Illustration from the New Urbanism Film Festival website.

New Urbanism Film Festival 2014: American Makeover + Power to the Pedals + Trainsforming America

The New Urbanism Film Festival looks at how America might become more modern – by turning back to the better aspects of its past.

New Urbanism isn’t a fresh musical genre emanating from ‘urban pioneer’ hipster raves, but rather, it’s a way of arranging our physical environment to preserve space, resources, and ultimately, time. As with so many “new” concepts, it’s actually a return to methods that worked splendidly before the rise of Mr. Ford’s Tin Lizzie.

The movement arose in the early ’80s as a much-needed counterpoint to suburban sprawl, thus embracing such principles as traditional (read: prewar) neighborhood design and transit-oriented development. In short, walkable, pedestrian-oriented enclaves, in which everything necessary is within strolling distance and public transportation is comprehensive and convenient. This is how Americans designed cities, small towns, and inner-ring suburbs before the automobile dictated development rules, and New Urbanists, among them some prominent architects and landscape planners, argue that society would be greatly enriched by this more communitarian layout of 80 or 90 years past.

It seems that every cultural trend nowadays has a corresponding film festival, and New Urbanism is no exception. The New Urbanism Film Festival, guided by Josh Paget and Joel Karahadian, launched in 2013 and is now prepping its third run. Based in Los Angeles, among the most traffic-choked metropolises north of the Equator, the festival’s primary venue has been the Acme Comedy Theater on L.A.’s Westside. Among their 2014 offerings:

New Urbanism 101

As the title suggests, this program of shorts is essentially a primer on the movement, spotlighting – in the segment “Dynamic American Cities” — which cities seem serious in their commitment to fashioning more livable, less alienating spaces. One might find some unintended laughs in the juxtaposition of some decidedly WASPy talking heads underscored by a hip-hop beat. Of course, what could be more urbanist than hip-hop, with its legacy of street parties, day or night, and the boisterous musical camaraderie that ensued, livening up the ’70s Bronx even as its built environment crumbled?

Other segments include “Zoning”; indeed, shortsighted zoning regulations after WW II separated commerce from residency in America’s mushrooming suburban frontier, “Moving Beyond the Automobile”, and “Wakable 101”. It’s all reminiscent of the excellent current PBS series City Walk, itself a superb advocacy tool for New Urbanism.

American Makeover

John Paget’s documentary examines four American towns: Atlanta, Georgia, Seaside, Florida, Fresno, California, Buffalo, New York, finding pockets of urbanist re-thinking embedded in the larger community. We start with Atlanta, capital of the New South and also hellacious traffic jams, despite the existence of a cursory light rail system.

I’ve passed through Atlanta via Amtrak, and I must tell you that the quaint little shack which serves as the city’s rail terminal is hilariously inadequate for the amount of passengers who pass through its doors. But then, Atlanta’s mantra during its housing boom of recent decades was “drive ’till you qualify!”, so its surrounding suburbs sprouted like weeds, particularly so in a geography devoid of natural boundaries. Defying all this chaos is the lovely Glenwood Park, a charming New Urbanist housing tract that may be a model for future housing down South.

Then there’s Seaside, Florida. If you saw Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show, you’ll recognize Seaside. Architecturally, it could be described as a vaguely whimsical, contemporary take on time-honored New England Colonial. This prefab town, introduced in 1982 – same year as Disney’s futurist-kitsch EPCOT — was designed by Andres Duany, along with partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Duany himself appears in the film, delivering an erudite, persuasive tour of his pride and joy.

Private lawns are apparently illegal in Seaside, which I suppose conserves space and coaxes residents to gather on the public commons. It also reduces the need for watering, perhaps a superfluous concern in the damp, humid Sunshine State. Seaside also spots an innovative “business incubation” program, but ominously, the $64,000 question is whether lovely Seaside will survive rising sea levels. You can’t touch anything Seaside now for less than $1 million – and brutal gentrification is a thorny problem for New Urbanism in general – but one wonders if you’ll be able to give anything away two generations from now.

Fresno, California is a city one hears little about outside of that state, but perhaps raisins come to mind, and in fact, it was once labeled “Food Capital of the World”. As with much of the US, the town exploded during the postwar era, and downtown was a bustling quarter. In American Makeover, we see a small cadre of history-minded locals intent on reviving two civic institutions: the Fulton Mall and the Mural District.

New Yorkers of a certain age might recall Buffalo’s punishing Blizzard of 1977, a frosty deluge that helped cement the city’s reputation as a snow-blanketed “Winter Wonderland”. The accuracy of that assessment has been questioned by meteorologists, but Buffalo definitely was an envied industrial colossus prior to the Northeast’s deindustrialization. This partially depopulated the town, but also left many grand public edifices, an example of preservation by neglect. In a city that arguably devolved into an East Coast Detroit, there was no economic incentive for new construction, although that didn’t prevent freeways from pockmarking Buffalo.

However, as the film makes clear, we must consider what the city has retained. First, those same imposing buildings, many designed by esteemed names like Wright, Sullivan, or Richardson. In fact, Buffalo’s radial grid – conceived by Frederick Law Olmstead to evoke a park-like ambiance – encouraged the erecting of grandiosity. Also, it’s primarily surrounded by water, bringing to mind storied maritime cities like San Francisco, Seattle, or Sydney, not to mention Buffalo’s imperial state-mate, the Big Apple, a few hours to the south. All this and a subway, too! Not bad for a city of only about 300,000 souls.

Trainsforming America

It’s hardly a secret that America’s rail network is a pale shadow of what exists across the pond in continental Europe. As an Amtrak veteran, this crosses my mind quite a bit, though I only know the swift Eurail trains by reputation.

Director Rebecca Sansom’s film suggests that the Interstate Highway Act (1956) made auto travel both practical and comfortable, and the arrival of jet aircraft at the close of the ’50s pretty much sealed the deal. One commentator laments that America isn’t a “train culture”, but that’s a relatively recent situation. There are of course plans to bring high-speed rail, or HSR, to he US, specifically to serve 11 disparate mega-regions, although some argue that Americans are too enamored of the private car to make the transition, not to mention issues of residential density and America’s daunting size, compared with compact European nations.

Power to the Pedals

I don’t own a bike, but I’m dreaming of a Nirve beach cruiser, in an elegant, sporty green, adorned with subtle white striping and whitewall tires. At any rate, director Bob Nesson’s film is ultimately a tale of personal empowerment, as we learn that he commutes mostly by bike, and meet a resourceful young woman who reconfigures her bike to suit personal needs. Nesson also interviews the organization Metro Pedal Power, and provides some impressive aerial shots of lengthy cycling journeys.

New Urbanism Film Festival: City Stores on the Silver Screen, runs 8-11 October at the ACME Theatre, Los Angeles.