Exhale on Main Street

Opinion piece
Written by
With winter suddenly taking a chilly turn at the end of February, Richard Crutchley, Associate at Tibbalds, reflects on a moment last summer when he found himself caught in an unexpectedly pleasant urban moment.

It was a warm Saturday afternoon in August last year, and I had just purchased a very large ice cream from a high street store and was leaning outside enjoying it. I looked out on the street and thought it was wonderful.

There was a brass band playing a short distance up the road to my right, in the town square, and people had gathered around to listen. In the stillness and warmth of the afternoon, the music wafted gently my way providing a soundtrack to my thoughts. Around my ice cream parlour, there were other shops on this busy street, all of them open and with people busily moving in and out in happy groups. The street was heavy with pedestrians – there were no cars, which meant people could spread about the street in space and not have to worry about cars piercing the public realm. The lack of car noise made the music more pleasant.

People were, of course, moving up the street on public transport – taxis and trams, mainly – but most were just walking. I noticed that the street had a pleasant scale; a good width with pleasantly proportioned buildings lining it. Most of them dated from the 1950s and 1960s but some were more recent and some had been altered, but the aim of maintaining the spirit and culture of the town’s beginnings were still apparent and the environment was a happy mix of old and new.

As I looked from the town square down the road where the band continued to play, up to the other end of the street where there was another meeting point with a prominent statue and beyond that a castle, I noticed the mix of people, young and old and from a range of ethnic backgrounds, and thought that if everywhere could be like this place then the world would be a better place overall.

This was Disneyland in Los Angeles. Like any English northerner brought up on the Lancashire coast in the 1970s, experiencing weather-beaten roller coasters, whelk stalls and winter flooding, I clearly had long dismissed Disneyland as oppressively commercial place that was not meant for me. Visiting it turned me in about thirty minutes, such was the sheer effort involved in making people smile. I did, however, keep my fancy thoughts about its impressive urban design quiet until my return to Tibbalds office.

It transpired that a colleague knew of a friend of a friend who had managed to get funding to study the urban design of Disneyland, and spent a week wandering its places and spaces. A little more digging and I found out that Walt Disney harboured a desire to be an urban planner. I truly had no idea.

There are a number of interesting scholarly articles about Disney’s efforts, some putting him in the same bracket as Jane Jacobs, other contrasting the artificial attempts at traditional American street with the equally artificial city of Los Angeles that sits all around it. I suspect his background as a successful filmmaker and animator made his attempts to change tack to an urbanist – and putting his efforts into his own theme parks – difficult, and may have overshadowed the ideas he had in this field. However, his apparent desire to make a place for people at Disneyland impressed urban designers of the time; James W. Rouse said of the park, “If you think about Disneyland and think of its performance in relationship to its purpose, it’s meaning to people – more than that, it’s meaning to the process of development – you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States”.

So, in retrospect, I didn’t think my thoughts were quiet so unsurprising. Sure I’d been manipulated, and you can criticise Disney for being the corporate behemoth it is, but if the place you designed could get a quote like that revisited fifty, sixty years on, I guess you’d be pretty pleased.

A little more digging and I found out that Walt Disney harboured a desire to be an urban planner. I truly had no idea.
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