Thursday, February 13, 2014

What Can Architects and Planners Learn from Disney?


Linda Besner takes a look:

Disneyland’s evocation of the past makes the past feel safer and more harmonious than it was, and certainly the town square in Marceline was never as grand as the one on Main Street, U.S.A. But for urban planners hoping to evoke happiness, there is something to be learned from Disney. While our perception of the emotional lives of people living in small Victorian era towns may be idealized, the happiness-triggering physical space of Disneyland’s town square recreates a world we have more or less voluntarily destroyed: the world before mass urbanization and the dominance of car culture. In many ways, that world is the one to which urban designers focussed on happiness would like to help us return. The Victorian small town model of living, where the absence of cars meant a vibrant downtown with healthy small businesses, more contact between neighbours, and greater sense of civic unity is something we started abandoning en masse around the same time—the 1950s—that Walt was building Disneyland; now urban planners are designing those elements back into our neighbourhoods.

The criticism of Disneyfication is that it paves over reality with something forced. But any urban planning that does more than simply accept the way things are begins with fantasy. “The emerging consensus among psychologists and behaviour economists,” Montgomery writes, “is that as individuals and as a species, humans just aren’t that well equipped to make decisions that maximize our happiness.” If humans are so ill-equipped to make the right choices, anyone designing future cities has to take an active role in creating the kinds of neighbourhoods that people don’t seem to know they want. People love Disneyland in part because most people don’t care that much about authenticity. They feel safe knowing that a God-like figure has planned out their every move.

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