OPINION

Making Better Fake Cities

If you follow the entertainment/business news, you know that Disney bought Pixar, the digital animation company that made Toy Story, among other great movies. What's interesting about that? First of all, Steve Jobs -- Pixar's CEO -- is now on Disney's Board of Directors, and the companies that get Jobs on their board often end up with Jobs as their CEO, as a colleague of mine at Wired has observed. But more germane for our purposes here is the new job for Pixar's head creative guy, John Lasseter. He's moving to advise Walt Disney Imagineering, the Darpa of the Disney empire. Imagineers are the guys who design the rides and attractions at the theme parks, come up with the gimmicks for the cruise lines, and in general make all the cool stuff. Say what you will about Disney, but they do some cool stuff.

How badass are the Imagineers? If the four words "Pirates of the Carribean" don't impress you, then spend some quality time on Google with the search term Danny Hillis. That's the kind of guy who works in Imagineering.

The Disney blogs -- and there are many of them -- went nuts. See, they were already chronicling what many described as a descent into corporate-ness of the Disney parks, steps away from Walt's original magic visions and toward...well, toward Disney California Adventure, I guess, which (like almost every other human being on Earth) I've never been to. But with Lasseter in some kind of command position -- Lasseter, the genius behind all those great movies, the guy sitting in front of that new fangled "computer" that might someday "animate" special effects at the end of my old coffee table book about Industrial Light and Magic, the George Lucas special effects shop -- things might turn around.

Which brings us to why we're interested in all this on an urban planning blog. See, the Disney theme parks are actually idealized cities. You probably know about Celebration, Florida, the planned community developed by Disney to exemplify New Urbanist values. And you maybe also know that Epcot used to be EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and that Walt intended people to actually live there (like they do in Arthur C. Clarke's weird sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010). And smarter people than I have written about Disney's idea of Main Street and how it relates to, well, Main Street.

(Actually, Disneyland's Main Street is probably a lot more like a midwestern town's Second Street, when you think about it. John Stilgoe, a professor of landscape design and history at Harvard, told a class I attended that most of those bygone towns built their Main Streets out of wood, and they all burned down in the early 1800s. So they built Second Street out of brick and plaster and stone...and then rebuilt Main Street in a more modern style when they had the money. But probably walking into Disneyland to experience Second Street wouldn't have the same sparkle.)

Anyway, my point: as much as Walt was influenced by nostalgic notions of urban planning when he and the imagineers laid out Main Street, and by modernist ideas about urban planning when he and the boys planned Tomorrowland, those places in turn influenced generations of urban planners. How else to explain the Urban Entertainment Destination as a phenomenon, the mall that looks like a street? And if the Broken Windows theory of law enforcement in cities (in brief, go after the minor crimes and you keep a neighborhood looking happy, so no one thinks it's unwatched and ripe for major crimes) isn't a Disneyfied notion, I don't know what is. No broken windows on Main Street, baby.

So: ideal cities influenced the imagineers. The imagineers influenced ideal cities. The imagineers fell out of favor and became corrupt. John Lasseter is a genius. John Lasseter is now the head of the imagineers.

You see where I'm headed with this?

I'm not first out of the blocks with this notion. Here's a blog called Re-Imagineering, where lots of current and former Disney imagineers are pouring their hearts out in the hopes that Lasseter and his people will be the ones holding the grail to catch all the juice. This is the entry I particularly want to commend to your attention:


Yes, Walt relied a lot on the corporate world and technology to save the day. Imagineers don't have to do that all over again. We know now that technology won't save us, it has to be used in innovative ways. Back when the Imagineers were developing Tomorrowland they visited NASA and Bell Labs and talked to the thinkers of the time about what the future would look like. They should do that again, although this time include people like William McDonough, the green innovator of construction, or Andres Duany, the persuasive New Urbanist.


I just told my wife what I was blogging about, and she gave me some really good feedback. She said: "Ew. Gross." She doesn't want Disney philosophy coloring her cities. I don't blame her. Hour three at Disneyland is fun; hour eight starts to feel seriously creepy. But no matter how we feel about Disney -- good, bad, or conflicted -- the imagineers' back-to-the-future approach to citymaking already pervades our built environment. Now, today, the sneaky bit will be to make the Disney philosophy better, to build and improve theme parks that are already labs for urban planning and nurseries for baby urban planners.

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