Design can’t be everything. Ask your kid who goes to Disney World and doesn’t like Mickey or Cinderella Castle. All they want to do is ride Space Mountain a bunch of times. That’s right. They’d rather go on a ride that strips away your sense of knowing where you are going and makes you trust your other four senses. Now this ride’s mechanics and even some of the cool spacey stuff are designed well, but it’s really about the feeling.
Your kid throws away their Goofy hat when you get home, but he starts figuring out how to create that feeling that he had in Space Mountain. Which probably means they are playing in their room in the dark. But they are still happy about their trip to Disney World. And it is more about what they could feel than the actual design of the thing.
We can apply the same idea to our cities.
But before we get deep into that conversation, let’s talk about that time Disney made an actual city. Celebration, Florida was conceived as the second effort (EPCOT was the first) to create the ideal 21st Century city. Borrowing some from the new urbanism movement, which had just been chartered, a small town was created on some Disney-owned land. I’ve written about the town before, namely the book written by a family who moved there as one of the first families in the new town. Another book, with a darker, more pedantic tone was written by a single man who moved into an apartment near the town square.
While both sets of people had praise for the community at first, the single man found that he was isolated and that the community didn’t have much to offer for singles. The family and families like them, had issues with the school. It prided itself on being very progressive from grades K-12. One of those progressive tenants was a non-traditional grading system, that didn’t even consider conversions of said grades into the A-F scale sought by most, if not all colleges. This ultimately caused some parents to leave the school. Also dead was the idea of a neighborhood school. The school split into a lower and upper school, with the upper school on a totally different side of the community.
Eventually the family in the book moved back to their New England home and to a traditional school. The other guy moved on too. Others stayed in the community, but not without encountering other struggles. Many moved there hoping that the Disney magical feeling would fall over them. Yet, this was a town, not a theme park. You can’t always create the feeling you want in a place.
Or can you? How do you find a place that has the right feel? How do I determine that feel? This is what I do.
First, I assess the variety of activities, living situations, transportation situations and other tangible places and experiences. Am I forced to live in a house or can I get an apartment. Do I have to drive all the time or can I take the bus, walk or ride a bike? Do people tend to cluster in diverse groups of friends or do people tend to only have friends who look like them? Does the music scene have more than one genre that’s predominant or at least have my favorite style of music? What kinds of things can I eat? Are their cool third places like libraries, parks, arcades and other places where I can go and not just go to work or home or eat? Who can fix my hair the way I like? This also ties into another metric i use, mobility. How easy can I get in, out and around town?
Second, I look at level of respect people have for each other and their differences. Do actual criminals get punished? Do people assume others are automatically criminals because of their skin color, their body type and size or some other arbitrary type? Do people have to join certain groups or churches or have attended certain schools to be able to affect change in the city? Is there a voice for the poor, the downtrodden, the powerless? Could I walk safely without the worry of a person yelling at me, thinking this is the only way he could get my attention? Even in a room of “professional” people, will those guys carry on a conversation with me that doesn’t reek of “I need to take her home with me”? Will the women see me not as a threat, but a potential friend? Will they all have stupid, and in some cases completely offensive ideas about me as a black woman? I’m doing my best to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, will they do that for me?
Third, how resilient is the city? Does it mope and moan when major companies don’t pick it or when those companies shut down?Does it recognize why its young college students are leaving? Does it get stuck in its old ways or think things can only happen one way? When natural disasters show up, is it ready to evacuate or properly house people on better ground? Is it constantly complaining about how much it has to clean up? Is it doing all that it can to help people come back to where they were or is it sitting, ready to gentrify the land that those devastated homes sit on?
As our Disney examples earlier illustrated, you could have the perfectly designed city, both real like Celebration or more fake like EPCOT and the rest of the theme park. Yet, if someone doesn’t feel comfortable there, then all of your efforts are wasted. Or, sometimes people just want a feeling, and don’t need special designs or programs or events. They just want to be put in the right environment and be allowed to fend for themselves.
This doesn’t excuse efforts to help people feel better about needed changes, i.e. our friends who feel bike lanes, while open to everyone, are part of the residential gentrification going on in DC and other places. This again underscores why we need to ask open-ended questions.
Finally, quantitative measures are great, especially when they help us keep our streets clean and our buses coming on time. But if they don’t feel right, then they are doomed to fail too, just like our cities as a whole.
Interested in my thoughts about Kansas City and how I feel about it so far? I’m talking about that live on KCUR’s Central Standard at 1o a.m. Central/11 a.m. Eastern Tuesday November 10 (which is today if you are reading this post within its first 24 hours). You can always catch a replay of it as well. Both can be found at this link. Also, catch me on Twitter and Facebook.