebenezer Howard's garden plan. And I would find a downtown Imagineered down to the minute details oppressive. 

What was unique about Walt Disney, I've concluded - and is lacking in so much of today's world - is the combination of vision, craft, and cash. 

As planners (if we're lucky) we get to create plans for neighborhoods and downtowns that lay out a vision for development that is forward-thinking while simultaneously building on the history and character of a place. But we know that developers are truly responsible for what gets built - we can't dictate if a building houses a wonderful store with local character or a Cash for Gold store (the unfortunate new tenant of a new mixed-use project I pass every day). We can have local design standards and commissions, but we can't stop a developer from creating a cheap plastic knockoff of an historic lintel. We're reliant, for the most part, on what comes in the door. 

Meanwhile, developers aren't without the desire to build developments that people will love, and will last. But they often lack vision, or the knowledge and experience, that planners have developed. Managing architects and the daily business of construction takes its own sort of expertise, so its not surprising that developers have a different focus. And while they have the ability to pull cash together, their loan providers are often skittish of anything unproven and prefer to see projects that are familiar models - even as the market is rapidly changing its preferences.

When I look at 90% of today's new developments, I can't help but get the feeling that the developer is trying to meet the vision that local planners have laid out but they don't really FEEL it. We're getting new multi-family, 4-6 story, mixed-use TOD, but there's a cookie-cutter feeling to most. Like the infamous "little boxes" of suburbia, most of these new multi-family constructions feel of a type, like they were pressed through a Play-Doh mold. I'm not saying the building below is especially terrible, but where is it? I swear I've seen this exact same building in several cities.

 A random mixed-use building 

And that's what is so remarkable about Walt Disney. He was the ultimate developer: he had unique visions, he wouldn't compromise on bringing those visions to reality, and he wasn't afraid to spend the money to do it. He was often on the edge of bankruptcy because he would pour not only his heart and soul into every project but also every cent he had. He understood how to manage and inspire craftspeople and designers to build to his specifications. And while we're now in the post-Robert Moses world where community input is an imperative, I can't help but think that Walt knew how to sell a project and would win any NIMBY over to his side.

So where are the visionary developers of today?

I call on the Planetizen readers to enlighten us and show us examples of great vision, new developments that are inspired and have heart. Size doesn't matter - the smallest building can be inspired. Can visionary development happen in the 21st century? 


Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).



the irony is . . .

That whenever people criticize a mixed-use TOD like the one you show (that's the Market Common at Clarendon, in Arlington, Va.), they compare it to Disney World, so it's strange that you'd say developers should be even more like Disney, not less. After all, Disney was about delight and whimsy, but also simulacra - the same ideals that drive a lot of neo-traditional developments like the Market Common.

That said, what IS your problem with this development? It's a few blocks from a Metro station on a street (or really, two streets) that the APA called one of America's "Great Places," which a few decades ago was a dying suburban strip. There are shops and restaurants on the bottom two floors, right up against the street, and apartments above; a nice public green with a gazebo, fountain and landscaping; public parking tucked away in garages; and an intimate pedestrian passage carrying you from the busy shopping area to an attractive, Craftsman-inspired townhouse project facing another public park, deeded to Arlington County by the developer. Thousands of new homes have been built around the Market Common, which has become a destination for people across Northern Virginia and Greater Washington as a whole. (In fact, I had my birthday dinner here a few months ago.)

Aesthetically, it may look fake. The Market Common is one of at least a dozen similar projects in Greater Washington, all of which have revitalized inner-city and suburban neighborhoods alike, even if it may even look like other developments that you've seen. But in every other measure, this project is a success. This was a strip mall twenty years ago. Clearly, the planners of Arlington County, and the developers of the Market Common, had some vision. I'd rather see an example of what you call "visionary" (other than Disney World, which isn't a place where anyone lives), than a knock on a good development that doesn't fit your personal ideal.

Another Irony Is

"whenever people criticize a mixed-use TOD like the one you show (that's the Market Common at Clarendon, in Arlington, Va.), they compare it to Disney World"

Whenever avant-gardists criticize this sort of traditional urban design, they compare it to a Disney theme park. They don't realize that Disney was actually a futurist. The original Disneyland included Tomorrowland as well as Main Street USA, and Disney's serious proposal for city planning was Epcot Center.

Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid would have fit right in to a Disney theme park.

Charles Siegel

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Great points

Dan, you make some excellent points. I probably should not have included a visual example, as I knew it would be a distraction. I do not know this site, and it sounds like as far as placemaking goes they've done a lot of things right. I think it is fair to criticize it for lacking a sense of place and duplicating a style that is clearly off the shelf, and doing so isn't enforcing a "personal ideal" of beauty. Truly, I need to replace that image with some local examples - there are several egregious ones on my regular commute to work.

I stand by the idea that there is a disconnect generally between the goals of planners and developers that result in uninspired projects. Those uninspired projects could meantime fill in broken teeth in neighborhoods desperately in need of repair, but wouldn't it be wonderful if they were also full of personality and insight?

Romanticizing The City

This discussion seems to be about the Streetwall architecture, and not necessarily the planning. I guess we should be happy there is a Streetwall, and not a parking lot with strip mall behind it.

The problem with many of these developments is that the architecture tries to recreate a past that never really existed. The posted photo is a perfect example, showing the traditional light poles, bollards, and uninspired mishmash of classical architectural elements. This has become the Generica style, and is derived from a romanticized notion of the past. However, it fools no one, because it looks fake and feels fake to the user. That's why it often gets the Disney comparison

The streetwall architecture needs to be progressive, relate to today, and look to the future. That will inspire hope and vision. It also needs to develop over time. You can't build a real city overnight.

Jane Jacobs said it best and it is worth repeating; "There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, …… achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served."

New Developments that Have Heart

In response to Tim's call for examples, I suggest:

1) Quinlan Terry, Richmond Riverside (1984-87). Rather than looking generic, it looks like it belongs in London. http://www.astoft.co.uk/richmondriverside.htm

2) Most any proposal by Leon Krier. None of them looks generic.

As far as I can see from the picture, Tim's example has some neo-traditional details but it is mostly in what I call the break-up-the-box style - a style commonly used in suburban developments, which breaks up the building into many small elements and paints the elements different colors. Usually, the elements are too small for the building to be coherent.

The way to build developments with heart is to use a traditional style. The buildings should be varied in design but should all have compatible traditional detailing, like older neighborhoods that were built over time.

Of course, the New Urbanists write codes that do exactly this. I guess I could also use Duany's Seaside and Kentlands as examples of developments that have heart.

Charles Siegel

Sense of place

We use that phrase a lot, along with terms like "imaginative" or "visionary," but they can't be quantified. How can we hold anyone to this standard? Sure, there are unimaginative developers producing unimaginative projects. But "sense of place" won't immediately happen in a new development. A good urban project sets the stage for the creation of "sense of place." As I always say, the buildings may look fake, but the people are real. Come out to the Market Common on a Friday night - or, better yet, downtown Silver Spring, Md., my hometown - and you'll see lots of people, from all backgrounds and all over the region, coming to gather. They shop, they eat, they promenade, they sit, they hang out, they play music. This is what a good urban space is, right? If that happens, I really don't care about the aesthetics or the vision. A competently designed place, a GOOD place, will make urban life happen.

I'm increasingly curious about the examples you're talking about. Let's see them!

Not Everything Can Be Quantified

"they can't be quantified."

When Brunelleschi was designing the duomo, or Michelangelo was designing the Palazzo del Senatore, or Jefferson was designing Monticello, did they believe that architectural quality could be quantified? Has anybody ever claimed that architectural quality can be quantified?

Has anybody (except for you) ever claimed that architectural quality is unimportant purely because it cannot be quantified? You might as well say that Leonardo's Last Supper and Michelangelo's David are not important, because their beauty cannot be quantified.

"I really don't care about the aesthetics or the vision. A competently designed place, a GOOD place, will make urban life happen."

If you are helping to build these good places, then I wish you every success. I agree completely that building this sort of good urban place is one of the most important tasks of our time.

It doesn't follow that architecture has no importance at all. In fact, if you look at the history of architecture, you will see that it has been important to helping set the direction of western culture. Renaissance architecture was one part of the revival of the classics that was common at the time. Modernist architecture was one part of the glorification of technology and progress that was common during the mid-twentieth century.

If you "really don't care about the aesthetics," then leave aesthetics to people who do care about it. Don't focus so narrowly on your own work that you claim everything else has zero importance.

"I'm increasingly curious about the examples you're talking about. Let's see them!"

See my post below for my suggested examples.

Charles Siegel


I think you're coming on a little strong. I'm not saying aesthetics aren't important. Then again, we're not building the duomo, and your local architect isn't Brunelleschi. But I don't want to put words like "imaginative" and "visionary" in my neighborhood urban design plan, because then those words go to the Planning Commission or the Architectural Review Board and they don't know how to decide whether a submitted project should be approved on those grounds. (See Anderson v. Issaquah) for an example of how overly-vague descriptors can be abused by a planning department.)

I want to make good urban places happen. But we (as planners) have to have language and direction that is clear and quantifiable, so that the developers and architects who will build and design these places can do so appropriately. I don't think good urbanism necessarily has to be traditional (like in your examples) or Modernist, or a mish-mash like at Market Common. Aesthetics are important, but I personally have other concerns so long as we're not working with 15th-century Italian masters.

Clear Language and Sense of Place

"But we (as planners) have to have language and direction that is clear and quantifiable, so that the developers and architects who will build and design these places can do so appropriately."

As I said earlier:
"The buildings should be varied in design but should all have compatible traditional detailing, like older neighborhoods that were built over time. Of course, the New Urbanists write codes that do exactly this."

There are planners who use form-based codes to create a strong sense of place, and they don't use illegally vague words like "imaginative" and "visionary."

Aesthetics are important, but I personally have other concerns

As I said earlier, if you personally have other concerns, that is no reason to criticize people who do care about aesthetics.

I personally care about architecture. Tim wrote an article saying he personally cares about sense of place. Your criticisms of Tim article were quite ....


Charles Siegel

Visionary Developments

Here are two examples of what I consider to be visionary planned communities--both in Colorado. One is smaller and one is much larger. They are:

Prospect New Town in Longmont, CO - 80 acres, to house approximately 2,000 people in 585 units. See http://www.prospectnewtown.com/ and at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prospect_New_Town and my photos taken over the years at http://urbanexus.smugmug.com/Architecture/Longmont-Colorado-Prospect/324...

Forest City Stapleton in Denver, CO - 4,700 acres, to house about 30,000 people in 12,000 units and 13 million square feet of commercial space. Go to http://stapletondenver.com/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stapleton_International_Airport and see photos I have taken at http://urbanexus.smugmug.com/Architecture/Stapleton/12423990_KnYTY#96664...

Greenfields development "vision"

Take a look at THIS:


One of the things that DOES matter, and causes architects major grief, is that if land prices are really high because of urban growth restraints, there is usually a lot less "funds" to put into the actual "structure".

That "village towns" proposal is intended to be done on converted farmland with minimal "planning gain"; nil involvement of incumbent governments in infrastructure provision; and minimal transport connection with the nearest cities. The intention is to be as "self contained" as possible, and at attractive prices as well as attractive features.

You're Idolizing Walt Disney?

Wow - he may have been a visionary, but he was also a despot. His "Imagineers" were most certainly exploited, and he certainly didn't believe in treating his employees fairly. Not to mention, he was racist and antisemitic. Futurists overlook these sorts of things, because they envision the populations of their plans to be quite homogeneous. Is this really what you're envisioning?

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Urban legends

Like the idea that Walt Disney had himself cryogenically frozen, the idea that Disney was antisemitic and racist in general is a myth. Neal Gabler digs deeply into his history in his biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, and finds no evidence to support those claims and evidence to the contrary. As to how he treated his employees, yes, he was certainly a petty tyrant and Gabler gives extensive coverage of that behavior. The people who worked for him feared his wrath, but were also extremely devoted to him.

You are correct that anyone envisioning a "utopia" will inevitably be faced with the fact that their vision of utopia is someone else's vision of hell, and being ignorant of other cultures/experiences is a sure way to fail in that regard. At the same time, we need people with strong personalities and visions to lead the way to a better tomorrow, and in today's climate those visions will certainly face a variety of filters, roadblocks and community input that will keep those issues in check.

Sterile Environments


Although creative, Disney produced "urban" environments that were sterile and with an aim at controlling disobedience. He loved the idea of a Main St environment without the poverty and misery that face many central districts. Any progressive urban development must take into account the social conditions that face people in order to produce more virtuous built environments that can promote a more prosperous life style.

Piscataquis Village Project

Tracy Gayton,

Is it possible that a gang of amateurs from the Maine woods can pull off a Traditionally Designed City project in the most sparsely populated county east of the Mississippi? This is a greenfield proposal, primarily based on the technical work of JH Crawford, inspired by the no B*S* simplicity of Nathan Lewis, and with a touch of Claude Lewenz. It doesn't get any more grassroots than this:


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