Assessing Disney's Impact on Urban Planning

Rachel James speaks with historian Jennifer Gray about the impact that Disney's "particular brand of nostalgic, comforting architecture and urbanism" has had on the way people experience the city and professionals plan for it.

1 minute read

October 17, 2012, 2:00 PM PDT

By Jonathan Nettler @nettsj

"Less radical than incrementally progressive" when seen in the tradition of traveling carnivals and permanent amusement parks, Disneyland was nevertheless pioneering in its marketing and design, and particularly in its "architecture of reassurance," says Gray.

Although Disneyland's sentimental architecture is easily caricatured, Gray believes that Disney's approach to the physical and socio-political aspects of urbanism have been more profound. "Disney
amusement parks create an expectation among visitors that cities should
be immaculate, apolitical, highly ordered spaces populated, for the most
part, by people not unlike themselves."

"In recent years Disney-urbanism has colonized authentic cities," notes Gray. "Urban
entertainment districts such as South Street Seaport in New York,
Quincy Market in Baltimore, and Harbor Place in Baltimore are good
examples. South Street Seaport conveys the impression of a once-active
seafaring culture, but without the messiness of a functioning seaport –
the smell of fish, working-class dockhands, clamoring fish mongers.
Instead we find national retail and restaurant chains like The Gap and

Concludes Gray, "[d]espite the fact that Disneyland is not a city but an amusement park,
Karal Ann Marling points out that it does ask the right questions: 'What
should the city look like?  And who or what should be in control?'
Perhaps we just need different answers to those questions."


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