The Urbanism of Zootopia

One of the advantages of having children is benefiting from a bridge to media and culture that you would not enjoy otherwise. But for my kids, would have I have ventured to discover how Snapchat works? Would I care about Descendants, or the 100 or Fifth Harmony? Probably not. But to remain a part of their lives I follow what is of interest to them. Thus, a few days ago, we went to see Disney's latest animated movie: Zootopia.

I won't spoil the plot too much, just know that not all is what it seems and that the clever denunciation of some of the US' social mores  is well worth the price of entry. What I wish to discuss is the background of the movie: the character of the complex and Utopian city where the action take place, which shares the name of the movie: Zootopia. 

 A train station with some flair.

A train station with some flair.

Of course, we know that Disney staff can make a good Main Street. They have not forgotten their craft, but, now freed of the need to make every square foot into a money machine, they present us in Zootopia with a gorgeous Metropolis where anybody would want to spend some time. The City is clean, of course. It is safe, and agent Hops, the main character, is an enthusiastic police officer. The trees are large specimens. You can travel by bike, subway,  light rail, by car, by the cutest cable gondolas you ever saw, on ice floes, or simply enjoy wide sidewalks. As the action shifts to the City's core, the space allocated to cars reduces, with regular street becoming Woonerfs, and leading to a large pedestrians only central square -pictured above- that is both park and plaza. 

The architecture of the city is always interesting to look at. In its various districts, we find romantic buildings, gilded age mansions and commercial corridors, art deco towers and other nods to America's great architectural past. Kiosks and subway entrances are a strange mix of what would happen if Paris' Guimard design and New York's pre war entrances  had offsprings. Awnings are canvas, not vinyl.  Bridges have delicate or interesting arches.  It is not all nostalgia as the modern sections of town are equally, possibly more, interesting, because they are good. The city has plenty of international style towers, and in fact they dominate its skyline. However, they are not the drab and bland variety that are sprouting in Brooklyn today. They are organic, with interesting curves, windows, and a clear understanding of their relationship to their fellow neighbors. Moreover, at ground level, you won't find any blank walls, nor long expanses of uniform structural glass with nothing interesting to look at. There is texture, retail and activity facing the street. Further, every sidewalk has a good streetscape, contextual to its surroundings. 

What is striking to me about this fun film is how easily animators conjure up a beautiful city and the contrast with the reality of the building environment around us, in cities of course, but particularly in the suburbs. The image of Zootopia could not be further away from the strip mall/cookie cutter housing development layout that is home to most of the people who will watch the movie in the US.  Can that gap be bridged?