Celebration in Florida


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Celebration is a well-known new-urbanist town near Orlando, Florida. In January 2013 I spent about two days there, and came away very impressed. Like other new urbanist towns it takes it architectural and layout cues from pre-1940 successful American towns. It is an attempt to build today neighbourhoods similar to successful walkable areas like the Glebe, Hintonburg, Westboro, Dalhousie … rather than the overtly car-centric suburban model that has dominated our cities since the mid-20th century.

Does it succeed? Can we recreate the successful neighbourhoods of the past?

I must say I visited with a sceptical mind. I had been there about a decade ago and it then looked very new, plastic-y, and eerily empty. While the housing crash of the last decade suffocated the market for new houses, and resale values sagged, there is new construction there now and house prices are climbing back to the pre-crash levels. The town prohibits short term rentals or vacation villas, which may have helped keep people invested in the success of the town. The town is large enough — about 4500 households, and 500 businesses — that it takes on the flavour of a real place. There were few vacancies. There are pedestrians everywhere, and school-age kids playing in the courtyards. I don’t know what its future build-out population will be, but it is readily apparent to the observant that almost everything is designed to be expanded or to grow. There is even provision for future infills.

Celebration comes under increased scrutiny and criticism because of its largest corporate founder, The Disney Corporation, although they are no longer active in developing or managing the town. They spent lots of money — I heard $2.5 billion — establishing services, hiring the best architects in America to design the signature buildings, and laying out the prototype neighbourhoods. Like other new urbanist projects, it has a pre-1940’s feel, but there is a huge variety of housing types and styles, including streamline moderne and art deco. The overall composition of the place now gives it an identity of its own, rather than looking like cutouts from a architectural style book.

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I was particularly impressed by the variety of housing types very close to each other, in a fine-grained mix that for almost a century our urban planing professionals tried so hard to zone out of most other towns where segregation of housing types and land uses is the rule. In addition to the mix of housing formats, there is a huge variety of household incomes and house prices in close proximity to other types. It is not a retirement community.

There is a downtown, and this is the hardest place to create from scratch in a new urbanist project. The downtown has to have a variety of businesses for synergy, reasons for people to go there, and a hinterland of residences. Then it also has to work to break the traditional suburban format of stores with large parking lots and drive throughs. People have to re-learn that they can enjoy walking to shops and services, and that there is something worthwhile at the end of the walk (a later visit to another new urbanist town that failed make the contrasts striking).

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above: ground floor apartments in the blocks surrounding the downtown are designed to be converted into storefronts or offices as the town grows. Several blocks already have been converted, a planned mimicry of natural growth.

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above: typical mainstreet three story office and retail


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above: banks are walk-in, not drive-through


fla jan 2013 234above: the core business area is cheek-to-jowl with businesses and restuarants that animate the streets

fla jan 2013 260above: streets are kept distinct from each other by architectural style, types of street trees, dominant colours, and a variety of building widths. Typically,  storefronts all have apartments above.


fla jan 2013 262above: behind the streets lined with stores are the access points to residential buildings and some mid-block parking lots. Each large parking lot had a number of gaps opening up to the surrounding streets, which makes future infill of larger buildings possible. A plan for everything — including change.

fla jan 2013 279above: there were many busy restaurants and pubs, including some inexpensive ones, along the lake-front  They were crowded at lunch, mid-afternoon, dinner, and evening hours with crowds thinning out after 8pm.

fla jan 2013 280above: can a one sided mainstreet work? Celebration tries, with its retail core fronting onto a lake with rocking chairs and public umbrellas. The space was busy with strollers, dog-walkers, etc. The current downtown is like one wedge of a circle, with the lake at the centre, and obviously can be expanded in segments to surround the whole lake should the town continue to grow.

The downtown hasn’t any dilapidated buildings, so it doesn’t truly reflect the natural ageing process and variety in established cities. The street decor and storefronts weren’t obviously synthetic or overdone, but were a step up from what one finds on Preston, Bank Street in the Glebe, or Westboro. It might be fair to say they were like the ” best”  blocks of those streets.