Solving Cities

Building our cities like Disney World, state fairs

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Disney World and state fairs are walkable paradises, and people love them. So why aren't more of our cities and towns modeled after the aspects that make them great?

Today, the Midwest isn't exactly a posterchild for smart growth (there are plenty of exceptions of course). Through the years the car has eroded the walkable main streets that made up our small towns and cities and caused growth to happen away from town and city centers.

My hometown of Champaign, Ill. is a great example of that. In the early 1900s people traveled by foot, trolley and bike, not unlike other Midwest towns at the time. (See this great photo from the time period.) But ever since housing development have caused the city to expand away from its urban core.

Did this shift in Midwestern cities and towns happen because people in the Midwest don't enjoy living in places where they have the ability to walk, bike, or ride transit to the places they frequent the most? Over on the Shareable blog, Jay Walljasper doesn't think so. Why? Well, have you been to a state fair in the Midwest?

Millions of people in farm states pay an admission to amble through car-free districts animated by cafes, beer gardens, music performances and the enduringly interesting parade of people passing by.  Locally grown food is all around, some so fresh that it is still on the hoof.

This is no chi chi idea of a pedestrian district imported from Germany or Italy.  It’s a homegrown model for how to improve safety, health and pleasantness in the places we call home.

Skeptical?  Well, I was just there a few weeks ago in Minnesota, and through the years have delighted in the lively streetlife of similar spots in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois.

I’m talking about State Fairs. But the concept works equally well with County Fairs and Renaissance Faires. These rustic American traditions approximate the experience of Old World pedestrian zones.

And these are not the only places people eagerly gather en masse to enjoy life without the hassle or harm of traffic.

An example on a more national level (since sprawl doesn't just happened in the Midwest, of course) is the pedestrian paradise Disney World. It's not modeled after a strip mall but a main street that used to be the norm in our cities and towns. Main Street USA is an icon of Disney World, and people flock to it. Is it a coincidence that the "happiest place on Earth" also doesn't have cars?

So if people enjoy these places why don't we model our cities and towns after the aspects that makes these places great: the chance to see your friends and meet people, the excitement of lingering around a place and exploring, and being entertained. It can't just be the elephant ears.

Photo: ross_hawkes/Flickr

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure