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What Navigating Disney World Can Teach Us About Our Cities

Why must the “frictionless” ease of the Magic Kingdom remain a fantasy?

This spring, we’re celebrating innovators who are tackling pressing global issues. We call them the GOOD 100. In the spirit of solidarity, we’re also rolling out insights and personal stories from a select list of influential global citizens working in alliance with the world at large. We’ll be highlighting GOOD Citizens once a week.

"It's on America's tortured brow that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow." That line from David Bowie's "Life on Mars" kept banging around in my head while I traipsed through the Magic Kingdom with my kids last week. Bowie probably meant something about sacred cows, but I won't profess to know. For me, something about cattle and Disney World made sense as I strolled around in what felt like a Temple Grandin masterpiece. The park had managed to combine crowded bovine passivity with ease of movement, evocative of animal scientist Grandin’s work to design corrals that reduced stress and panic in animals on their way to slaughter.

Okay, so that’s a little bit of a dark take on what I see as a caricature of good urban design. But truly, it’s something to behold. The Kingdom’s park design positions Cinderella’s castle as the center, or hub, with paths/spokes radiating in all directions to Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and other worlds. That geographic array is matched with line-skipping consumption technology called the “Magic Band” (read: credit card bracelet) and combines to make distances feel short, navigation instinctive, and transactions seamless. Frictionless.

I'm an urbanist obsessed with friction. As a rule, friction tends to work in opposition to movement, making it hard for objects that touch to get past one another. Good or bad, it can slow us down, start a fire, or sustain an argument. In cities, friction is a useful way of thinking about mobility and access. That is, the harder it is to get to where you want or need to go, the more friction you're experiencing. We can experience friction in our infrastructure—you might find it in an expressway between your home and the nearest park that makes it unpleasant or impossible to walk there. Friction can be expressed by a lack of access to public services, like a transit network with no stations or stops in your neighborhood, which makes it difficult to commute to work. Friction can have serious consequences, like trauma centers located so far from your community that people die before they get there. And friction can be hard to see, as when gang lines carve up neighborhoods and make it dangerous to cross those boundaries to get to school.

Among urbanists, the conversation about mobility and access seems obsessed with distance and time. How far is a person from where they want to go? How long does it take to get there? When I worked as a parks and recreation planner and policy-maker for Chicago, I looked at thousands of maps and used these proxies of time and distance to assess and improve the distribution of funds, projects, and programs. I got caught up in the idea of "walkability" and the 10-minute walk standard that looks great on a map and is even better when it's sophisticated enough to account for physical barriers like an expressway. But ask a parent why they won't walk two blocks from their house to enroll their kid in a free summer camp—instead of having them stuck in the house or playing in the streets for a long, hot, dangerous Chicago summer—and you’ll learn what all the maps in the world can't tell you. That forces, or friction, are working in opposition to that movement, and what seems walkable and proximate on a map doesn't mean anything to people who have to live with the policies you invent.

The entirety of Magic Kingdom is a fantasy land compared to the reality of our cities and neighborhoods. We know it and maybe that’s why we like it. And while the map and the movement may align, neither metric is sufficient to address less visible moments of friction. They also fail to account for the lack of economic access implied in wearing a Magic Band in the first place. The reality is that an appreciation for distance, time, and good urban design isn’t enough if we want to truly understand invisible barriers to mobility. For starters, planners, policy-makers, and urbanists should look at their proposals through this lens of friction. Ask how and why things operate the way they do in reality. Understand when and where friction shows up. Learn who frictions affects and what kinds of consequences they experience. And position the people who must live with friction to design and implement their own responses to it.

Our neighborhoods and our cities are neither Magic Kingdoms or Mars. But there is enough room to expand our thinking, send our sacred cows to pasture, and make life on Earth a little better.

Gia Biagi is the Senior Director for Urbanism and Civic Impact at Studio Gang Architects, a studio that uses design as a medium to connect people socially, experientially, and intellectually. She also serves on the board of NeighborSpace, a non-profit land trust that provides long-term protection to more than 100 community gardens across Chicago.

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