Return Of The "Progress City"

A group of tech titans are buying up farmland in California with the aim of building a new urban community from scratch. What can they learn from the legacy of Walt Disney?

Sep 7, 2023
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A few weeks ago, the Times broke a story about a secretive group of high-tech luminaries who had been quietly buying up farmland in Solano County—about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco—with the aim of building a new urban community from scratch. The story caught my eye because the ambition of the project was not your typical libertarian "seasteading" utopia or New Zealand bunker; instead, the tech titans appeared to be plotting out a city with a settlement pattern that was more Jane Jacobs than Ayn Rand.

In 2017, Michael Moritz, the billionaire venture capitalist, sent a note to a potential investor about what he described as an unusual opportunity: a chance to invest in the creation of a new California city. The site was in a corner of the San Francisco Bay Area where land was cheap. Mr. Moritz and others had dreams of transforming tens of thousands of acres into a bustling metropolis that, according to the pitch, could generate thousands of jobs and be as walkable as Paris or the West Village in New York. He painted a kind of urban blank slate where everything from design to construction methods and new forms of governance could be rethought.

It is easy to be cynical about this kind of project, and I have no idea what the participants are actually planning beyond what was reported in the Times article. But in principle, I like the idea of fostering more experiments in how we organize and build our communities, which is one of the reasons I have always admired pop-up cities like Burning Man (from afar, admittedly.) And if this particular experiment happens to unfold in a region of the country that is starved for new housing, so much the better.

In last week’s Hard Fork podcast, Kevin Roose and Casey Newton had a typically entertaining conversation about the story. At one point, Newton—who generally has no qualms about raising an eyebrow at the antics of the tech elite—remarked: "Of all of the things that these billionaires could be choosing to spend their time and money on, building a bunch of houses in an undeveloped area within a relatively short drive of San Francisco seems like it could be a really good use of their time." That seems about right to me. I’d much rather have the super-wealthy investing in trial balloons for reinventing how cities work than investing in spaceships or super yachts. The problem, of course, is that you’re left with a society where the only experiments that can be run at scale are ones funded by the super-rich—and running them at scale is important when you are trying to invent a new kind of urbanism that depends by definition on hundreds of thousands of people embracing it. Even with the best of intentions, that kind of funding base has to skew your design principles.

There’s a massive conversation to be had about how society funds social experiments generally, but the first thing that popped into my head when I read the Times piece was the the crazy historical precedent for all this: Walt Disney’s original plans for EPCOT, his Experimental Planned Community Of Tomorrow, which was to be built on farmland bought up through similarly stealthy methods in central Florida during the early 1960s. Most of you probably know EPCOT as one of the central theme parks in the Disney World complex, but the initial vision for the site was radically different in its scope and ambition. (I wrote about the strange alternate history of what EPCOT might have been in my book Wonderland; what follows is partly adapted from that material.)

EPCOT’s roots extend back to one of the most tragic figures in 20th-century urban design and planning: the Austrian "environment designer" Victor Gruen. After fleeing the Nazis, Gruen developed a prosperous career in the United States first as an arranger of boutique window displays and then as a department store designer. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Gruen began exploring more ambitious designs that would incorporate multiple stores and other public spaces. He built a hugely successful open-air shopping plaza in the suburbs of Detroit called Northland Center, and then in 1956 Gruen completed work on Southdale Center, which would become his most famous—and, to some, notorious—project. Gruen designed Southdale as a two-level structure linked by opposing escalators, featuring a few dozen stores arrayed around a shared courtyard, protected from the harsh Minneapolis winters by a roof. Gruen modeled the building after the European arcades that had flourished in Vienna and other cities in the early nineteenth century. But to modern eyes, the reference to European urbanity is lost: Southdale Center is, inescapably, a modern shopping mall, the first of its kind.

But the mall itself had been only a small part of Gruen’s design for Southdale and its descendants. Gruen’s real vision was for a dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-based urban center, with residential apartments, schools, medical centers, outdoor parks, and office buildings. He later expanded his vision of the new city in an eclectic series of planning briefs, speeches, and essays, culminating in a book called The Heart of Our Cities. The spectacle of the mall courtyard, and its pedestrian convenience, was for Gruen a way to smuggle European metropolitan values into a barbaric American suburban wasteland. (Anticipating the project underway in Solano today, Malcolm Gladwell once described Gruen’s vision as "not a suburban alternative to downtown Minneapolis, [but instead] the Minneapolis downtown you would get if you started over and corrected all the mistakes that were made the first time around.") Even Jane Jacobs was smitten by Gruen’s designs. Describing a plan for a new Fort Worth that Gruen had developed but never built, Jacobs wrote, "The service done by the Fort Worth plan is of incalculable value, [and will] set in motion new ideas about the function of the city and the way people use the city."

Yet developers never took to Gruen’s larger vision. Instead of surrounding the shopping center with high-density, mixed-use development, they surrounded it with parking lots. They replaced Gruen’s courtyard carnivalesque with food courts. Communities did blossom around the new malls, but they were largely uncoordinated developments of low-density single-family homes. The mall didn’t just help create the modern, postwar suburb; it also helped undermine the prewar city. It is no accident that cities like Detroit that are still struggling to climb back from the urban collapse of the 1960s were also the ones where Gruen’s designs first took root. Gruen would eventually renounce his creation, or at least the distorted version of it that the mall developers had implemented: "I refuse to pay alimony," he proclaimed, "for these bastard developments."

But if the shopping-center developers were happily ignoring Gruen’s plans for reinventing the city, his ideas nonetheless managed to attract one devoted fan who had the financial resources to put them into action: Walt Disney. In the years after the launch of Disneyland in Southern California, Disney had grown increasingly repulsed by the blight of highway sprawl that surrounded his crown jewel. And so he began plotting to construct a second-generation project in which he could control the whole environment—not just the theme park but the entire community around it.

In what was going to be the ultimate act of imagineering, Disney planned to design an entire functioning city from scratch, first called a "Progress City," then "a city of tomorrow," then EPCOT. In his career, Disney had radically reinvented multiple forms of entertainment, from animated features to amusement parks. But his final act was going to be even more ambitious: reinventing urban life itself.

During his exploratory research, Disney had fallen under the spell of Victor Gruen. Gruen had included some kind words about the planned environment of Disneyland in The Heart of Our Cities, and predictably shared Disney’s contempt for the sprawling "avenues of horror" that had proliferated around the theme park in Anaheim. And so when Disney decided to buy a vast swath of swampland in central Florida and build a Progress City, Gruen was the perfect patron saint for the project.

In 1966, Disney set up a skunkworks operation on their Burbank lot, in a lofty space that was quickly dubbed "The Florida Room," where a team of imagineering urban planners labored over mock-ups of their new city. Disney apparently kept a copy of The Heart of Our Cities on his desk. In the late summer of 1966, he made a thirty-minute film introducing Disney World that featured dazzling footage of the twenty-foot maps covering the Florida Room’s oversized walls. You can watch it here:

Tellingly, Disney spends almost no time discussing the amusement-park component of the project (what would eventually become the Magic Kingdom). Instead, he focuses extensively on his "city of tomorrow," showing prototypes and sketches that look strikingly like the futurist cityscapes imagined by Le Corbusier almost fifty years before. A kind of aura has developed around the film among Disney cognoscenti, because it turned out to be the last film that Walt Disney ever made. (He was already terminally ill with cancer during the filming.) But it is more interesting to us today as a glimpse of what Disney might have built had he not died. At one point he says;

The most exciting, by far the most important part of our Florida project—in fact, the heart of everything we’ll be doing in Disney World—will be our experimental prototype city of tomorrow . . . EPCOT will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative cen- ters of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing, and testing, and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise. I don’t believe there is a challenge anywhere in the world that’s more important to people everywhere than finding solutions to the problems of our cities.

The first thing that should be said about EPCOT is that, like Gruen’s original plan for Southdale, it was going to be an entire community oriented around a mall. "Most important, this entire fifty acres of city streets and buildings will be completely enclosed," a narrator explains in the 1966 film. "In this climate-controlled environment, shoppers, theatergoers, and people just out for a stroll will enjoy ideal weather conditions, protected day and night from rain, heat and cold, and humidity."

The vision of a radical new model of urbanism with a shopping mall at its core is enough to produce snickers from the modern urbanist, for good reason. Yet the EPCOT plan had a complexity to it that we should not forget, a complexity that no doubt derived from the contradictions in Gruen’s philosophy. It was, for starters, profoundly anti-automobile. At the center of the city was a zone that Gruen had come to call the Pedshed, defined by the "desirable walking distance" of an average citizen. Cars would be banned from the entire Pedshed area. As one moved away from the central core, new modes of transportation would appear, each appropriate to the distance required to get EPCOT residents downtown: the electric "people movers" that now take tourists around Disney World’s Tomorrowland would shuttle residents from the high-density apartments to the commercial core; longer trips to and from the lower-density residential developments and industrial parks at the edge of the city would be conducted via monorail. Just as in Disney’s theme parks, all supply and service vehicles would be routed below the city through a network of underground tunnels. In the film, the narrator happily explains that EPCOT residents would use their cars only on "weekend pleasure trips."

The tragic contradictions of Gruen’s life run through the plan for EPCOT as well: watching Disney’s film, you catch a fleeting glimpse of an alternate version of the recent past, where the pedestrian mall inspires a new vision of urban life that rejects the tyranny of the automobile and ushers in a new era of mass-transit innovation. But, of course, that alternate past didn’t happen. Instead, the mall triggered decades of suburban ascendancy, and the Walt Disney Corporation turned EPCOT into yet another theme park, with its bizarre and slightly sad hybrid of Buckminster Fuller-style futurism and It’s-A-Small-World globalism.

Why weren’t progress cities built? The easiest way to dismiss the Gruen/EPCOT vision is to focus on the centrality of the mall itself. Now that mall culture is in decline—in the United States and Europe at least—we understand that the overly programmed nature of the mall environment ended up being a fatal flaw. One of the reasons the critics raved over Gruen’s original Southdale Center was the simple fact that no one had seen a space like that before, particularly in suburban Minnesota. But as the developers standardized Gruen’s original plan, and as the big chain stores grew more powerful, malls became interchangeable: a characterless cocoon of J.Crew and the Body Shop and Bloomingdale’s. Eventually, our appetite for novelty and surprise overcame the convenience and ubiquity of mall culture, and people began turning back to the old downtowns. Those downtowns were dirty and crowded and open to the elements, but they were also unpredictable and unique and fun in a way that the mall could never be.

Disney and Gruen wanted the energy and vitality and surprise of the big city, without all of the hassle. It turns out that a little bit of hassle is the price you pay for energy and vitality. But part of me thinks the mall at the epicenter of Southdale and EPCOT is too distracting a scapegoat: dismissing EPCOT as a crowning moment in the history of suburbanization—the city of the future is built around a mall!— diverts the eye from the other elements of the plan that actually might have value, whether they ultimately get put into place in Solano, or some other experiment. The fact that Jacobs, who had an intense antipathy to top-down planners, saw merit in the Gruen model should tell us something. Routing services belowground; clearing out automobiles from city centers; building mixed-use dense housing in suburban regions; creating distinct mass-transit options to fit the scale of the average trip—these are all provocative ideas that have been explored separately in many communities around the world. But as far as I know, no one has built a true Progress City yet, which means we have no real sense of how transformative it might be to see all these ideas deployed at the same time—to say nothing the other many other innovations in urban living that we have developed since Gruen and Disney’s day. Maybe it’s time we tried.

[One last addendum: If you listen to the Hard Fork podcast in its entirely, you’ll notice that the discussion of the Solano project is followed by a conversation about AI-powered note-taking apps, which mentions a new "experiment" from Google called NotebookLM. That’s the new name of Project Tailwind, which I mentioned here a few months ago. I’ll have much more to say about it over the course of the fall, but for now I just wanted to mention that we have slowly started letting people off the wait list, so if you are interested in giving it a spin, you can sign up here.]

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