Could The Future of Sustainable Urban Design Be… Disneyland?

Walt Disney famously dreamed up Disneyland for his daughters, saying he wanted to create something parents and children could do together. For a child, of course, it is the ultimate dream world where beloved characters come to life roam free, playing and interacting with everyone else there. As an adult, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Disneyland, but for different reasons.

Disneyland of course has a creative appeal and intricate beauty, but it doesn’t end there: the entire park has been planned out with maximum efficiency in mind, with nary a chip of paint missing on a lamp post in the whole park. Since being built in 1955, Disneyland has become more than just a place for kids and their parents: it is a well-planned city, and in some ways it’s actually better than some real cities. 

Mixed-Use Development

A component of building a successful, sustainable city is to build one that meets all of its constituents’ needs: living, working, shopping and recreation all close to one another. In the 2014 article, Improving Health by Design in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area, produced by a group of city planners, they state: “we recognize that part of creating a sustainable city is about mixing up our uses and bringing things in close so that people can do a variety of different things in any given neighbourhood.”

Giving residents the option to walk to their necessities makes the city more livable and also positively impacts the health of its residents. The authors of the redesign plan for the greater Toronto area describe their vision as “Healthy complete communities”, which provide “convenient access to an appropriate mix of jobs, local services, and a full range of housing and community infrastructure.” The city planners of the densely populated southern Ontario corridor have developed a plan specifically to do what Disneyland does so well: make everything accessible.

Disneyland guests can sleep, eat, play and shop without ever needing to leave the 160-acre park. Guests can stay at Disneyland Resort just outside the fairgrounds, in one of the themed hotels. At the foot of Disneyland Resort is Downtown Disney, a corridor with shopping, eateries and nightlife.

From there, guests are no more than a 5-minute walk to the park gates. Once inside, the park is broken up into villages, such as Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Fantasyland, with shops and restaurants in each so visitors are never more than a five-minute walk from anything they could want throughout their day. Disneyland is also home to an approximate 20,000 jobs, with a ripple effect of about 65,000 more among its vendors and tourism.

Many older cities, with residential property polarized to the downtown core, are only beginning to incorporate this design now,  after decades of working on inner-city design. Residents would have to traditionally commute into the city for work and entertainment, making for longer days and shorter sleeping time. Mixed cities, on the other hand, create a symbiotic support system by bringing all the components closer together. This is case with Disneyland.

So, how exactly does it work?

Transit-Oriented Planning

When traveling through older neighbourhoods, especially in the suburbs, you’ll notice that some streets don’t have sidewalks. Less than 100 years ago, cities were being built for the motorist, not the pedestrian; driving was the norm and cities were designed for vehicle use. Now, dense metropolitan centres are redesigning their cities for public transit and are moving away from the car-and-driver model. A recent study showed that at least 25% of all housing demand in the next 20 years will be for homes and apartments within half a mile of rail transit stations. Some of them could take a cue from the comprehensive, non-invasive approach Disneyland employed when building their transit.

As in any mixed-use development, visitors are never more than a ten-minute walk from food, amenities, shopping or attractions. Though, to move among the villages in the park, Disneyland installed rail transit. The most impressive of the two is the monorail, an elevated, high-speed train that moves its riders through the entire park in 13 minutes. The park also features Disneyland Railroad, which is a 1.2km scenic tour of the outskirts of the park, and moves patrons throughout the park in 18 minutes. Anywhere in the park, a visitor is no more than five minutes from a rail transit option. And the best part—the wait time between trains is roughly only five minutes.

Planning a sustainable city— accommodating the needs of business, residential and green space and setting them up to feed each other and work in harmony— is no small feat. If ever a city planner is looking for inspiration fow what a mixed-use development with progressive transit approach should look like (albeit, on a small scale), they should look no further than the magical Disneyland, California.