The Simulated City Vs The Urban Downtown


While the city’s star is rising in popular literature, it has fallen in popular usage. Where have our sidewalks gone—and why is sidewalk activity disappearing? Sidewalk life has declined in urbanized areas, while population has swelled. Here in Florida, the third most populated state in the country, the average town’s sidewalks should be teeming with colorful crowds of businessmen, shoppers, and people on errands going to and fro. We should see sidewalks full of people happy to be out in the sunshine, and even happier to have escaped the gray cold and the snow. Instead, on weekdays, a trickle of lunch-goers emerges from towers. On weekends, there’s a brief crush of crowds before events. This seems to be all that our downtowns can manage anymore.

The simulated city is the new place to be. It's a manufactured copy of our downtowns, and can be found in theme parks and places where throngs congregate to experience the sidewalk in its current incarnation.

The simulated city carries none of urbanity’s institutional hardware: no visible governmental facilities, religious institutions, schools or civic centers clutter the street wall. The simulated city eschews manufacturing and offices, instead making itself the chief enterprise: a mecca of retail, dining, and entertainment. It has cherry-picked the good stuff from the old urban form, presenting a cosmetically perfect face without blemish or quirk, redolent in its synthetic beauty.

In Florida, with few natural resources and scant manufacturing, the simulated city takes advantage of tourism and growth. With the number of annual visitors approximately four and a half times its permanent population, Florida is a natural place for simulated cities to sprout. The earliest was the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street at Walt Disney World. This ancestor of the simulated city engendered replicants in other theme parks, each one topping the other in surprise and delight.

This spring, Orlando’s Downtown Disney reopened as Disney Springs, a retail, dining, and entertainment district that is themed to resemble a lost small town. Nearby, Universal’s Citywalk incrementally reinvents itself, restaurant by restaurant. Further south, Miami’s South Beach has enjoyed an upsurge as well. With some of the highest real estate prices in Florida, South Beach has jumped species to become a simulated city too, enjoying a sidewalk life that is the envy of downtown Miami and, frankly, of the rest of Florida’s beach communities. There is magic on Ocean Boulevard’s pavement that is not found anywhere else in the state.

What groups these together is simple: sidewalks full of people. Unlike the shadow-world of Florida’s urban downtowns, riverwalks, boardwalks, and Main Streets, throngs of people crowd these places every day and every night. For all the hoopla about the reinvigorated city, Florida’s urban scene fails to deliver even a fraction of the sidewalk life that these places have. The simulated city is the powerhouse of the future.

Once going out meant heading to Main Street, and then, briefly, it was to the mall. Today, in the simulated cities one must carefully navigate between families, stepping between neon sneakers and wheeled strollers, flip-flops and brogans. This delicate ballet occurs while eye contact flickers between faces and facades; the traffic and the sky. The sum of such casual contact gives people a feeling for their public identity, and the simulated city is a tool to deliver this identity in the best possible light. The simulated city has become the choice for people to display their social selves.

Dry cleaners, dentists, and others who provide services that imply an unclean recipient are banished completely from the synthetic city. In South Beach, the providers are in the less expensive real estate many blocks from the beach. The city is an unabashed celebration of sybaritic pleasure, the frosting on the urban experience without any of the cake.

It is a city where your expectations as an urban connoisseur are completely fulfilled; decrepitude, blight, and eyesores are disallowed. Even better, a simulated city’s employees are rigorously trained to be cheerful and bright. No homeless people lounge on park benches, and there’s no visible crime, since there is no apparent indigence, want, or fear. Although it would not be turned away, the riskiest tranche of society seems to shun the simulated city. Its design reflects mainstream success, and discourages subversion, by having no alleys, no trashy areas, and no low income community adjacent to it.

South Beach was able to jump species from being a regular city and evolve into a simulated city partly because of this last feature, what with being an island. No low-income edge rankles its visitors, or exposes them to a broad cross section of society. It is unique among Florida’s simulated cities because it does have housing (upscale, of course) in its mix.

Urban boosters vaunt the ancient metropolitan core as if it still mattered. While urbanists are still fighting against the influences of the car, under their noses a new mobility trend threatens, one that will dwarf the damage done by the automobile.

This, of course, is the internet, that global marketplace of goods and services that makes nearly everything but a haircut available online. Downtowns and suburban commercial clusters alike are fighting for their lives, and between telecommuting, online shopping, and social media, fewer and fewer folk find reasons to step out onto the sidewalk. Soon, if we go online to vote, even our civic duty can be done without stepping on pavement.

Disney Springs presents a heady abundance of experiences to visitors along a lakeside walkway near Orlando. Families cluster together, friends walk in groups or split apart for different adventures. No obligation exists for greater social contact, since you are a visitor among visitors, and your anonymous bubble is preserved. This is a different state of mind than when you are in your own city where you may run into an acquaintance. As in a theme park, you are unlikely to run into someone you know.

And because people are in a place that is made especially for pleasure, the sense of self tends to magnify, as evidenced by ubiquitous and annoying selfie sticks. Without the glowering facades of authoritarian institutions like churches, police stations, or city halls, the sense of place is completely recreational and mildly celebratory, inducing a temporary state of pleasant expansiveness.

To see solid evidence for the simulated city’s high desirability, look at its twin conditions: Huge crowds coupled with high barriers to entry. South Beach requires visitors to take a slow crawl over a traffic-choked bridge onto the island, and pay stiff parking fees. Theme parks also charge parking fees, and entry requires a long, hot trudge through a parking lot. Driving, paying for parking, and then walking? Simulated cities must deliver high perceived value in exchange for this effort.

As the twenty-first century lifestyle migrates from the urban-centric past into the online and suburbanized future, the sidewalk seems destined to become a playground. Florida’s three or four simulated cities, enormously successful places, tell us that people will overcome hurdles to seek out urban experiences, including light social contact as a recreational activity, while shunning their own urban core back home. This paradox, particularly easy to see here in Florida, may point to a future where people prefer to sip the urban water, rather than swim in it.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Photograph by the author: Downtown Disney, a simulated small town, around lunchtime on a recent Sunday.