Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gotta Get Back in Time

Last weekend we saw a TV rerun of the 1985 classic Back to the Future.  I was reminded of something that didn't occur to me until many years after I saw it for the first time, which is that it is, subtly, an excellent land use movie.  Christopher Leinberger observed this in the opening pages of his terrific book The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream.  From the intro:

When I teach a graduate real estate seminar, the first homework I give to the students is watching the 1985 movie Back to the Future.  The film reflects most of the fundamental changes in how America has been built over the last sixty years.  

Specifically, in 1985 suburban "Hill Valley," the old downtown is dead.  The public square is deserted at all hours except for the homeless; once-thriving establishments have been replaced by adult businesses; and the clock hasn't been fixed in thirty years.  The new (1980s) mall at the outskirts of town now has all the action, accessible only by car (including time-machine car, or terrorist van!).  

When Michael J. Fox's character Marty McFly goes "back in time" to 1955 HIll Valley, he finds a vibrant downtown, where everyone walks around for work and shopping, teens go to the malt shop and the movie theater, and small businesses abound.  Sacred, safe, and busy, perhaps?  Back to Leinberger:

The two Hill Valleys show the only two viable divergent options we have in how to build our metropolitan built environment--which consists of the houses, roads, water and sewer lines, police and fire stations, office buildings, shops, factories, parks, and everything else that makes up where most Americans live, work, and play.  

Leinberger goes on to label the 1955 version as "walkable urbanism," and proceeds from there.  The Option of Urbanism has been one of the most insightful books I've read recently, and of course if you're looking for a Labor Day Weekend movie that deals with land use, you'll find Back to the Future worth a fresh look.  

Now, this kind of goes downhill at the end of the movie when, in the sequel set-up, Doc goes thirty years forward and then returns in a flying car fueled by household garbage.  So we can expect that in 2015?  

With that, is it possible that those of us who are interested in new urbanism can now be more sympathetic with George McFly's botched pickup line: "you . . . are my . . . density!"

Matt Festa

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/land_use/2010/09/gotta-get-back-in-time.html

Books, Density, Downtown, History, New Urbanism, Planning, Suburbs, Urbanism | Permalink

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