Cause for celebration?

The Celebration Chronicles: life, liberty and the pursuit of property value in Disney's new town

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The past 200 years have belonged to the city and, latterly, the suburb. The industrial revolution fattened our cities; modernist rationalism cleaned and carved them up; postwar affluence just drove into suburbia. But, in America and Britain at least, the reaction against modernist hubris and resource-hungry suburbs is reaching a crisis. This new century may be the century of the town.

In America, the self-proclaimed New Urbanists are leading the battle. Their flagship is Celebration, a new town (with a projected population of 20,000) built by the Disney Corporation in Florida. It is an important test case. Sprawl has shot up the political agenda, and New Urbanism (with backing from figures on both the left and the right) is an increasingly influential response, not just in greenfield developments such as Celebration.

With its brightly coloured, pastiche architecture (homeowners may choose from six different revival styles), officious rulebook and links to Disney, Celebration seems like a metropolitan liberal's nightmare. After all, The Truman Show was filmed in another New Urbanist town, Seaside. But The Celebration Chronicles, written by the sociologist Andrew Ross on the basis of a year's residence in the town, scotches all simple judgements.

As Ross points out, the fashionable conversion of industrial spaces is no more authentic than Celebration's historical plundering. The ambiguities of Celebration's conservative revolution run deep. The town is radical, too. New Urbanist planning principles are such an attack on postwar development as to be illegal in many parts of America: they include rules to design around pedestrians and public transport, not cars; to build compactly, mixing commercial, residential and different value properties; and to preserve green space wherever possible. In short, to reinvent the town.

Ross unearths much that worries him about Celebration, mostly rooted in Disney's patronage. And yet, through fascinating and sometimes moving reportage, he also shows the town developing a strong and generally tolerant sense of community, not least when it contradicts the developer's plan. But it is as real concerns and complaints arise that the Celebrationites begin truly to form a fractious living entity.

Perhaps the return of the town is a sign of our risk aversion and our fear of the "urban sublime". But it is a phenomenon that suits the times, blurring easy contrasts between left and right, between civic renewal, environmental concern and nostalgia for authoritarian community. New Labour, which sometimes embraces all these things, is currently overhauling its housing strategy in ways that share much with New Urbanism. Al Gore is a committed supporter. Andrew Ross, blessed with a dry wit and an inability to condescend, is an engaging guide through this ambiguous territory.