By Suthen Siva
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Where do you live?
The answer to this question defines your lifestyle, the people you surround yourself with, your career trajectory and future opportunities, the problems you will face, and even your life partner.
And increasingly, the answer to that question is a city.
We live in a world of unprecedented urbanization. Cities have brought society huge rewards, including record-high economic growth and value creation.
Yet, cities are in a world of trouble. Their archaic infrastructures are showing cracks and their streets are congested to the point of being un-drivable.
We have learned to work around the problems we see in cities instead of tackling them straight on.
The blatant absence of a holistic approach limits the change that we’re able to create when it comes to urban planning and development.
Who should we look to in order to tackle these problems? One surprising answer that I will explore in this essay—Walt Disney.
We all know of him as the founder of one of the world’s greatest entertainment companies. He went from being an animator to creating movies and TV shows and finally building larger-than-life theme parks.
My first (and only) visit to Walt Disney World when I was eight years old was a magical experience. The theme parks brought my childhood fantasies to life. I felt like I had explored the entire world and travelled through time without having to leave the park.
I also didn’t understand why my home city, Toronto, couldn’t be “more Disney.” It just lacked the WOW factor and coherent design that I experienced at Walt Disney World. For a long time, I assumed it was just way too expensive/impractical to create a city the way Disney had created Walt Disney World.
Twenty years later, I learned that Walt Disney himself had explored the idea of creating the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), a utopian city that had the potential to eclipse his reputation in the entertainment world.
The EPCOT exhibit that we know today is merely a tribute to the futuristic mindset of Walt Dinsey.
While Disney was unable to execute his vision, he left a blueprint that could help us rethink the design of our cities today.
My question: What can we learn from Walt’s grand vision for EPCOT and the steps he took so far? How might those lessons help those looking to build the next city of tomorrow?
I’ll start by discussing why cities matter and the problems they face. Then, I’ll then describe what inspired Disney to go into city building — a field that’s seemingly far away from building theme parks and movies. This will then lead to a breakdown of Disney’s vision for EPCOT.
Next, I’ll explain how Disney gained legislative and public support for his vision. We’ll then circle back to today and understand the current state of charter cities — cities that are granted a special jurisdiction to create a new governance system. Finally, we’ll explore the idea of having a sense of place, a key component that is overlooked by cities today and was an innate characteristic in Disney’s vision for EPCOT.
Table of Contents
Why Cities Matter
For the purpose of this essay, I’ll define cities as regions that are self-governed, managed by their own infrastructure, with a population of 250,000+ people. There are, of course, hundreds of cities that don’t meet these criteria (depending on where you draw the boundaries).
Today, we travel around the world and make life-changing decisions based on the people, culture, and opportunities that each city provides.
As Ed Glaeser, urban economist and author of Triumph of the City notes,
Cities make us healthier, wealthier, even happier. They’re a testament to human ingenuity, feats of complex coordination, and our greatest and most reliable source of productivity and progress, economically and otherwise. Given what an outsized role they play in spurring progress and innovation, cities — and the study of how they rise, decline, and evolve over time — are underrated.
In his essay on network effects, James Currier aptly describes how cities can impact your entire life trajectory:
Where you live largely determines who you know. Physical proximity is predictive of network formation. Cities are like scaled-up colleges. They do a great job of helping us form networks because they are social + physical networks themselves.
Even in a world in which people build networks online, the networks people form in their home cities matter.
Larger cities mean more access to network clusters, leading to a greater diversity of talent, ideas, and backgrounds compared to smaller cities.
Choosing the city you live in is not a simple decision. The following questions that Currier uses to help others decide which cities to live in are representative of how critical this decision can be.
Are the people in this city like you? Each city has a vibe that may or may not fit with you. Each city calls ambitious people to improve in some area. Ex: NYC calls you to earn more money.
How important is your career to you? Because GDP scales nonlinearly with population size in cities, your career earnings will grow faster in a city than elsewhere.
How much do you enjoy a fast pace of life? In a big city, everything moves faster. People walk quicker, opportunities arise more frequently, you meet new people and encounter new ideas more often.
The Problems with Cities
The global population in cities continues to grow at 1.4% per year with 68% of the world’s population projected to live in urban areas by 2050 (just under 5 billion people).
It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of this.
Despite the monumental role cities play in our society, the urban planning function has been abysmal in allocating humans and capital.
Urban planning is an incredibly painful process and often prohibits the private sector from moving quickly to enact changes.
To show you the pain of urban planning, here’s a diagram of its typical process, including everything that could go wrong at each stage of a project:
Tobi Nussbaum calls the issues “The Five I’s of Urban Planning Failure.” Let’s look at each one in more detail.
1. Influence: There are a number of stakeholders involved in the planning process, including public officials, citizens, financiers, and developers. One can argue that none of the mentioned stakeholders are incentivized to take a holistic, long-term approach to make key changes.
2. Inertia: Municipal processes and standards are typically slow to change, making it hard to adapt to emerging evidence and/or technologies.
3. Illiteracy: Stakeholders (politicians and/or the public) may not have a complete understanding of the issues at hand and discuss issues that aren’t entirely relevant. This leads to ill-informed community discussions.
4. Inconsistency: Decisions tend to happen in a silo (amongst politicians or a single city department) and do not have the necessary cohesion that’s suggested by best practices in urban planning.
5. Interference: There’s a tendency to make multiple changes after decisions are made (largely due to political reasons), making it difficult to stay the course on any one particular plan.
It would be a huge mistake to view cities as a function of real estate. However, the structure of our prized cities has become incredibly archaic.
Imagine if cities such as New York or London were humans. They’d have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom (e.g. a city’s culture) but would be encumbered by their poor organs (poor infrastructure) and would have no focus on personal fitness (poor maintenance).
Our approach toward city development is the equivalent of believing that there’s a one-time fix for human health — if only things were that easy.
For example, our approach toward maintaining transportation systems is determined by a backlog of issues vs. being proactive and identifying risk areas before they materialize.
As you’ll see in later sections, Disney took a human-centered design approach — focusing on the needs of the individual and the sustainability of the experience he created.
The design of cities requires a deep understanding of the trajectory of two key components: transportation and infrastructure. The mobility of people and goods and the sustainability of the city’s systems were the biggest reasons why Disney believed cities weren’t able to flourish.
The transportation architecture of cities, despite shifts in human behavior and underlying technologies, hasn’t drastically changed in the past several decades.
This is an illustration of the number of transportation modes available to the Los Angeles public.
From a design perspective, this street presents a number of problems.
Most urban planners originally designed cities for a lower density of automobile and pedestrian traffic.
The inability to plan for the level of urbanization that has occurred over the past couple of decades (in addition to future generations) has led to an overworked transportation network. The typical commuter now spends 20 more minutes a week commuting than they did a decade ago.
This was an issue that Walt Disney identified in 1958 — at the peak of the automobile evolution. His documentary, Magic Highway USA, goes into the evolution of America’s highway system. Here’s a quick summary:
In the automobile’s early days, it was difficult to make long-distance trips because roads were tough to drive on. People instead used railroads and carried a number of tools to make long-distance trips. When you encountered another car on a small road, the right-of-way was often decided by a coin toss.
As roads started to improve, cars continued to outpace road growth. Disney said the production of 116 million cars in the first 50 years of the automobile era will lead “to the biggest traffic jam in history.”
“The automobile has created a highly industrialized America of abundance and made us the most mobile people in the world. But with all the pleasure the automobile has given us, it has overloaded our highways.”
It’s hard to understate Disney’s ability to see the long-term effects amidst the rise of the automobile. It’s the equivalent of seeing Jeff Bezos use electricity as a metaphor to explain the power of the Internet right after the dot com bubble burst.
Today, our roads have grown to include a number of vehicles (cars, buses, trains) in addition to pedestrians. The end result is traffic congestion.
At the time of its creation, people marveled at Los Angeles’s highway system, which supposedly solved the problem of automobile congestion.
Today, the traffic in Los Angeles is known to be among the worst in North America. Drivers in L.A. spend on average 119 hours each year in traffic delays, the highest amount in the country. The city also ranks fourth in the nation in excess fuel per commuter due to congestion and first in congestion cost per driver.
We have also been incredibly slow to change our transportation modes and find new efficiencies. London’s Crossrail is a great example of how slow our “time to market” can be.
London’s Crossrail, a major subterranean railway line currently under construction, is estimated to cost £14.8 billion ($19.7 billion), with 10,000 people working across 40 construction sites. Upon completion, it will add 42 km (26 miles) of new tunnels beneath the city, integrated with existing lines and stations. Yet navigating the existing networks of underground tunnels, pipes, and cables, as well as archaeological sites, has proved extremely challenging. Despite being proposed in 1974, the complexities of planning and costing the project led to the work starting in 2009 and not launching in 2021.
The poor transportation architecture, accommodation of multiple modes of transportation and slow time to market were critical problems that Disney identified and aimed to solve. However, the underlying problems, particularly slow time to market, weren’t just limited to our transportation systems.
Infrastructure projects, especially in large cities, are known to be a painful process that requires a lot of time. According to a recent report by Ernst and Young, Canadian infrastructure megaprojects run 39% – or US$2.2 billion – over budget and behind schedule by 12 months on average. The lack of cooperation between the public and private sectors has led to a massive infrastructure gap.
According to the Global Infrastructure Hub, the world will face a $15 trillion gap between the projected investment and the amount needed to provide adequate global infrastructure by 2040.
Here’s a breakdown of what this looks like by country:
The majority of this infrastructure gap lies within our cities as our urban population continues to grow rapidly.
Using conventional methods to fill the growing infrastructure gap would be futile. It’s important to form public-private partnerships that bring the latest technologies to infrastructure development.
An example of a public-private partnership that was touted with having massive potential is the Sidewalk Labs in downtown Toronto.
While living in Toronto, I’ve had the opportunity to monitor the partnership of Google and the City of Toronto and their formation of Sidewalk Labs in 2017.
The intent of Sidewalk Labs is remarkable. Here’s an excerpt introducing the concept of Sidewalk Labs from their website:
Sidewalk Labs identified the building blocks of a neighborhood — mobility, public realm, buildings and housing, and sustainability — and explored how urban innovations within these areas could support a new kind of community and infuse flexibility into the built environment.
However, in the past three years, the partnership has not shown the progress it expected. Here’s a timeline of events:
In 2015, Google set out to improve cities everywhere by launching Sidewalk Labs, a smart city and urban design consultancy.
The company announced its first major project in 2017: the creation of the Quayside district in Toronto, a futuristic neighborhood that seamlessly integrates the digital and the physical worlds.
In June of 2019, Sidewalk’s master plan was released, eliciting a barrage of controversy around privacy and participation.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association initiated a lawsuit against the local, provincial, and federal government over data privacy concerns.
This lawsuit has been one of many roadblocks that have stalled the progress of this project.
A key block to innovative projects like Sidewalk Labs is the fact that private organizations don’t have legislation to give them the flexibility needed to experiment and innovate on new ideas.
Walt Disney made it a point to work with local and state officials to make sure that he had as much control (from a legislative perspective) over his area when building out Walt Disney World and EPCOT.
The lack of cooperation between private organizations and state officials to form partnerships and take risks has made it tough to execute on grand ideas such as Sidewalk Labs.
What Inspired Disney To Go Into Urban Planning?
Before we go into Disney’s grandiose plan for EPCOT, it’s important to understand what inspired him to go into urban planning in the first place. This will help explain why his perspective differs from conventional thinking.
Over the course of his career, Disney went from building an animation and television studio in Hollywood to creating world-class theme parks.
According to his close confidantes, Disney never believed in doing the same thing twice. He felt like that was a recipe for failure. This ironically flies in the face of the Disney enterprise’s expansion strategy implemented after his passing where the team focused on “exporting” the Disney experience to countries around the world.
On the surface, city development seemed to be an unlikely next step. However, two major influences inspired Walt Disney to pursue the design, transportation, and infrastructure problems behind city planning.
It first starts with The 1964 World Fair.
Here’s a bit of a background on the fair itself:
It was inspired by a group of New York businessmen who wanted to replicate the success of the 1939/1940 World Fair.
Led by Robert Moses, New York’s Master Builder, it was the largest World’s Fair ever to be held in the United States occupying nearly a square mile of land.
The fair didn’t get the expected international participation as the U.S. was not a part of the Bureau of International Expositions. Noticeable absentees included: Great Britain, France, and Germany, as well as Canada and Australia.
However, there was the extensive involvement of United States corporations as exhibitors.
The Fair’s theme was “Peace Through Understanding,” was dedicated to “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe,” and was often referred to as an “Olympics of Progress.”
By the time the gates closed, more than 51 million people had attended the exposition — a respectable attendance for a World’s Fair but some 20% below the projected attendance of 70 million.
While Disney did not have an exhibit of their own, WED Enterprise (Disney’s design team) was a critical part of many corporate exhibits. You’ll also notice that Disney used this opportunity to test out different ideas (e.g. the People Mover System) that he would later incorporate into his plans for EPCOT. This included:
“Pepsi-Cola Presents Walt Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World‘—a Salute to UNICEF and the World’s Children” at the Pepsi-Cola pavilion: Animated dolls and animals frolicked in a spirit of international unity accompanying a boat ride around the world. The song was written by the Sherman Brothers.
General Electric sponsored “Progressland” where an audience was seated in a revolving auditorium called the “Carousel of Progress” where they viewed an audio-animatronic presentation of the progress of electricity in the home. The Sherman Brothers composed “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” for this attraction. The highlight of the exhibit demonstrated a brief plasma “explosion” of controlled nuclear fusion.
Ford Motor Company presented “Ford’s Magic Skyway“, a WED Imagineering-designed pavilion which was the second-most popular exhibit at the fair. It featured 50 motorless convertible Ford vehicles, including Mustangs, in an early prototype of what became the PeopleMover ride system. Audience members entered the vehicles on the main platform as they moved slowly along the track. The ride moved the audience through scenes featuring life-sized, audio-animatronic dinosaurs and cavemen.
Herein lies Disney’s genius yet again. Instead of paying to create their own exhibition, Disney used WED Enterprise (his design team) to create entire exhibitions for free.
Once the fair was done, the exhibitions were moved to Disneyland and replicated at Walt Disney World.
Working with America’s leading corporations also gave Disney a glimpse into the importance of working with the broader corporate community. This is a key characteristic that Disney builds into his design for EPCOT.
Disney anticipated that several citizens could work on the innovation teams for the largest American companies, reinforcing the culture of progress and evolution that Disney looked to build at EPCOT.
The second key event that inspired Walt was the emergence of a certain Austrian planner named Victor Gruen. Gruen, an Austrian-born architect, emigrated to the United States after Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.
After some time in the U.S., Gruen had an opportunity to design a Fifth Avenue leather goods boutique. Gruen developed a revolutionary storefront that earned rave reviews from critics.
From there, he went on to build the outdoor shopping center “Northland” just outside of Detroit around its hometown department store, Hudson. At 163 acres and ten thousand parking spaces, “Northland” was allegedly the nation’s first outdoor regional shopping mall.
Suffice to say, Gruen was a rising architect and had already designed one of the most influential constructs of his time — the American shopping mall.
The fact that Gruen was one of the designers behind a proposal to bring the 1964 World Fair to Washington leads me to believe that Disney was aware of his work.
While Gruen was working on his proposal for the World Fair, Disney had already begun a project in the Fort Worth area.
The Fort Worth Plan proposed the creation of a large downtown area with giant, city-owned parking garages fed by highways from the suburbs. The core of the city would be designed for pedestrians only, creating a more congenial downtown environment.
The city was to be transformed into a radial, car-free business hub that would simultaneously save the downtown from blight and provide a template for other American cities pursuing both regulated development and new communitarian ideals.
His plan called for the city to be embedded in a ring of parking garages linked to highways by ramps. The traveler must park and walk into the city to shop – just like she did for the suburban shopping center. The shopper would be motivated to do this because the city would provide the experience and pleasure that they expected.
Gruen explains his rationale for his Fort Worth plan in his seminal 1964 book, The Heart of Our Cities.
An intense socialist who hated cars, he believed in walking. This aligns with his upbringing in Austria, where pedestrian-centric cities were more common.
His modern city would, like the regional shopping mall, emphasize walking. However, Victor also understood that cars had an integral role in future America and cities had to adapt to that reality.
He firmly believed that the central city’s arrogance, inflexibility, and rigid planning guidelines were kicking retailers and people to the suburbs.
Gruen compared the metropolitan area to a living organism with the commerce and shopping centre (the business district) as its heart. According to Gruen, the business district “works as a pump supplying the cells and tissues located throughout the metropolitan area with life-giving energy. Most of all, it supplies the brain of the city.”
This statement largely rings true today, where the ebbs and flows of businesses determine the growth of the city.
Gruen also believed the arteries and veins (transportation system) of the city were clogged: “the urban heart has to absorb … large numbers of vehicles which it could not do given its 1920 design. Planners and downtown elites made things worse by rigidly requiring obsolete and dysfunctional building, design, and zoning codes. The planning requirements made it impossible for the car to function and the consumer to shop” (Gruen 52).
This essay by the Council for Community and Economic Research outlines eight design characteristics Gruen enacted in his projects:
Constructed on large tracts of land
Constructed on land adjacent to highways
With a market area of 300,000 to 500,000 square feet
Driving time of about twenty minutes
The commercial area is located in the center of the project, surrounded by large expanses of parking (four to five times the acreage of commercial center), is pedestrian-only, and is sometimes weather-protected
Equipped with amenities including fountains, park benches, artworks, park or garden-like landscaping
Car storage areas (i.e. parking) are ringed by an internal distribution road connected at various points to the highways, the public road network, and public transit, with special roads for service delivery to the center, sometimes to underground loading docks; and
A willingness to add other uses (gas station, food courts, medical offices, office buildings, hotels, grocery stores, stand-alone retail, movies/theaters, auditorium, children’s play areas, bicycle paths–and high-rise apartments and middle-class housing–whatever the market and consumer desires.
What Was Wrong with Gruen’s Master Plan?
There were three main challenges that prohibited Gruen’s grand Fort Worth Plan from coming to fruition.
Financial Control: When he was creating shopping malls, it was relatively easy to get financing, as there was only one owner with limited capital costs (as malls were normally a greenfield development). On the other hand, Gruen’s idea involved the redevelopment of Fort Worth’s downtown area — an expensive endeavour that involved cooperation from multiple owners.
Political Support: Federal involvement in city urban renewal was unfortunately not a popular idea at the time. Almost all of the famous urban renewal projects of the 1950s were totally privately financed and consisted of major corporations building or rebuilding office headquarters. Most projects after the 1950s still didn’t build in terms of a holistic city but rather focused on financeable phased construction built on superblocks, designed to achieve their own purposes.
Infrastructure Support: This was the time of interstates and interstate access to our big central cities. But the maps had long since been drawn and the highway system Gruen wanted was again expensive, and it cut large swatches through areas immediately adjacent to the downtown. Moreover, state and federal transportation planners and engineers did not think like Gruen. They chose routes to connect existing locations, not to support the development of a new location.
Although it is unclear whether Disney and Gruen actually met in person, Gruen was aware of his work via Disneyland.
In his book, The Heart of Our Cities, Gruen mentions Disneyland and finds the park an important urban space and an excellent example of cellular urban organization. He states that the park has become “a social center, a center of national and international tourism.”
As we begin to explore Walt’s vision for EPCOT, we’ll find many common elements within Gruen’s plan for the Fort Worth area. This includes the hub and spoke model and Gruen’s eight design characteristics.
Walt Disney’s EPCOT Plan
The EPCOT we recognize today is a component of Walt Disney World with over 12 million visitors in 2019. It is best known for its world showcase, which consists of 11 pavilions representing countries from around the world, including Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Japan, the United States, Italy, Germany, China, Norway, and Mexico.
Despite its success as a theme park attraction, the current state of EPCOT is a far cry from Walt’s original vision — the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).
Disney’s original vision of EPCOT was to build a community for 20,000 residents. He believed that he could take everything he learned from building theme parks and apply it to urban city design.
In his documentary presenting his plan for this city, Disney describes his vision for EPCOT:
EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.
The following quote best describes Disney’s belief in EPCOT and his hope for its ability to change the way we build cities.
I don’t believe there is a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities.
Everything in EPCOT will be dedicated to the happiness of the people who live, work, and play here, and those who come here from around the world to visit our living showcase.
The vision that Disney paints for EPCOT and his focus on delighting the people of EPCOT is exactly the type of leadership we need to build the city of tomorrow.
Over the course of the next few sections, I’ll be filling out the table below to explain how Disney used elements of his prior work to create his vision for EPCOT.
A Legible City
Famed urban designer, Nathan Cherry, defines a legible city as a “more sustainable, balanced, and distinctive metropolis that works on all scales, from individual to regional.” The holistic approach that Cherry describes doesn’t exist in city planning today. Most developments are broken down into phases, without a long-term vision for the city’s design.
Similar to his theme parks, Disney proposed a circular concept to design the city with the central component being the cosmopolitan center, followed by high-density housing, a greenbelt park area and finally low-density housing.
Through its congruence (and legibility), the radial design makes it easy for people to identify different neighborhoods and grasp the street network.
Disney decided to focus on the movement of people, not cars. He proposed that EPCOT should have four distinct components to enable ease of transportation.
Trucks: This will allow for easy access to all loading docks and delivery of commercial goods.
Cars: “For the motorist just driving through, no stoplight will ever slow the constant flow of traffic through the center of EPCOT.”
The People Mover: This is really just a larger system of the People Mover that we see in Disneyland where people can get around using an all-electric system that never stops running.
Pedestrians: Disney really made it a point to explain that the “pedestrian is king.” All of his plans described a community where there would be no cars on the surface of the community.
As you might remember from his documentary, Magic Highway USA, Disney advocated for a pedestrian-centric city at the height of the car ownership era. The decision to build a people mover and limit cars to underground use was likely an unpopular choice.
However, as seen through the multiple modes of transportation we handle today, a tiered transportation system can solve many of the congestion problems we face in our cities.
As our society makes the shift toward autonomous vehicles, a tiered transportation system could accelerate the adoption process as autonomous vehicles wouldn’t have to worry about pedestrians or other random behavior. This makes the tiered system a future-proof idea that could last the next several decades.
Disney wanted to take a holistic approach to infrastructure for EPCOT, which is a very similar approach to how he had designed the utilidor system for Walt Disney World.
In Walt Disney World, the utilidor system has been referred to as an “underground city,” the functions of which included:
Waste removal: The Magic Kingdom uses an automated vacuum collection (AVAC) system for waste removal. Custodians remove trash from the park 24 hours a day, then dump it into AVAC system processors throughout the park. The trash then travels through tubes to a central location where it is processed and compressed for transfer to a landfill or recycling plant.
Electrical operations: The park’s computer system, the Digital Animation Control Systems (DACS), is operated and monitored from control rooms in the utilidors. This system monitors everything in the park from sound systems to attractions, parades, fire prevention, and security systems to cash registers.
Deliveries and storage warehouses: Deliveries are received, processed, and stored at the utilidors until use. This ensures that guests do not see delivery trucks, nor do they see cast members carting merchandise through the park.
The model above essentially points to a centralized, automated operation that managed key utility services.
Although there isn’t as much literature on this, the image below indicates Disney was leaning toward building his own nuclear plant to power Walt Disney World and EPCOT.
The plans above exemplify the depth of Disney’s vision for EPCOT. Let’s take a look at how some of the features above map to Disney’s evolution. As you can see, a lot of Disney’s additions were based on his theme parks and the ideas of Victor Gruen.
While the commercial success of Walt Disney World would have given Disney the financial support he needed to make EPCOT a reality, Gruen’s experience with his plan for Fort Worth shows us that there’s a lot more, specifically around getting legislative control, that needs to be considered.
One of the characteristics that differentiates Disney from other visionaries is his ability to work across sectors without compromising on his vision.
Disney’s ability to get the legislative power to build Walt Disney World and EPCOT is a feat that does not receive enough attention today.
As one can imagine, the Florida state government was a big stakeholder in Disney’s vision for EPCOT. The vision Disney outlined above would practically require Disney to be able to run its own mini-government.
With that being said, Disney’s foray into theme parks and his ability to build Disneyland in 366 days shows us that Disney would simply not take no for an answer.
This is where I came across the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, formally designated as a special district and known as the governing jurisdiction for the Walt Disney World Resort (covering over 100 km2).
How Walt Disney and his brother, Roy Disney, secured control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District is remarkable.
To understand the significance of a special district, I’ll quickly go into the definition of the special district and how it has evolved over time.
What Is a Special District?
The U.S. Census Bureau defines a special district as an “independent special-purpose governmental units (other than school district governments) that exist as separate entities with substantial administrative and fiscal independence from general-purpose local governments.”
The History of Special Districts
1800s: States were faced with an increased demand for infrastructure improvements. Special districts were created to issue bonds to pay for the projects, eliminating the need to drastically raise taxes. As with most new debt instruments, some districts overused this vehicle — leading to a financial panic and consequent limitations on the use of special districts.
1930s: President Roosevelt (during the Great Depression) brought back special districts as an efficient governmental form for accomplishing specific tasks. This led to the completion of several infrastructure projects including the Tennessee Valley Authority — an agency that developed agriculture, commerce, and industry in the valley and built the hydroelectric Wilson Dam.
1950s: Leaders of the special districts began to work more closely with state and local executives and more importantly private entrepreneurs. Former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was particularly a big proponent of this shift, creating over 20 special districts from 1959 to 1974.
1980s-Onwards: As local governments operate with reduced federal support, municipalities have created the business improvement district (a certain type of special district) to finance and drive economic activity in segments of larger cities.
In the 2012 census, there were 37,203 special districts across the U.S ranging across several purposes such as fire districts, water districts, library districts, and transit authorities.
During the 1950s, Disney got the approval to create the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Note that this was during a time when state and local governments were working closely with private entrepreneurs across the country. If we expect to see similar partnerships, we must re-create this collaboration between governments and entrepreneurs.
What Makes the Reedy Creek Improvement District Unique?
Most special districts have very specific powers (e.g. fire protection, water service, waste management and etc). Reedy Creek combines a lot of these powers under one entity, giving the Disney team the ability to create one of the world’s largest theme parks.
How Did Disney Pull This Off?
By 1965, Disney had selected Central Florida as its location for Walt Disney World and acquired over 27,000 acres of land for slightly more than $5 million.
The next step involved the creation of a governing strategy for the new development, the Project Future Seminar. During this four-day internal meeting, Disney officials started to realize the need for cooperation with local counties. Key issues that came up included:
The tax structure and the classification of the property as it was being developed. The team wanted to keep large undeveloped portions of the land classified as agricultural land to avoid being taxed at higher commercial rates.
The liability and tax benefits of establishing Disney’s own drainage district.
The applicability of local planning and zoning for the site.
A hallmark characteristic and a key concern for Walt Disney was the need to control the area. This led to the idea of creating a municipality for Disney where voting rights would be limited to landowners.
Sidenote: In addition to the municipality, the Project Future Seminar included discussions around creating an energy facility, banks, an insurance company, and an airport.
While the idea of creating their own municipality was complicated to execute, the Florida government saw the creation of a special district as a win-win. Disney would be able to control the project while the counties would avoid the debt involved with installing the infrastructure for this project.
Despite the untimely death of Walt Disney in 1966, Roy Disney and the team pushed the project forward. In May 1966, the governor signed legislation that represented the privatization of many local regulatory responsibilities including water and flood control, waste collection, disposal, fire protection, land use, and building regulations.
A key theme within the legislation was to grant the district the ability to use experimental technologies for transportation systems, public utilities, and power and energy. Here’s a key excerpt from the legislation:
In order to promote the development and utilization of new concepts, designs, and ideas in the fields of recreation and community living, the District shall have the power and authority to examine into, develop and utilize new concepts, designs, and ideas, and to own, acquire, construct, reconstruct, equip, operate, maintain, extend and improve such experimental public facilities and services as the Board may from time to time determine.
Looking back, the creation of Walt Disney World was more of an urban design project.
Was the Effort Worth It?
Although a great deal of detailed planning remains to be done, it is evident from the scope of Walt Disney World that the project will have a very significant impact on the economy of Florida and the Orlando metropolitan area.
This impact may be summarized as follows:
During its initial construction stage and first ten years of operation, Walt Disney World will directly generate a measurable addition in excess of $6.6 billion in new wealth to the economy of Florida. The total impact of the new surge of spending in the economy will undoubtedly be much greater, but it is impossible to project precisely the increased wholesale and retail sales and employment created throughout Florida via the multiplier effect.
The economic impact will be felt in all parts of the state, primarily in terms of increased tourist volume and the facilities and service employment it will require. The impact in terms of new construction, employment, wages, and retail sales generated by Walt Disney World, however, will be most apparent in the Orlando metropolitan area and surrounding counties of Central Florida.
According to a study in 1983 by Rollins College (located in Orlando), the following was concluded:
In 1980, the US population growth rate was 11% while Florida grew at 43.55% (with the three counties surrounding Walt Disney World growing at 54.45%).
With the increase in tourists’ spending, Florida saw a 141.6% growth rate in expenditures in the first 10 years of operations.
A 2004 economic and fiscal impact analysis by Fishkind & Associates Inc. had a similar positive conclusion.
Fishkind’s survey estimates that the local government impact figure totals $169 million a year in Orange County, with another $41 million surplus for Osceola County government and $800,000 in Brevard. There’s a similar surplus created in the three counties’ school districts: $125 million in Orange, $12 million in Osceola and $357,000 in Brevard.
The inner mechanics behind the development of Walt Disney World and the lengths that Walt and Roy Disney went to make their vision a reality are remarkable. Their ability to learn from the experience of building Disneyland and work with local authorities to create a special district that provided total control over the Walt Disney World development was incredibly wise. It allowed them to work faster without being restrained by normal conventions.
The way the Disneys handled challenges around physical infrastructure projects (highlighted by Patrick Collison), in the Disney and the Reedy Creek Improvement District can teach us a lot. More importantly, Disney proved the benefit of working to get government buy-in.
Changing the nation’s perception using media influence
Whether it was from his background in animation and movies or the emergence of public relations over time, Walt Disney was an expert at using media to influence public perception. Outside of entertainment, Disney was largely motivated by the thought of educating the masses. Many of his TV series and documentaries were designed to educate the public on important topics.
In this respect, Disney demonstrates a strong affinity with Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. Edward Bernays was a strong proponent of the “Invisible Government.” He believed influence tends to be concentrated in the hands of the few because it’s expensive to manipulate the social machinery (media channels and word of mouth) which control the opinions and habits of the masses.
In the book Propaganda, Bernays explains swaying the public involved “meeting the conditions of the public mind, creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, and dramatizing personalities.”
According to Bernays, the act of influencing the public involved the following steps:
Creating symbols to which the public is ready to respond
Finding stereotypes, individual and community, which will bring favorable responses
Disney incorporated a lot of the above steps to launch his biggest success stories including the movie — Alice in Wonderland (1951) and the Disneyland theme park.
While the world was focused on thwarting the emergence of television, Disney was fascinated by its potential. In 1948, he spent a week in New York with the specific purpose of watching and learning more about television. By the time he returned to the Studio, he was convinced television was just the forum to help promote his work.
In 1950, Disney decided to test this out by creating a TV show called “One Hour in Wonderland” — a precursor to the upcoming movie “Alice in Wonderland.” The show was a huge success and helped uplift the movie’s performance.
After seeing the TV show’s success, Disney started to see the potential of creating a TV series — one that could potentially help finance his next audacious project, Disneyland. Disney further explains this thought in his own words:
Every time I’d get to thinking of television I would think of this Park. And I knew that if I did anything like the Park that I would have some kind of medium like television to let people know about it.
In September of 1953, the studio created outlines for four different shows: “The Walt Disney Show,” “Mickey Mouse Club TV Show,” “The True-Life TV Show,” and “The World of Tomorrow.” All these shows became teasers for different parts of Disneyland.
In March 1954, Disney signed a deal with ABC Television to distribute the TV series in exchange for their financing of Disneyland’s creation.
The result: Of 54.6 million television sets in use, 52% were tuned into the show, meaning 28.4 million television sets were actively watching. In addition, the first season was so well received it won the Emmy for Best Variety Series.
Basically, Disney got paid by ABC to create a TV series that promoted Disneyland to households across the country.
Aligning with Bernays’ process, Disney uses his TV series to create a series of symbols, stereotypes, and emotions. If we look carefully into the components of the TV show and Disneyland, we can quickly see how Disney exhibited some of the emotions referenced by William McDougall, a thought leader frequently referenced by Bernays:
Curiosity and wonder — This is at the core of all Disney theme parks. However, it was most evident in Adventureland and Tomorrowland where guests would get to experience wildlife or a peek into the future.
Self-display-elation — Disneyland and its TV series brought animation characters (e.g. Mickey Mouse) to life. Disneyland allowed Disney to create a whole new level of attention to his core characters.
Parental-love-tenderness — A core value of any production related to Disneyland was family friendliness.
By creating an experience that appealed to the American public through these characteristics and using the television to distribute Disney across the country, Walt Disney made his theme park an American attraction.
It is incredibly rare for an entrepreneur of Disney’s vision to also understand how to manufacture influence and shape the public’s perception the way he did.
It was clear in EPCOT’s creation that Disney was already going down the path of changing the public’s perception and demonstrating why we needed to build “the city of tomorrow.”
Here’s another example of Disney using his parks and television to influence the public. This time, the messages relates to his view on automobiles and the solutions that he had in mind to solve the growing traffic congestion problem at the time.
Magic Highway USA: As a part of the Disneyland TV series, Walt Disney created a TV show called “Magic Highway, U.S.A.” In this show, he shapes the narrative on some of the challenges that cities will face and why we’ll need to get creative with our solutions. Very few people know that the show was partly funded by the Portland Cement Association and was a key influencer in enabling President Eisenhower to sign the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.
Autopia: This was an attraction in Tomorrowland in 1955. It’s one of the few attractions that’s still open today (with some modifications along the way). When it opened, it represented the future of what would become America’s multilane limited-access highways, which were still being developed. This is also another example of how Disney used his theme park to influence public change.
Feature in EPCOT: It became no surprise when Disney presented the idea of having multiple layers for different modes of transportation — eliminating the problem of congestion at the surface level.
Given Walt’s history of creating compelling content and using television to shape public perception, I have no doubt that Disney would have had a plan to get the required public buy-in to build EPCOT.
The fact that Disney had already created a documentary to present his entire vision (right before his passing) is mere proof that a larger plan was in the works.
This completes the puzzle of how Disney’s work evolved to create his vision for EPCOT. Now, let’s compare his vision to today’s initiatives.
As I mentioned earlier, population growth has led to the creation of a number of new cities across Asia and Africa. While this may give us an opportunity to experiment with new ideas, the reality is that most new cities look and feel like their predecessors.
The Charter Cities Movement
So what exactly are we doing today to improve cities? How do our efforts compare to the ideas and plans that Disney had designed for EPCOT?
This is where the concept of charter cities come into play. It represents the closest we have come to building a model city. The Charter Cities Institute, founded by Dr. Mark Lutter, defines charter cities as:
A charter city is a city granted a special jurisdiction to create a new governance system. The purpose of the special jurisdiction is simple but powerful; it allows city officials to adopt the best practices in commercial regulation.
While I appreciate the intention behind charter cities, I believe that projects can learn from the boldness behind Disney’s ideas so that they’re taken more seriously.
In a roundabout way, Walt Disney created the world’s first charter city. The combination of the Reedy Improvement District and cultural influence gave Disney an enormous level of control to implement his vision for a utopian city.
A lot of the areas that Disney negotiated in the Reedy Improvement District legislation are the same areas that the Charter Cities Institute (founded in 2017) highlights as potential areas for a charter city to control:
Building codes and construction permits
This concept was first introduced by Paul Romer, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2018, in this TED Talk. Here’s how he felt charter cities could be set up: “A host country would provide land; a source country would provide residents, and a guarantor country would provide the assurance that the new city’s charter would be respected and enforced.”
Theoretically, the benefit of having a new governance system and greater collaboration with private corporations were particularly seen in developing countries where cities add 70 million new residents annually. This is because governments in developing countries don’t have the capacity to handle all challenges that come with a massively growing population.
To help illustrate my point, I’m going to walk you through two case studies that produce very different results.
This is the $30 billion brainchild of Ajit Gulabchand – a high-profile billionaire industrialist who is known for large infrastructure projects across the country. The city is located two hours from Pune and four hours from Mumbai and is India’s first city on a hill.
Everything inside Lavasa – apart from the post office and police station – is run by a corporation. There is no state footprint at all. There is no mayor, just a city manager, appointed by the board of Lavasa Corporation Limited (LCL), a private enterprise.
During the initial stages of development, Lavasa announced partnerships with notable athletes such as Nick Faldo for a golf course and Manchester City Football Club for a training facility. However, as construction slowed, the talk of potential partnerships was less frequently mentioned.
Lavasa declared bankruptcy in 2019. According to its website, it owes more than $13M USD to its financial creditors and more than $73M USD to about 1,000 homebuyers. The lack of governance structure, poor planning, and focus on driving tourism revenue (vs. core economic activities) were all highlighted as major reasons for Lavasa’s demise.
Although Shenzen isn’t your typical charter city in terms of being privately run, its special economic zone designation and rapid growth make it an interesting case study. Shenzhen, with fewer than 30,000 inhabitants scattered in a number of small village clusters, made history as China’s first “special economic zone” where foreign direct investments and private enterprises were allowed.
From there, Shenzhen officials implemented a total of three master plans within the span of 25 years, each adding to the fuel and direction of growth. The first master plan of 1986 put in six “cluster cities” that concentrated growth and infrastructure along three highways. In the 10 years to follow, unprecedented growth and lack of zoning controls lead to major urban sprawl in Shenzhen.
Today, the city is home to more than 11 million people and is part of a larger metropolitan area that holds over 60 million people. Within the broader region, Guangzhou acts as the main hub for services, transport, and administration, while Dongguan and Shenzhen remain its manufacturing backbone. From an economic perspective, Shenzen’s transformation can be seen as a success. It has grown in terms of population and income levels.
With that being said, the city is largely dominated by migrant workers (comprising 9 million of the 11 million residents). Many of the original villagers who lived there claim to have not received proper compensation for the land they used to own.
Moreover, sky-rocketing real estate prices ranked the world’s fifth-highest by CBRE (the largest real estate services company in the world), make it harder to live in the city. The working culture of the tech giants dubbed “996” — employees who work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week — has been highly controversial.
Despite the tough living conditions, Shenzhen has been a huge economic success.
Lessons from Lavasa and Shenzhen
1. Have an Economic Anchor
Despite having access to financial resources and partnerships with large corporations, Lavasa was not able to economically flourish. It did not consider the needs of the citizens and why they would want to live there for the long-term. As you build out a city from scratch, citizens need to have a clear reason to move and stay there in the long-term.
By making itself the Silicon Valley of China, Shenzhen has ensured its economic viability for generations to come.
2. Take An Iterative Approach
The implementation of a master plan to manage the build out of Shenzhen allowed the city to take a more holistic approach and build faster than any megacity before.
Here’s a look at how Shenzhen adjusted their plan over different stages of their economic growth.
The effort put toward planning was a huge reason why Shenzhen was able to build at unprecedented speeds and grow from an economic and population perspective.
Despite their economic prowess, I can’t see myself wanting to live in a city that looked like this. The lack of identity and vanilla design leaves Shenzhen without the timeless feel that Disney brought to his theme parks.
As the cliche goes, there are some things money can’t buy.
A Missing Piece
While charter cities are a step in the right direction, there’s still one key piece that distinguishes the upper-tier of cities from every other city.
It is a characteristic that Disney took for granted when presenting his vision for EPCOT.
The key piece is a “sense of place.”
It’s the one thing that Disney had and others who attempted to build their own charter cities didn’t. Here are some quotes from guests who attempt to explain the magical experience:
“Simply put, it is all about nostalgia.
Disney does an excellent job of selling the idea that you want to bring your kids to do the same thing as you did when you were a kid. It sets up a pattern overall, wherein the adults are excited about something, and the kids, in turn, become excited about it. Being that it’s Disney, it’s something that the family can share. Something that is wholesome for the whole family, without being hindered by theology or other political messages.”
“For a child, seeing a cartoon character that you already love in real life and have him greet you is an amazing experience. It’s as if someone invented a restaurant where I could go and have dinner with Jennifer Love Hewitt every time I wanted.”
“As far as the parks go, millions of people have gone. Young and old, many people love it. For them, it’s a place of magic and innocence, so kids can have fun and meet Mickey, and parents can act like kids again. I know that my mom (who was actually born in 1955!) loves to go and see all the changes they’ve made from when she was a kid to now.”
When we circle back to cities being built today, we don’t really talk about the idea of creating a “sense of place.”
This paper by Jennifer Adams et al defines a sense of place as “the lens through which people experience and make meaning of their experiences in and with place.”
In the context of cities, sense of place echoes the intersections of culture, environment, history, politics, and economics, and is impacted by global mobility, migration, and blurred boundaries between the natural and built environment.”
Without the feeling of culture or “sense of place,” the city will feel like an empty shell. It may have all the right physical elements and yet fall short on something that cannot be properly described.
So how do you build this sense of place?
Adams et al, researchers with backgrounds in environmental education, explores a few ideas that can help us nurture a sense of place.
He starts off by asking the following questions:
What kind of place is this?
What does this place mean to you?
What does this place enable you to do?
I think of this as doing user research for city building. The answers to these questions are tough to quantify but over time patterns tend to emerge — allowing builders to plan the city accordingly.
While it’s not clear that Disney formally researched those who could visit his cities, the fact that he built two theme parks filled with families year-round gave him the data points and intuition to plan EPCOT.
Social Construction of Place
Adams et al then used the answers to those questions to show us how to create a sense of place from a social perspective.
Activities that allow people to explore and interpret places together could contribute to developing a collective sense of place and corresponding place meanings.
Participatory action research and other participatory approaches raise young people’s critical consciousness, influence how they see themselves in relation to places, and build collective understandings about what it means to be young in a rapidly changing city.
The building of a city goes beyond the actual construction of real estate and infrastructure. It actually involves creating moments with the people in the city and attaching meaning to different locations.
This is where Disney’s use of animated characters, TV shows, and theme parks to push forth various ideas succeeded.
The fact that Disney planned to use ideas that were presented earlier in TV shows and theme parks gives EPCOT a built-in social construction of place.
Developing an Ecological Identity
The second component that Adams et al describes is how to build an ecological identity.
Humans have multiple identities, including ecological identity, which reflects the ecological perspectives or ecological lens through which they see the world,” the paper reads.“Ecological identity focuses one’s attention on environmental activities, green infrastructure, ecosystems, and biodiversity, including in urban places.
This is also an aspect that Disney intuitively built-in. In a radical concept, Disney focused on making sure there was enough green space across the city. This included an entire greenbelt area that acted as a city-wide park while including smaller parks in the low-density residential housing areas.
Despite its importance, the idea of creating a “sense of place” is a tough agenda to execute. It’s not directly attributable to the “return on investment” that most projects look for. It also sits outside of the skillset of your typical “urban planner.”
Disney’s experience in entertainment, attention to detail, and focus on delighting the end-user made him a one-of-a-kind city creator.
Over the course of his lifetime, Walt Disney put together a near-perfect package of skills and experiences to build EPCOT.
His visionary thinking to create a city that solved for key transportation and infrastructure problems was just the tip of the iceberg. Gaining legislative power, shaping the public’s mindset and creating a sense of place were all the foundational elements Disney created behind the scenes that would have made his utopian city a successful reality.
While it’s a shame that Disney never got to fully execute his vision, he certainly left the blueprint for future generations to take over.
With today’s technology, particularly the Internet, the city of tomorrow does not necessarily have to resemble EPCOT. However, it is critical to solve the problems that Disney identified — namely automobile congestion and outdated infrastructure.
It’s important to work across all the public and private sectors to create the appropriate balance of government input and legislative support. It would be a huge waste of resources to simply ignore generations of thought when creating today’s institutions.
As we learned from the struggles that Gruen faced with his Fort Worth project, gaining the buy-in and support of the public is an incredibly important piece to the puzzle. While television may not be the medium to use today, many of the tactics that Bernays outlined (and Disney used) can apply today.
Last, but not least, city-builders must apply the same level of scrutiny that they do to the city’s real estate contribution to the city’s sense of place. This involves deeply understanding its people and creating the circumstances for them to attach personal experiences to physical locations.
Disney focused on this constant change of cities as he ended his documentary with the following quote: “EPCOT will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.”
The constant systemic change is important for cities because of the changing needs of people and evolution of technology.
Just take a look at how things have evolved over the past twenty years.
Unfortunately, I am not sure if today’s cities can become comfortable in a constant state of change. We live in a world that optimizes on short-term, quantifiable pay-off. A lot of the activities that would have made Walt Disney successful in building the city didn’t have a clear return on investment. However, they were integral in creating the right set of circumstances to bring EPCOT as far as he did.
The issues of a poor design process, unscalable infrastructure and outdated transportation systems won’t solve itself.
We must do a better job of applying a long-term approach that will allow us to place a higher value on the activities that Walt did leading up to his grand unveil for EPCOT. Such an approach would ensure success for future cities looking to fulfill the dream of Walt Disney.
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