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A Sense of Community: Why is it gone? What does it take?

Posted by: Jim VanOstenbridge ( USA ) on November 22, 1998 at 18:28:43:

In Reply to: Society wants the old neighborhood back. posted by Jim Midzal- on October 23, 1998 at 11:19:09:

A sense of community was not the specific intent of the front porch, reduced space between homes, or tree-lined streets with sidewalks. All of these were practical additions to basic residential sheltering needs. The wonderful and unexpected by-product of the combination of these elements is the sense of community that is now absent from urban and suburban places. Modern conveniences have been interjected to this combination which have broken down the communal interaction in our neighborhoods (the air conditioner and attached garage, for example, killed the front porch).

As a concept, Celebration is not a revolution in the approach to building communities (e.g. Columbia, MD is a successful planned community between Baltimore and Washington, DC). What is revolutionary about Celebration is the vision of a place where residents take advantage of many of the lessons learned in community development while being exposed to the newest and most advanced technological "conveniences" that American industry has to offer. Prominent among the lessons learned is that each resident is part of a larger, communal social structure and technology should enhance, not interfere, with that condition. Also interesting is that there have been several new planned community projects started in this country within the past few years that have adopted the methods and ideologies that constitute Celebration's underpinnings.

In my opinion, the Walt Disney Company has taken a lot of heat for creating this town born of their founder's vision. Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), consulting with urban planners and architects across the country, has made a strong, yet obvious, statement that most of us tend to ignore: places are very much about the people who live there. This is the element that is missing from the general strip mall, gas station, and subdivision philosophy that has constructed much of the American urban and suburban landscape.

Generally speaking, the American approach to urban development for the past 40 years has been much more about instant, entrepreneurial gratification, rather than about engineering a place that will grow with a cohesive identity. To accomplish a well planned and engineered community solution, a unified, "resident-centric" design and vision must be constructed that will persist over a 20-30 year period (just for starters). Public or private administrators that guide the community's growth need to consider the weight of their decisions over the long term. Most local governments either lack the control or political will to set out on such a course. The results speak for themselves: congested roadways, nonsensical and random land uses, and an "it's too late now" attitude. Even with the use of technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) the practice of urban planning in this country is, on the whole, much more reactionary than visionary. Few places start (at the beginning or even somewhere in the middle) with an end result in mind.

Take WDI's approach. Start with a blank piece of paper and a "blue sky" (sky's the limit) creative position. How should a community be started, constructed, and grown? What should it look like? What should it be like to live, work, and play there? What should it be like to visit? How can the impact of external influences be constrained? Most importantly, what should be done so that the original intent of the planned community remains in tact over time? Granted, these are just a handful of the questions that must be asked and answered. I understand that all places can't go back to square one, but people in all places are definitely capable of formulating, adopting, and pursuing a course of action that will bring about a rebirth of communal spirit. I believe that if more people do not start asking these questions, the ugliness of the American urban landscape and fragmented sense of community will persist and thrive for a very, very long time to come.

The Walt Disney Company is to be commended for its initiative and dedication to achieving what is arguably among the most ambitious dreams of its visionary founder.

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