Celebration, FL - Lessons Learned - "Always Be Benchmarking"
What happens when you make a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy? In most cases the text and/or images get fuzzy. They lose their clarity and meaning. The same is true in community development. If you repeat what have always done, even if successful the first few times, without any evolutionary improvements, the streetscapes and places you create will lose their clarity, meaning, and value. Not only do the new portions of the neighborhood have less value, but what was originally built is no longer special and unique and could lose its value as well.
During my summer between my two years at business school I had an internship with Disney Development Company. At that time, Celebration was in its early planning stages with just a small handful of people working on the project. Celebration hadn't even been given the official "go ahead" by corporate. My primary task that summer was to travel to and study some of the great towns, neighborhoods, and places in the United States. To be perfectly honest, when they told me what I would be doing for the summer, my response was "Really, you are going to pay me to do this? This is what my girlfriend (now my wife) and I do on vacation".
Armed with a camera, sketchbook, tape measure and expense account, I set off to study and try to understand what made these places so wonderful. In all, between the time I was an intern and a full-time Disney employee ("Cast Member" in Disneyspeak), I easily visited over fifty places with the expressed intent of finding best practices, tricks, and techniques to bring back to use at Celebration. I measured street, building setbacks and heights of fences and porches. I took photographs of squares, building facades, porch columns and obscure details such as shutter dogs.
Some may call taking ideas like this "stealing', but I prefer to refer to it as "benchmarking". At Celebration, we did a great deal of benchmarking. Throughout Celebration Village, the first phase and most well-known part of Celebration, there is evidence of our intense levels of benchmarking. Some are very direct and obvious such as Savannah Square, a formal square framed by three-story townhouses. Some are less derivative, such as the composition of houses with distinct Main Bodies, Side Wings and Hyphens or how a corner board or railing was detailed.
The look, feel, character and success of Celebration Village is a direct result of the talented and dedicated design and development professionals taking all the research compiled and the benchmarking information assembled to craft beautiful streets, places, and houses. Rather than taking the easy road and copying what was currently being done in some of the best-selling and very conventional master planned communities in the Central Florida market, we took lessons learned from all the places we visited and studied to create something distinctive and desirable. While specific design and development concepts incorporated into Celebration might have been seen as new, innovative and untested in the local market, they were time-tested successes at the places we studied and used for benchmarks. Their successes at these other locations gave us the confidence to incorporate them at Celebration.
Soon after Celebration was launched, and a critical mass of Celebration Village was built and occupied, we started getting requests for tours from design professionals, developers and municipal officials and staff from around the world. At one time, I was spending around twenty to twenty-five percent of my time giving tours of Celebration Village. While this was a bit of a distraction and took me away from my primary responsibilities as Town Architect, I didn't mind. I enjoyed sharing our lessons learned with others and repaying a favor to those who were kind enough to spend time with us while we were on our benchmarking tours. Often during the tours, I would hear someone say they always wanted to try to incorporate some of the things we introduced into Celebration, such as mixing various residential product types or having rear alleys, but they didn't feel comfortable about doing so. But now that "Disney did it", they had the confidence to include some of these elements their projects.
As the development of Celebration continued into additional phases and village, Celebration Village continued to be a place for benchmarking design ideas - for others as well as the Celebration team. As the years went by, a majority of the original Celebration team moved on to work on other community development projects which have bits and pieces of the "Celebration DNA" embedded within them.
Unfortunately, the team that remained, for the most part, continued to use Celebration Village as the primary reference source for the development of subsequent phases. While the streets, houses, and parks remained attractive in later phases, they weren't as distinctive and clearly identifiable as what was built in Celebration Village. While okay, things could have been much better. When I recently drove through the later phases of Celebration, I felt lost. There didn't seem to be a built landmark, street, or public space that could be used to differentiate one location from another. The distinct "addresses" we strived to create within Celebration Village were not evident.
Instead of just copying and re-copying what was successfully done in Celebration Village, the balance of Celebration would have benefitted greatly from an infusion of new ideas and design concepts borrowed from other places or evolutionary improvements from what was previously done in Celebration. If the development team had continued to visit and study other successful towns and communities they would have continued to discover new and additional design, development and management concepts appropriate for Celebration. Expanding the design gene pool with new and different streets types/sections, housing types, stormwater retention and conveyance systems and house designs (especially for the production builders) would have fostered greater clarity, meaning and value for the balance of Celebration.