The City in History: The Use of Film in Planning & What We Learned from the World of Tomorrow

A Summary of the 2021 SF Urban Film Fest Interactive Watch Party & Panel Discussion

This piece was co-authored with myself, Fay Darmawi, Founder & Executive Producer of the SF Urban Film Fest, and Omeed Manocheri, SF Urban Film Fest Program Producer

The 2021 SF Urban Film Fest brought audiences several new program types. Virtual formats that have been in development for some time became a necessity in response to social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the new formats, which provided a broader audience with new engagement opportunities, was the interactive watch party.

In this session, “The City” — a short film from 1939 and based on urban historian Lewis Mumford’s ideas — was simultaneously broadcast with live commentary from two remote panelists. The session also featured live comments and questions submitted by the audience for both panelists and other audience members to meditate upon and answer.

The development of cities parallel tracked the rise of motion pictures: rural to urban, silent to sound — serving as witnesses to our changing lifestyles, experiences, and attitudes about an increasingly urban world.

This central thesis led the discussion between David Vega-Barachowitz, Director of Urban Design at WXY Architecture + Urban Design and adjunct professor of planning and urban design at Syracuse University, and John Moody, a creative director, filmmaker, and urban designer.

Throughout the discussion, Vega-Barachowitz and Moody reflected on the use of film throughout the history of urban planning. This included examining how the medium has been used, which planning interventions succeeded and failed, and what has changed in the many decades since the medium was adapted for imagining and building the future city.

“The City” was a groundbreaking look into American urban planning’s future coming out of the Great Depression. The American Institute of Planners produced the film for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It promoted the ideas of ‘regionalism,’ which sought to distribute wealth to rural areas of the country from the more productive but crowded urban areas.

The film’s beginning shows an idyllic agrarian existence in a rural town where residents mill corn and basketweave by hand with minimal assistance from low-technology tools. Vega-Barachowitz points out how this scene paints a nostalgia for a not-to-distant early industrialization past in which urban life was presumably more in balance with the natural world.

The scene then cuts to footage of a bleak and smog-covered Pittsburgh. Tense music with a frenetic narration shifts the tone and depicts a city that has fallen to heavy industry.

We mine the coal, load the furnace, load the steel, drive the rivets… we’re lucky if we have the chance to keep the job from day to day, month to month,” speaks the narrator. Poor, working-class residents (including children) are seen walking around dilapidated shacks while smoke plumes from steel mills billow over the city.

Vega-Barachowitz explained that this scene is what planners at the time officially referred to as ‘blight.’ He further noted that Pittsburgh passed landmark legislation to limit the amount of smoke emitted in the City two years after this scene was filmed.

The film cuts again to another scene — this time a new city of skyscrapers towering over bustling, noisy streets full of people and cars.

Here too, the setting is bleak as cars compete with crowds of pedestrians for street space. This scene sets up for the final act in which we return to an ideal city — one which is similar to the town in the first scene, yet more modern.

The towns featured in the final scenes are the ‘New Towns’ of Radburn, New Jersey, and Greenbelt, Maryland. These two towns represent what was considered by planners to be an ideal harmonization between man, machine, and nature. Here, the living and recreation areas are separated from the dirty factories, and the factories that are closer to town are more modern, clean, and efficient.

Unlike contemporary ‘suburbs,’ the housing in these New Towns is mostly multi-family townhome developments instead of detached single-family homes. Children playing in newly built public parks further solidifies the image of an idealized modern city. In describing the New Towns, the narrator gleefully repeats ‘never letting cities grow too large to manage.’

Panelist Moody comments how “The City” is an example of filmmakers being influenced by 1920’s Soviet propaganda films. Fast cut editing and a frenetic score and narration add to the feeling of tension and unease throughout before arriving at the New Town scenes.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that there are parallels between the Communist program of the Soviets and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s — both were giant centralized government undertakings. Moody also pointed out that similar to Soviet propaganda films, “The City” featured real people in real life rather than actors (although the real people featured may have been directed in their scenes).

While “The City” represents a time in American history when the Federal Government was invested in large-scale urban planning initiatives, it was an era that did not last long. Several of the people involved in the making of the film were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era.

It’s challenging to imagine what a contemporary version of “The City’’ would look like. When asked if there is a role for films like it in modern society, the panelists confessed that this was something that they had “been chewing on for the last five or six years.”

Moody explained that there are fewer examples of large-scale productions that try to convince people of a utopian vision. Instead, corporations use the utopian vision as a mechanism to sell their products.

He points out that such a film would require a massive capital investment, which in the case of “The City’’ came from the Carnegie Foundation, and that financiers are less willing to tie films to direct action. “Foundations certainly have a role in lots of promotional and propaganda films today, but they’re often dealing with abstract social issues and almost never dealing with trying to re-design something spatially or effect the physical world”.

Futurama was an exhibit and ride at the 1939 New York World’s Fair designed by Norman Bel Geddes, which presented a possible model of the world 20 years into the future (1959–1960). The installation was sponsored by the General Motors Corporation and was characterized by automated highways and vast suburbs.

It’s here that Vega-Barachowitz interjects that understanding the context in which the film was presented is vital, an era with no smartphones where “people had to go to the fair of the future and were ready to digest and understand what that future might look like…there was energy and enthusiasm around large-scale housing efforts that ended up coming to fruition in the late 1940’s”.

Moody piggybacks and expands, “is the 30-minute or the hour or feature-length film really the best medium for trying to get people on board with an idea like this?” He states that we also have to consider the efficacy, that the film was very effective in convincing audiences of the ideas presented but history “took a different course and we didn’t end up with many of these kinds of communities. We ended up with mass suburbanization and creating wealth for white middle-class Americans through single-family homeownership.”

Finally, Vega-Barachowitz and Moody discuss how there is an opportunity to create smaller incremental campaigns that fit today’s media environment and redress some of the heavily spatial solutions enacted in the 1950’s and 60’s.

These sorts of campaigns can have a vital role in reaching people and encouraging them to vote, with Vega-Barachowitz pointing to single-family zoning housing bills in both Minneapolis and California as examples.

He closes by asserting, “what was largely missing in [“The City”] is the culture of the street, the idea of neighborhoods, the importance of relationships. The way in which this film and the images of blight ended up being turned on their heads…”

Watch the program:

This event took place on February 15, 2021 and was curated by the SF Urban Film Fest Program Producer Omeed Manocheri. For more information about the SF Urban Film Fest, visit our website.