Friday, May 6, 2011

The cult of the mouse - Celebration

Idyllic design does not eradicate crime

This week I visited a lovely central Florida town. Annual family income: twice the Florida average. Poverty rate: same as similar towns elsewhere. Crime rate: low. (It did recently suffer it's first murder in 14 years and another troubled fellow committed suicide).

Of 100 homes sold this past year 40% were foreclosures, just like other towns suffering the Great Recession.

For a small town this is all fairly typical, except for one thing. This town is the world-famous, Disney-built, Celebration.

This is a model of new urbanism, a place of NY Times feature stories, and a place where best selling books are written.

Truman and Stepford's wives would love Celebration

Celebration is a cultural archetype; think films like Stepford Wives and The Truman Show. One Celebration street runs straight into Disney World.

Acolytes glorify Celebration as a return to Mayberry. In 2001 the Urban Land Institute called it the "community of the year". They ignored the lack of elected government and the control by a corporation that owns Celebration. Definitely not typical!

Detractors revile Celebration as the cult of the mouse. They describe an "oppressive Declaration of Covenants" restricting political signs, house colors, unruly pets and so on. They ignore that restrictive covenants are common in suburbs everywhere!

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

What I saw:

• A picturesque, downtown and enchanting lakeside boardwalk
• Relaxed strolling areas, rocking chairs, beautiful architecture
• Abundant shoppers and walkers - most, it seemed, were tourists
• No downtown grocery or drug stores (walkability?)
• A closed-down cinema but open ice-cream shoppe
• No visible graffiti or vandalism.

When it comes to urban habitat, we tend to judge everything. Our yardsticks range from aesthetics and walkability to prosperity and safety. By some measures (aesthetics and environmental sustainability here versus gas-guzzling suburbs) Celebration succeeds over other places. By other measures, less so.

Celebration offers a special kind of lifestyle choice. Some would not choose it. Others would.

It's fascinating. I've blogged before about urban scale and crime. As the recent murder and suicide confirm, idyllic large-scale design cannot eradicate all social ills. Yet I would probably try living there.

At least for awhile.

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