The Dream of a Perfectly Designed, Progressive Metropolis…

I just saw this great documentary from Defunctland about Walt Disney’s original plan for EPCOT as a futuristic metropolis. I’d heard of his plans before, but never in such detail, and I was very impressed at his designs. Now that I know more about the project, I have to say it’s a shame that the Disney company has all the money in the world to bribe politicians to extend copyright to ridiculous lengths and buy every media company in the world, yet in 60 years they’ve never thought to honor their founder’s greatest vision. It may be an impossible dream, but if I ever make a billion dollars somehow, I’d fund a properly evolved version of this idea. The problem nowadays is nobody who has the means to do great things (*cough*JeffBezos*cough*) has any vision anymore. They just sit on their money and worry about their own comfort and accruing more wealth for themselves. What happened to the idea of wanting to build a better world? When did this idea of caring about the future of humanity become obsolete? We don’t have great visionaries with the imagination or the ambition to call society to a higher standard anymore, either in government or the private sector, and it really makes me sad.

All that said, EPCOT may not have been as infallibly designed in its current form as many of us like to believe, however. The Defunctland documentary points out some valid criticisms of the plan, even from within the Disney organization. The tightly controlled Burbank studio and subsequent strike are presented as evidence why EPCOT may not have worked out as well as Walt intended. In addition, the Citizen Kane framing device implies that, on some level, Walt was like Charles Foster Kane, “disappointed in the world, so he built one of his own–an absolute monarchy.” It’s up to the viewer if they choose to interpret Walt Disney as a great visionary planner far ahead of his time, or an obstinate old man who felt as though he knew better than everyone else. (As always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.)

So, for fun, I’d like to analyse the aspects of EPCOT I feel would work and those which might have led to its undoing. Then I will propose some very rough suggestions for how I would improve Walt’s idea.

My favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series uses Walt Disney’s obsession as the inspiration for its villain, Grant Walker.

The Utopian Side of EPCOT

  1. The overall sense of progress, specifically leading the world by example and providing a place for people to witness new ideas of urban organization as well as new technologies so they could go back home and implement changes as needed in their own communities.

  2. The cosmopolitan philosophy. This relates to point #1. I like the way Walt imagined bringing great thinkers, and different cultures, together so we could learn from each other, take what works from a diverse body of sources, and innovate. One of the ideas said to have inspired his dream was that of a permanent world’s fair. After looking at some of the beautiful designs and architecture of world’s fairs past, I can absolutely understand where he was coming from.

  3. The de-emphasis on cars in favor of public transit like monorails and PeopleMovers. I hate cars, I hate how they cause pollution, waste precious real estate on parking lots, are unsafe and have taken over urban spaces so it’s harder to get places on foot. I enjoy walking, and for me there’s nothing more frustrating than when the sidewalk ends and you’re just not allowed to go any further as a pedestrian. I like where I live now, but I do miss the ability to get everywhere on foot. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed being able to walk around the corner to a bar or restaurant in the middle of the night without worrying about using expensive gas, paying for parking, finding a spot, or worrying about finding a designated driver.

  4. The radial design is gorgeous. Circles and spheres are the mathematically perfect, most efficient shapes. This would allow for ease of navigation and transportation. Keeping the commercial zone in the center, with residential areas fanning outward (and broken up by a “green belt” of parks and communal buildings like schools and churches) would seemingly control traffic flow, regulate congestion and protect externalities from one area spoiling another. (For example, no one wants to live next to a busy mall or restaurant that creates noisy disturbances.)

  5. The trash removal system is brilliant and frankly overdue in the rest of the world. Instead of mixing all of our garbage, some of it potentially reusable now spoiled by disgusting waste from the kitchens and bathrooms, it would allow people to send their refuse up one at a time to be sorted and salvaged as need be. Obviously, this would also mean we don’t waste gas and pollute the environment further by cleaning trash everyday.

  6. The emphasis on parks and the pedestrian experience, particularly how there are no roads near people’s houses so kids can play safely. People like to live near nature, it makes their environment beautiful, and no cars on the same level of pedestrians is safer and doesn’t impede foot travel. The idea of keeping roads leading in and out of the city underground is genius, in my opinion. That way people can enjoy unhindered swathes of natural land near their homes without ugly gray roads crisscrossing over everything. I also appreciate that there would be little private lawn space, which would encourage children, and adults, from different families to take note of each other and establish friendly relations. (Nowadays, in my experience, people are too closed off in their white picket fences, spending all leisure time indoors and don’t know their neighbors.)

  7. The progressive education curriculum is what I’ve been advocating in favor of for years. I’ve written an entire blog post about this. Our current model of educational essentialism with a focus on lectures and talking at students is terrible. We need a switch to progressive education, less focus on busywork as well as implementation of innovative new teaching methods.

  8. The promise to keep rental prices for housing and apartments competitive with those outside of EPCOT. The idea was to keep it affordable for the employees who worked for the Disney studio directly and those who worked in the restaurants and shops within the city. Also, making sure the people servicing the theme parks and stores are also the residents themselves would, in theory, foster a sort of neighborly camaraderie between people which we seem to have lost in our modern world. (Remember when I wrote about the missing communal activities like the Roman baths?)

The Dystopian Side of EPCOT

  1. The negative trade off with point #1 in the positive category is that Walt wanted EPCOT to continuously evolve and change, so that it would always stand 25 years ahead of the rest of the world. Such constant upkeep would have been difficult already in 1966, but in 2020 after the digital revolution, it’s nigh unthinkable. As this YouTube commentator points out, not only would this unceasing change make the residents uncomfortable but there’s just no incentive for modern corporations to demonstrate their best products for competitors to steal either. Not to mention the financial and logistical nightmare of outfitting thousands of homes with the latest equipment every time someone invents a better fridge, TV or stove.

  2. The forced replacement of appliances in people’s homes whenever Disney, or the applicable company, demands is draconian. So is the idea of combining EPCOT with the overall Disney World attraction center and encouraging guests to constantly visit in great numbers. This would make people feel like zoo animals in their own homes, constantly under a microscope from nosy park visitors and never feeling privacy in a space where corporations can come busting in at any time to redesign their house. The idea the residents wouldn’t fully own their own appliances also raises the issue of being fined for “damages” brought on by simple everyday wear and tear, and in the case of computers or smartphones, transferring over the saved data off a hard drive. (And does this mean the installation team will see your private data when they transfer it?)

  3. The idea of outsourcing everything to corporations sounds very dystopian, especially when it comes to education and healthcare. Walt was basically advocating a proto-Neoliberalism ideology, which I ask you to remember, entails the privatization of previously public services. There’s disturbing implications of letting big business brainwash our youth already. When one considers the examples in real life of Neoliberalism failing communities across the country from private prisons to astronomical healthcare expenses, it’s even more worrisome. I also don’t like the idea of being bombarded with infomercials of the latest products in the transit hubs. I feel we get enough intrusive advertising already between the YouTube commercials, TV commercials, billboards and product placements. I can’t imagine having to endure constant ads as I’m trying to ride the monorail or people movers to work every morning.

  4. The “tattle tale” method of dealing with teenage rebellion and delinquency also worries me. The idea of teenagers monitoring each others behavior reminds me of 1984 when the party encouraged children to narc on their parents for not loving Big Brother enough. Plus, it runs contrary to teenage behavior, where the “cool” kids were the ones with the anti-authority streak, not the other way around. I feel as though this system would lead to the good kids setting themselves up to be social pariahs as no one likes a tattle tale, and encourage anti-individualist, pro-authoritarian sycophancy into adulthood.

  5. The idea of not allowing permanent residents so no one can have voting rights is something I go back and forth on. On the one hand, I understand Walt’s fear that people would make “the wrong choices” and ruin his metropolis from within. People vote against their own best interests all the time. But his solution of limiting residency to 9 months sounds like a non-starter to me. This would mean nobody considers EPCOT their home, so they have less love for the land and less desire to improve it. It runs contrary to his desire for everyone to bear the responsibility of helping the community thrive. Ironically, despite being formulated as the ultimate expression of American free enterprise, in practice EPCOT would have been governed as an autocracy, complete with a planned economy. (I’m sure Disney would decide which shops and businesses get to open in the city limits.)

  6. The stipulation that everyone has to have a job to remain in the city sounds like something out of Logan’s Run. We already tie so much of people’s ability to live on employment: from requiring money the eat to healthcare access, so adding on their leases as well may have made residents feel like slaves in a gilded cage. I understand wanting everyone to contribute to EPCOT’s success, but perhaps there could be a certain window to find work upon getting laid off, or a requirement to do some kind of volunteer work until new employment was secured. I’ve read that there would have been a separate retirement community as part of the overall Disney World compound, however, which if true would partially alleviate this particular concern as it relates to retirees.

  7. The roaming entertainers representing different cultures in the commercial district sounds somewhat disingenuous to me. That kind of thing works in a theme park you visit for a day or two, but not for your home town. Imagine how exhausting it must be to get approached everywhere you go by fake exotic locals giving you the same spiel about their culture. The idea of cosmopolitanism so integral to Walt’s dream is noble, but I don’t believe this would be the best way to enact it.

  8. The issue of how laws and morality would be enforced is also tricky. If a violent crime is ever committed, would there be pressure put on EPCOT to allow a police presence there? Would this ruin the wholesome, futuristic aesthetic? Are the police going to come from Florida or will Disney have its own police force–and what are the implications of that? Will adult entertainment be allowed to exist in the commercial center, like strip shows, bath houses, bars, tobacco vendors, etc? (It’s worth asking considering how conservative and “family values” Walt was.) What happens if someone gets divorced, or a single person moves in–how is the dating scene going to look in this city? Are the new appliance installers who can come into your house every day going to rat you out if you have weed, or a porn collection, or a dirty house, or they notice you sleep around with a different girl each night? If not them, will the “tattle tale” teenagers be reporting adult infractions too? Would drawing the ire or disapproval of Disney’s personal values be enough to warrant banishment from the city? Do you get at least 30 days to vacate? These may sound like silly questions but if this is going to be a real town where imperfect, unpredictable people live, you have to expect human behavior will produce unexpected outcomes if given enough time.

How To Improve Walt’s Design

So first of all, please take these suggestions with a grain of salt. Remember, I don’t have the resources of Disney to hire a bunch of people to do extensive research, bounce ideas of off and build scale models to work out every minute specific. I’m just throwing out some rough ideas to evolve his conception as a fun thought experiment.

The last few days, I was inspired to look up some other planned utopian cities of the same caliber as EPCOT so as to compare and contrast. Perhaps I’m just not looking in the right places, but there were far less alternatives than I expected there to be. And, spoiler alert, nothing comes anywhere close to the careful intricacy, nor the sheer brilliance in utility that EPCOT would have represented had it been finished. I’m not an architect nor city planner and I’m not familiar with the various design philosophies which exist in either discipline. But for my money as an amateur admirer of the craft, I really believe Walt Disney was on a whole other level. Nevertheless, these were some other case studies I found:

  1. Germania, Adolf Hiter’s planned redesign of Berlin if he had won the war. However, besides the Cathedral of Light I don’t feel as if any of his and Albert Speer’s designs were practical. The Volkshalle is beautiful but ridiculously huge, and even as a fan of Ancient Rome, I believe triumphal arches ought to be relegated to the past. (I really hope it doesn’t need to be said, but just in case, Hitler and Albert Speer’s political ideas were repugnant. Nazism is a terrible ideology I don’t support. That said, a beautiful building is a beautiful building regardless of who designed it.)

  2. There’s also the city proposal in Zeitgeist 3, which is also designed radially. This is known as the Venus Project, and it is designed with an emphasis on resource based economics. The main services, from medical to food and shops are to be located in the city center while the outskirts contain buildings housing various government/scientific departments. The middle belts would contain (going from the center to the outskirts, in order) the residential, then recreational then agricultural land. All buildings are fitted with solar paneling to convert sunlight to electricity which would power as much of the city’s needs as possible. Like EPCOT, automobiles would be replaced by monorails which would move along the circumference of each belt, along the diameter, and individual segments of the vehicle would even lift passengers up to different floors of the buildings.

  3. Besides these, there’s the French-Swiss architect, Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (Radiant City). In a design that would have been completely contradictory to EPCOT, Ville Radieuse was to be a linear city, with its various districts representing areas of the human body.

It’s interesting to note how each of these four would-be megalopolises were also constructed around their own different political philosophies. Germania of course being nazism, EPCOT being neoliberalism (whether Walt would have used the term or not), the Venus Project being environmentalism and Ville Radieuse as syndicalism.

The Venus Project is by far the most closely related to Walt’s vision for EPCOT. In some ways, it is EPCOT just with less of the finer points ironed out and a greater emphasis on environmental sustainability. So, to start with, I would outfit every building in EPCOT with solar panels as the Venus Project proposes. In addition, allow space for vertical farming so that the city may be as self-sufficient as possible. However, I would forgo the electric “trains” of the VP in favor of Walt’s overhead monorails and people movers. I really, really like the way EPCOT keeps all transportation on different planes, either above or below ground, than pedestrians. It’s one of EPCOT’s greatest selling points.

Besides this, the biggest single alteration that would improve EPCOT’s standard of living would be to remove it from Disney World so it is not an attraction to an endless wave of visitors. Outfit the homes with the latest tech at the time of construction, but let residents decide when and what to upgrade in their own homes, rather than allowing corporations to use them as guinea pigs. If voting rights would threaten the delicate framework of the civilization, proactively reach out to residents at regular intervals to ask if they need anything so that voting isn’t necessary. Or, perhaps have them sign away voting rights for 5-10 years so that people can get used to the EPCOT way before demanding their conventional roads back out of inertia. Remove the neoliberal reliance on corporations to fulfill basic services and allow for standard public institutions, like schools.

EPCOT…University?

But here’s the most substantial, and yet the simplest change I would make…

In order to preserve Walt’s desire for EPCOT to remain a model for the rest of the world, a cosmopolitan mixing pot of different cultures…my suggestion is to get rid of the fake ethnic entertainers along with the corporate advertisements and build a university. Make EPCOT a college town, with state of the art research centers, top of the line laboratory equipment, ornate lecture halls, poach the best professors in every field and attract the most promising students from all over the world. This way, there will be an authentic mix of world cultures and a reputation for being cutting edge without jamming it down every individual’s throat. Besides its marvelous academic facilities, EPCOT would attract the best and the brightest because of its ingenious urban layout that people would want to live in. Best of all, students only remain on campus for so long, ensuring many EPCOT residents will leave the premises and take the lessons in futurism they attained back to their own communities just as Walt intended. This would allow for a natural changeover of the populace rather than a forced mass eviction every nine months.

Instead of a massive hotel in the center of the city, make the inner ring a hospital (as in the Venus Project) and college campus. The various leisure activities originally meant to be part of the hotel can now be part of the campus. Residents of the city will be made up of the professors, school staff as well as students and those who work in the auxiliary shops and businesses. The central building could be a modern redesign of the aforementioned cathedral of light, used for major sporting and entertainment events of all kinds as well as political assemblies, and a forum for official public announcements. When in use, the ring of search lights would provide a dazzling sight equal in beauty to any skyscraper. Different colored lights could even be used to easily communicate messages nonverbally to the entire city at once–perhaps red lights signalling a fire, for example. Smaller hotels could still be placed within the city limits so that prospective students/employees and tourists could marvel at the society, but not so many as to be overwhelming to the residents themselves. There must be a carefully controlled intake of outside visitors so that EPCOT citizens may boldly serve as a model for the rest of the world, yet never feel like zoo animals existing for others’ amusement.

Because this very rough concept I’ve outlined differs from Walt’s original schematic, and the title “EPCOT” has since been used for a mere theme park in Disney World, I would like to refer to this alternate project by a new name. Anyone who’s followed my blog knows by now that naming projects after the Gracchi brothers is kind of my thing. Conveniently, Gaius Gracchus also built a city (on the ruins of Carthage, Rome’s greatest enemy) which was called Junonia.* So, for now, I’m going with that. 😛 If I can find a mod for Cities: Skylines that allows me to make a digital model of my ideas, I will update this post with some visuals to convey the idea as best I can.

*I couldn’t find any particular reason why the ancient settlement was given the name “Junonia” but I have a guess. In the Aeneid, which was written decades later, it’s said that Carthage was the goddess Juno’s favorite city. So, if this was some widely understood minor detail in Roman mythology that predates the poem, I guess that’s why they’d name it in her honor.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.