by Joe Flower

This article appeared in:New Scientist, January 1996
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What if you could build it? looks specifically at Celebration Health, Florida Hospital's radical collaboration with Disney to build a healthy community from the ground up. (25k)

Walt's Deepest Dream

Go to Disneyland in California -- or to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Florida, or Disney Tokyo, or EuroDisney outside Paris -- and you will find that there is only one entrance: under the station of the old-fashioned steam railroad, through a town square, and down the Main Street of a nostalgic, gingerbreaded, nineteenth-century American town. The town is lavish in its detailing: the names of the lawyers and accountants in gilt lettering on the second-story windows, the horse-drawn trolley down the middle of the street, the ice-cream parlor with the cieling fans turning overhead. The town could be straight out of The Music Man, or Oklahoma -- or it could be Marceline, Missouri, the little town by the railroad where Walt spent his boyhood, finally made perfect.

This was Walt Disney's deepest dream, deeper than anything else he invented: he wanted to build a town. The theme is repeated throughout all Disney parks: ToonTown, Frontierland, Liberty Square, New Orleans Square, Fantasyland, Typhoon Lagoon, even the faux Hollywood of the Disney/MGM Studios -- all are designed as miniature towns.

But Disneyland's towns were not enough to satisfy Walt's longing. When he opened the gates to Disneyland and its Main Street in 1955 he knew that it had a flaw: it wasn't real. Nobody actually lived there. He wanted to build a place where people lived, a place that could make life about as good as life could be, perhaps as a way to re-invent his own difficult, hardscrabble early life.

The more success he had, the more the longing grew. By 1959, he was commissioning studies on two ideas: where to build a second theme park, and how to build a futuristic "City of Tomorrow" around it, where the park's workers could live in an ideal society.

Rising From The Swamps

Now, some two generations later, a re-invented version of Walt's dream town is finally rising from the swamps, bush palm, and pine scrub of Florida. Bulldozers and steelworkers -- as well as software engineers, education planners, and health futurists -- are building a $350 million "back to the future" town called Celebration. A unique blend of the old and the new, Celebration will combine deep porches and fiber optics, the old swimmin' hole and terabyte broadband servers, a rosy-golden vision of the past and an optimistic reach toward the future. "Imagine how great it would have been," says one promotional sign, "to live 50 years ago with all the neat gear you have today."

The Road to the Dream

The road from Walt's dream to Celebration is long, and filled with false starts and detours. In the year before his death in December of 1966, Walt Disney became obsessed with his dream city. Through agents using assumed names, the company had bought nearly 50 square miles of land near Orlando, Florida. The second Magic Kingdom to be built there would take up only a tiny part of the vast reaches of forest, pastures, and swamps -- and only a tiny corner of Walt's attention: "We already know how to build a theme park," he would say. Instead, he read obsessively on cities and the history of planned communities. He commissioned economic studies and architectural drawings. On his Sunday night television show, he would sit on the corner of his desk and talk effusively about what he had come to call the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow -- EPCOT.

He would gesture to the drawings behind him, which seemed to combine a nature preserve with a Jetsons-style vision of the future, an Oz of glittering blade-like buildings, monorails, moving sidewalks, vacuum-tube trash disposal, centralized computer control, and soaring roadways enclosed by a giant climate-control dome. He talked repeatedly about his urge toward a human-centered life ("I believe that people still want to live like human beings"), and his distrust of the effect of the automobile on town life, but the sketchy plans revealed his faith in the healing power of technology. He was, it would turn out, one of the last great believers in the vision of Progress, the idea that "new" is better, that technological advances in themselves can bring a better life.

His death left the company in a quandary. They did, indeed, know how to build a theme park, and by October 1971, they had opened the Magic Kingdom on the Orlando property, which was now dubbed Walt Disney World. But a living community was something else again. The public was expecting some wild new thing called EPCOT. The company considered building a town, but instead built a permanent world's fair with science exhibits and a Showcase of Nations set around a lake -- and called it EPCOT. It opened in 1982. It was elegantly made, but despite its name it was not a community. No one lived there.

In 1984, Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew, engineered a palace coup and took over the company from Walt's side of the family. Within a few years, the new CEO, Michael Eisner, had revitalized the company, producing enormous streams of cash that could be used in new ventures. It was finally time. In 1987, Peter Rummell, President of Walt Disney Design and Development, sent Eisner a memo called "The American Town," suggesting that they take Walt's old dream off the shelf, section off a slice of enormous acreage that they had assembled for Walt Disney World, and build a real community.

Rummell hit pay dirt. Much like Walt Disney, Eisner is both an amateur futurist and an architecture maven, who has delighted over the years in working with some of the world's foremost architects and town planners for Disney's energetic building programs in Burbank, Orlando and Paris. The postmodernist Michael Graves, for instance, designed the corporation's new headquarters using the Seven Dwarfs as caryatids, and the New York Hotel at Euro Disney, as well as the enormous and whimsical Swan and Dolphin Hotels in Disney World. Robert A.M. Stern designed the sprawling and imaginative Beach Club and Yacht Club Hotels next to them, a whimsical "Casting Center" (personnel department) down the road, and the Hotel Cheyanne at Euro Disney.

Eisner convened a series of meetings with top planners and architects -- including Graves, Stern, Aldo Rossi, Charles Fraser, the planner of the Sea Pines community on Hilton Head, South Carolina, and James Rouse, the man who planned Columbia, Maryland, thirty years ago, and shared ideas with Walt -- to brainstorm about building a town from scratch. But Eisner and Rummell intended not just a showcase -- another resort or conference centre -- but an actual town. Celebration needed real houses, with real prices, built to real budget constraints.

In 1990, they hired Charles Adams, a man who had built homes all over Florida for Trammell Crow, one of America's largest developers for the big practical jobs: working out financial scenarios, conducting focus groups of potential customers, and investigating problems with local zoning rules (rules which, in the United States, dictate everything from the proper width of streets and the size of fire hydrants to the placement of retail businesses, industries, and different classes of residences). By early 1992, with the help of Stern, Jacquelin Robertson, and Ray Grindroz, they had a master plan. Adams and his Celebration Company colleagues travelled around the United States, particularly its southeastern quadrant, searching out and photographing old houses, downtown areas, parks, and lakefronts that captured some sense of what urban life could be.

The Look of Reality

Now, finally, the bulldozers are pushing the bush palm, bald cypress, and pine into piles, and burning the piles under the gusts of enormous tubular fans. The downtown area is rising around its lake, the streets are laid out and paved, the utilities are installed, and the bare plots on which the residents will build the first 350 homes are marked out with tiny plastic flags on wooden sticks. The first residents should be able to move in next summer.

Closer to the highway, two handsome postmodern office buildings by Aldo Rossi, nine stories and four stories tall, sit back beyond broad, perfect lawns, around a 12-metre pyramidal pylon.

To one side is a curiously Disneyesque touch -- what looks from the highway like a jumble of elegant, old-fashioned houses. They are not houses, but cleverly painted trompe l'oeil billboards hiding four trailers pushed together as a "Preview Center," where potential buyers can look over an enormous model of the town, examine the planners' ideas for the health center or the school, and page through plan books for the houses themselves.

Some 20,000 people trooped through the Preview Center in the first month it was open. The interest is not surprising. As Rouse put it approvingly, "What they are doing is much more intensive, much more sensitive, and much more searching than what is occurring generally in the planning and development of urban life."

As Disney executives put it, they "sweated the details." Disney has given over 5,000 acres to the project, snaking through an additional 4,600 acres of wilderness dedicated, permanently and legally, as a "greenbelt," or "wilderness area," left to its original state as swamp and forest. The first group of homes will accommodate some 1,000 people. Eventually, at "build-out," as developers say, they project some 8,000 homes and a population of 20,000.

The town does not look futuristic at all -- there is no climate-control dome, no soaring buildings, no monorails, people-movers or swooping elevated roadways. Instead, the look of the overall planning is determinedly pre-World War II, from the $500 per month apartments over the downtown stores to the large homes around the golf course. The inhabitants will build their houses to suit themselves, but the homes will take their designs from a style book featuring a variety of common, popular pre-war styles, such as Greek Revival, Victorian, and Country French.

Compared to many modern American subdivisions, the differences are striking: the plots of land set aside for homes are small, some free-standing home plots only 12 metres across, and townhouse plots only 7.5 metres. The streets are intentionally narrow -- the major arterials into the town are a little over 10 metres across, and many of the residential streets measure no more than 6 metres. Narrow streets and lots lead to slower traffic, a greater sense of intimacy in neighborhoods, and a shift in focus away from the car and toward walking.

Most of the houses have porches broad enough to actually sit on in the warm Florida evenings. All have alleys behind them, to keep the cars and trash cans hidden away. The town plan is strewn with walkways, bike paths, and small pocket parks just big enough to toss around a ball, or sit on a bench with the morning paper. "We think of them more as shared front yards," says the Celebration Company's Chris Corr. "Our assumption is that people crave community."

The downtown is small, clustered around a lakefront, with a main street only 7.5 metres across. The buildings are not all the same. Like the buildings of a real town, the bank, designed by Robert Venturi, is a sober-looking, blocky thing, while Cesar Pelli's cinema has a touch of `50s futurism. In fact, it's the only part of Celebration that looks anything like Walt's Jetsons-style City of the Future. Philip Johnson, the grand old man of postmodernism, designed the Town Hall, while Graves did the Post Office.

The Virtual Community Within the Real One

Here, the futuristic technology is hidden away. The skin of Celebration is old-fashioned, warm, and huggable. Under the skin, the nerves are new, and they are powerful. Underground, it's the millennium.

If you look carefully at each house plot, you'll find some hints in the pipes that emerge from the ground. Here's the sewer connection, the gas pipe, the electrical cable, and the fresh water pipe. The purple pipe is recycled water, for the landscaping. The last pipe is the information cable. The entire village is wired. Glass fiber runs to every block, and broadband coaxial cable to every door. This is for far more than cable service: in a small building downtown, AT&T is installing a broadband server and a series of switches that will allow every citizen not just to call a friend, watch cable television, download movies and order pizza, but to provide information as well, to arrange garden clubs, town meetings, and baseball games, to discuss homework, trade recipes and gossip, to look at the specials at the cafe, browse the shelves at the library, or plot assignations in the night.

The network will be owned and run by Vista-United Telecommunications, the Disney subsidiary that is Walt Disney World's phone company. It will be built by AT&T and Broadband Technologies (BBT). AT&T will provide its SLC-2000 SONET access system -- the switches at the heart of the system -- and the telephone interface; BBT's FLX SDV "optical transport system" will move the high-bandwidth video and multimedia over the fiber lines. The central office will have two host digital terminals (HDTs), each a 2-terabyte Silicon Graphics workstation (a terabyte is a million megabytes). From there fibers will branch out through the town to "optical network units" (ONUs), one for each 16 households. There the pulses of laser light are turned back into electrical pulses, with telephone conversations shunted into normal copper "twisted pair" wires for the rest of the run to the household, high-speed data into an ISDN line, and cable television and other broadband multimedia signals into a coaxial cable.

AT&T's project managers describe the bandwidth that will be available as "unlimited" -- they will be providing more capacity at every stage than will be needed, and "future-proofing" the project by overbuilding the parts that are hard to change, such as the actual buried glass fiber and copper cables. They hope that some of the town's residents will volunteer to be part of a "living laboratory," trying out new AT&T technologies in their homes.

The first wave of residents will be provided with computers if they don't already have one. Microsoft will provide the operating system for the computer conferencing system. The town planners intend the system to help bring the community together -- they sometimes describe it as the "glue" of the town's culture -- not drive it apart into electronic cubicles. There is evidence that this approach works. Many users of the Well computer conferencing system, which originally grew mainly within California's Bay Area, report that their social lives, the regular face-to-face kind, have grown enormously since they began using the system. In the wall-to-wall wired town of Blackwood, Virginia, residents send each other an average of 8 email messages each per day, and big users include the Girl Scouts, the League of Women Voters, and the local arts council.

If the television has become our "electronic hearth," in Celebration the TV, the PC, or the screenphone will become the electronic "back fence." Amy Westwood of the Celebration Company says that the goal of the conputer network will be to "reinvent the small-town porch and the general store," which were to traditional America what the cafe was to France and the pub to England. So the company has decided that it will not own and run the local conferencing system itself, but will give it to the town's foundation, the organization which will be in charge of fostering the town's cultural life.

"We have to turn this over to the community," says Adams. The foundation will take the first wave of residents through the same kind of "principles and values" exercises that they used to build the town plan in the first place, taking people back to the deep values that they hold in common. Later the foundation will run yearly "brainwriting" sessions to help the community continually and consciously re-invent itself.


Elsewhere, the futuristic tilt of Celebration is even less obvious, the revolutionary shifts even further buried. On the north edge of town a large building is rising on a plot the town plan labels "Celebration Health." Renderings show a large, elegant Mediterranean-style building with palms lining the drive, nearly surrounded by small lakes.

But the building, designed by Stern, is far from being just another hospital or clinic: it will incorporate a whole new way of looking at health. The turbulent and expensive U.S. healthcare system has spawned a new profession of "healthcare futurists" who help governments and businesses understand and manage the rapidly changing healthcare landscape. Over the past several years, the Celebration Company has turned to the foremost of these health futurists, including Clem Bezold, Leland Kaiser, the Healthcare Forum's Kathryn Johnson, and other members of the International Health Futures Network, as well as former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, and Stanford University's Dr. Ken Pelletier. These health futurists share a basic "healthy communities" stance -- the idea that much of health and illness arises not merely out of accident and microbes, but out of behavior, and not merely out of individual behavior, but out of the shared dynamics of family, work, and community.

The result will be a state-of-the-art health system, owned and operated by Orlando's Florida Hospital (the largest not-for-profit hospital in the state), but tightly integrated with the community of Celebration. Only part of the space in the new facility, scheduled to open in about a year, is dedicated to taking care of illness. Much of it is given to fostering a healthy lifestyle, to being what futurist Kaiser calls "a design center for the health of the community." It will incorporate a health club and workout facility (in the "Health Activities Center"), educational areas and a bookstore, meeting rooms, mental health counseling rooms. Children can play in the "kids gym," a restaurant will serve good, healthy food, and adults can take classes in how to cook and eat better. It will be a place to go when you are not sick. The professionals of Florida Hospital, and those the hospital recruits for the center itself, will work closely with the town's Celebration Foundation to make Celebration a healthy community.

At the same time, the facility's Center for Health Innovations will be a proving ground and demonstration laboratory for new technology, from electronic patient records and images available to doctors over the town's server system to the advanced operating rooms. These state-of-the-art installations, designed by Ethicon Endosurgery and Olympus Endoscopy, both focus on surgical methods that are "minimally invasive" -- that is, they make the smallest hole and create the least possible trauma. General Electric will demonstrate and research advanced imaging methods, and other companies will demonstrate new medical information systems.

The clinical side of the health centre will boast an outpatient surgery centre, diagnostic imaging, rehabilitation and sports medicine, a pharmacy and a dental clinic, as well as both primary care doctors and specialists. The details of working with patients will shift. For instance, there will be no waiting rooms. You will make the appointment from home, through the server. When you show up, you'll get a beeper, so that if you have to wait at all, you can wait while strolling the grounds or looking through the bookstore.

"Typically," says Stanford's Dr. Pelletier, "a physician might tell a patient to stop smoking or lose weight, but leave the patient thinking `Now what do I do?' It's that `Now what?' part that is different here." At Celebration Health, the patient could go straight from the doctor to the work out centre to set up an exercuse program, to the information to check out videos or sign up for a cooking class, and to the bookstore to buy a guidebook to his condition. Once home, he can log into the network to do continuing self-evaluation, ask the doctor a question, join a support group, or just compare notes with friends.

Planners intend to fight hard to change the intimidating clinical atmosphere so common in healthcare. The doctors will all be direct employees of Celebration Health (which is not normal in the United States), giving the centre a greater ability to make certain that they serve the patients' needs. In the world of hotel and resort management, Disney is considered a leading expert on "guest relations," the art of making customers feel welcome and cared for. The entire staff of Celebration Health, from the ophthalmologists to the receptionists, will go through Disney University training, to give the facility a uniquely warm "people feel." A sign in the preview center describes their goal as: "A 60,000-square-foot Health Activities Center, 100 healthcare professionals, and a doctor who knows all the words to `Itsy Bitsy Spider.'"


The town's school will attempt equally to push the edges of theory and practice, with such innovations as custom learning plans created for each student with the parents' involvement, and continuing "portfolios" of the sutdents work as he or she advances. Values will form the core of the curriculum: ethics, diversity, cooperation, critical thinking, wellness, and community service. "Neighborhood" groupings of 100 students will be handled by 4-teacher teams. The buildings will not be divided into standard classrooms with desks set in rows, but into home-like "hearth" areas, with big comfy reading chairs, and window seats overlooking the wetlands, and "wet" areas, where students will do such messy things as cook, paint, and dissect frogs. Experts from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of Minnesota, Stetson University and the United States Air Force have worked on the 1400-student school's advanced curriculum. Every student will have access to computers. Like the health center, the school will be linked into the town's information system, and through it to the Internet. No use telling mom you don't have any homework -- she can find out on the server.

Backed against a part of the dedicated wilderness area, the school will be linked directly with a teaching academy next door that will involve some of the nation's top schools of education, including Harvard, Auburn, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Minnesota. Eventually the academy will train some 3,000 educators a year in the latest techniques. It that will serve not just Celebration, but the entire school district of the surrounding Osceola County. So will the school: some 220 slots a year will be reserved for sutdents who live elsewhere in the county.

The possibility of building something truly new has excited teachers from as far away as California, Canada, and the United Kingdom to apply for jobs at the school.

FutureCommunity: Letting Go

On the surface, the town looks little like Walt's version of the future, but even here the biggest differences are hidden, and they revolve around a central concept: control. Walt wanted it. He did everything in-house, and kept the details of his plans secret, convinced that his ideas were better than anyone else's. The Celebration Company, in contrast, has gone time and again to the best outside authorities -- architects, health futurists, communications experts, conservationists, and education theorists -- looking for ideas. "We didn't have to invent everything new here," says Adams.

But Walt's desire for control went even deeper. When his associate Donn Tatum commented that what Walt really wanted was "an experimental absolute monarchy," Walt playfully replied, "Can I have one?" It was a joke, but it was real all the same. He wanted to have a dress code for his community, and a behavior code: residents could be evicted for public drunkenness or cohabiting before marriage. He would outlaw, among other things, pets, unemployment and voting. "It will be a planned, controlled community," he said two months before he died. "There will be no landowners, and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them . . . There will be no retirees. Everyone must be employed."

So the planners of Celebration are actually attempting something more difficult than even Walt contemplated (though they blink in surprise when this is suggested). Unlike Walt, they are willing to do their best to design the perfect town, and then relinquish control, bit by bit, to its citizens, through their services districts, the community foundation, the school district, and the county authorities. "Disney can't possibly do it all. But if we build strong links between the different parts," says Adams, "it will work."

"The town will be what people make of it," says Chris Corr. He and his colleagues have seen that if they want to build not just a development but a community, they must let chaotic humanity in, and they must get out of the way.

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