It seems that citizens of the town of Celebration, originally developed by Disney near Orlando, Fla., have been unsafe in their houses since 1996, when it first opened. The fire department says it must ban parking on side streets and those trees have got to go, or else fire trucks can’t make it to fires.
Celebration is a planned New Urbanist community that markets the charm of traditional neighborhoods to attract new residents. Design is limited by a building code that enforces generally historical styles. The small blocks and narrow streets heighten a sense of “perfection” that has been mocked by architecture critics who think anything that doesn’t look out of kilter is old hat. They make dark intonations about The Stepford Wives, but since there has been no convenient rash of murders or invasion of zombies for critics to point to, maybe the latest strategy to deflate its popularity is to scare the bejesus out of citizens.
But this is no conspiracy theory. At a recent meeting to discuss fire safety in Celebration, town officials and homeowner-association representatives were told by fire officials to get rid of street parking – at least on one side of most streets and both sides of some – and street trees. “Life safety is more impor- tant than parking on the street.” No kidding! But fire officials seem to think the two are mutually exclusive.
“Are you saying we are unsafe in our houses?”
“You are unsafe.”
“What has changed? Since there have been no changes to Celebration, are you saying we have always been unsafe?”
“I wasn’t there back then.”
If the deputy chief is correct, then it looks as if we may have to evacuate many of the best places to live in this country. If fire trucks can’t make it down the streets of Celebration, they certainly can’t make it down the streets of Georgetown, Beacon Hill and other places built before World War II.
But in Celebration there have been very few fires over the two decades of its existence, no major fires, and none with death resulting. Does Celebration really need to get rid of its trees and its parking? Or does the fire department have too little to do – you know what they say about idle hands. Not long ago – perhaps needing to spend more money lest its annual appropriation be cut – the fire department replaced its old fire trucks with new and improved (read larger) trucks that are harder to get to fires. Oops!
The minutes of this lengthy meeting cast some doubt on whether fire officials are not overreaching. It was unclear whether fire trucks can’t turn corners because they literally can’t get through, or just can’t do so without slowing down. As things stand, cars parked too near corners are not ticketed aggressively. Fire officials say they will not risk damaging an illegally parked car in order to reach a house on fire; that suggests that they don’t take fire safety seriously enough. By the meeting’s end, fire officials seemed to have backed away from a proposed ban on street parking to a plan to expand the reach of the existing ban on cars parking within 30 feet of a corner.
No one doubts that fire officials care about saving lives. This is their main concern and that is what it should be. But part of their job is to understand the deep and important character of their town, and its place in reviving a workable urbanism, not just in Florida but around the nation. New Urbanists are correct to emphasize the importance of street parking in Celebration. Cars on the street form a buffer to protect pedestrians from traffic. That, too, is life safety. Trees perform the same service. And Celebration would not be Celebration without its abundance of trees lining the street.
It seems apparent that life safety and civic beauty need not be incompatible. A workable compromise seems within easy reach here. If it is not, then it may be necessary to drill down deeper to find the reason why not.
By the way, downtown Celebration’s quotient of out-of-kilter buildings prove that traditional architecture can be just as creative as modern architecture.
[Correction: Early versions of this post suggested unfairly that fire officials were targeting parking lanes on both sides of most streets. For most streets, fire officials believe banning parking on one side would be enough.]