New Urbanism – An Experience inside the town of Celebration, Florida

13 01 2008

I’m spending a couple of weeks with my family and the Mowry clan in Kissimmee, FL and Stephen, my business partner, and I were looking for a coffee shop to work from on Friday away from the barrage of plastic, flashy gift shops and flavorless food chains that dominate most of Kissimmee’s commercial strip. Mindlessly following our Iphone directions we landed in a beautifully planned community with an early 20th century feel we thought was perhaps old downtown Kissimmee.

The next day I took my family back to the town and we got lost (literally) weaving through the neighborhoods and countless parks. No doubt this place was carefully planned from the ground up and the way its various “villages” were planned (rectangular cul-de-sacs with common areas for every 10 single family homes mixed with nearby matching apartment buildings, condos and town houses with a clear central club house, community pool and recreational facilities) really fit with a philosophy of urban planning I’ve been interested with for sometime called new urbanism.

When we returned to our rental home I began to do some research and discovered we were not, in fact, in Kissimmee but in a town called Celebration. The town of Celebration was the brain child of the Walt Disney Corporation and an outgrowth of Disney’s EPCOT dream (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) and required an estimated 2.5 billion dollars of investment.

Taking a quick step back, most people think of Urban planning and development as a highly specialized field (if they think of it at all) and totally underestimate how this factor, in so many ways, dictates the culture in which we live. For most of human existence we were forced to live in small tight communities needing to keep all things necessary for life (food supplies, religious gatherings, employment, education etc.) within walking distance. This gave rise to a particular culture involving a clear town center where, ideas are exchanged, cooperation is encouraged and individuals and families are deeply known by a long standing reputation.

Then a decision was subtly (and mindlessly) made that decimated the urban landscape with an incalculable and unimaginable series of consequences we have only begun to experience. We decided, beginning in the 40s and 50s, to plan new communities around the needs and capacities of the automobile instead of the needs of human beings. This choice, more than any decision of our century, has done more to destroy modern western culture (replacing interdependent community living with hyper-individualism) and our only hope for recovery is to choose to intentionally design communities around a totally different philosophy.

OK, back to the town of Celebration. Even if you don’t find the communitycelebration.jpg especially appealing it was clearly planned with the people in mind. Celebration contains so many miles of trails into deep woods that I disturbed a sleeping family of wild boars during our meandering hike. We heard live music playing in one community space as the villagers gathered for an evening meal. After spending only 2 afternoons there I saw several people for the second time and, due to this growing familiarity, was tempted to actual start a conversation with these complete strangers (and for an introvert like me you know that’s saying a lot).

All this to say I’d like to let you in on a little dream of mine. That someday, when my urban philosophy has matured and my resources have multiplied, I, along with a group of like-minded families, would like to architect a village designed to help humans flourish (instead of multi-national oil corporations). But its going to take a bit of introspective questioning on all our parts. Perhaps you can start by asking yourself a few questions like –

Why did you choose to live in your community?
Do you frequent a clear town center with other members of your community?
Do you know the philosophy that dictates the plans of your city?
Do you get involved in city elections and proposals?
Are you adding to the culture of your community through your lifestyle or contributing to its disintegration?

Recommended reading – The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs