Want a Utopia? Hire a Company

Earlier this summer I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Rio de Janeiro and attend a few side events for Rio+20 thanks to Siemens. While there, I was able to have a casual dinner with the Siemens CEO of Cities and Infrastructure, Dr. Roland Busch. When asked about his history with Siemens, Dr. Busch mentioned that he grew up in a small-ish German village where Siemens had a huge presence. In fact, many of the adults in the village worked for Siemens and Dr. Busch noted that there were two different kinds of kids in the village – those who loved Siemens and wanted to work for them, and those who hated Siemens and never wanted anything to do with them. Funnily enough, Dr. Busch originally categorized himself in the second group, yet years later, here he is, head of one of Siemens major divisions.

Old-school Company Town

The main reason I’m mentioning this little anecdote was because at the time, I didn’t realize that there were still cities/villages out there where one major company had such a large presence. Sure, I vaguely remembered my studies in American History about industrial towns complete with homes, hospitals, schools and stores constructed by metal working companies for their employees, but I thought many of those places were dissolved after the rise of unions and government regulations. I’ve heard of cities constructed solely because they are near oil wells and such. These cities mostly contain oil workers, which are predominantly male, and therefore become very depressing places (but the pay I hear is really good). I’m not sure if such cities still exist today (and if they do, they probably exist in manufacturing countries).

On October 27th, 1966, one wealthy businessman recorded a video explaining his plans for his newly acquired 27,800 acres of and. This man was planning on creating a planned city, a ‘utopia’ in which his children and the next generations could live in peace and prosperity. He called his city the Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow. The city was based on the radial city concept, with transportation provided exclusively by monorail and the PeopleMover (a system that never stops moving). No one would own any land, everything was owned by the city and everyone would have a job, even the old. The man who envisioned – or rather ‘imagined’ – this idea was none other than Walt Disney himself. His proposed plan of EPCOT was going to be his greatest legacy after his death. Unfortunately, Disney died before the initiation of his project, it was said that even on his hospital bed he was drafting of plans for his city. After his death, Disney Directors deemed the EPCOT project too risky of a business venture and canned the idea of the utopian city. Out of the remains resulted in Walt Disney World Resort – Orlando and Magic Kingdom. EPCOT was later brought back to the table but scrapped once again, emerging only as another theme park. All that was left of Disney’s city dream was a significantly smaller planned community called Celebration, Florida.

The Original Video of Walt Disney’s EPCOT

It’s interesting to imagine what EPCOT would be like if Disney’s plans came to fruition. It certainly sounded like a wonderful city, but once again, everything was owned by Disney. In fact, the reason why Disney wanted to make sure no one owned any land was because he wanted full control of how to develop the city. Disney’s plans are just one example of early business-owned cities, and it’s easy to see how the concept can be dangerously tempting.

IKEA’s plan

IKEA, the popular Swedish interior design company targeting small families and spaces, has started development of a neighborhood in East London. The neighborhood includes 1,200 houses, shops (none of which are IKEA stores), cafés and a 350-room hotel. The neighborhood is being built with many of the latest urban planning principles (large courtyards and public spaces to encourage interaction, schools and stores placed in strategic locations to minimize travel distance). The London Mayor is enthusiastic about the project, and why wouldn’t he, when someone other than the city is footing the bill for the costs of constructing a modern-day neighborhood. Large companies such as IKEA have a vast amount of resources at their disposal, as well as a more tolerant outlook on accepting radical new ideas. Private companies can do things A LOT faster than city government. For companies, such cities are experiments to try out the latest urban planning theories while garnering a profit. A Washington-based technology company is building a complete ghost town in the middle of New Mexico not for people, but for a way to test city-system technologies (quite the large-scale experiment).

It’s also worth noting that companies aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts (well, at least not completely). While companies have the ability to influence parts of your life through their products, by constructing the environments around you, it’s not too radical to say that companies are trying to get a little more influence. But that’s not to say that government’s aren’t doing the same with their designs, after all, urban planning and architecture is all about fabricating environments to foster certain emotions and lifestyle habits.

The thought of having your lifestyle directed not by a government by a corporate entity is somewhat scary. But in these troubling economic times many cities are finding themselves strapped for cash – spurring public-private partnerships – and I have to wonder, will this kind of city structure arise once again? The return of the Company Town? Maybe not in the sense it was back then, where all citizens worked for one major company, but in the sense where major businesses are funding and directing the development of the city. Public-private partnerships could be the most affordable and logical step in improving our cities. And frankly, if we want anything close to a ‘Utopia,’ it’s probably going to have to come from a corporation or someone with a lot of money. We just don’t want to go too far and hit an anarcho-capitalism state (but that’s pretty doubtful).

Ahhh, Buy ‘N Large’s ‘Utopian’ Earth (Source: Wall-e (2008))

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