Saturday, April 16, 2011

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective (Part Two.)

This is the second in a series of posts on the Back To The Future franchise through the eyes of a city planning nerd. The frame-grabs are copyright Universal Studios, and are used here on the basis of fair use for commentary purposes.

The Naming of Malls Is A Difficult Matter...

Doc Brown uses the parking lot of the local shopping mall as the testing ground for his new time machine. He tells us that thirty years ago, this was all farmland as far as the eye could see. The farmer was intent on growing pine trees--hence the name of Twin Pines Mall.

When Marty accidentally jumps the Delorean to 1955, he encounters said farmer, complete with shotgun. In his haste to get out with his skin intact, he runs over one of a pair of young pine trees at the front gate. Later, when Marty finally makes it back to 1985, we see that the mall has changed a bit:

It's a somewhat cynical rule of thumb in the development industry that you name developments after whatever they tore down to build it. Hence the endless series of subdivisions called Royal Oaks or Wildflower Estates or Convent Glen without a tree, flower or nun in sight.

To be continued...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective. (Part Three.)

This is the third in a series of posts on Back To The Future as seen by a city planning nerd. Frame grabs are copyright Universal Pictures and are used here on the basis of fair use, for commentary purposes.

Getting Around Hill Valley - 1985

In 1955, Hill Valley is still compact enough (including a well-defined and thriving downtown) that cars aren't strictly necessary. Mass car ownership has only been underway for about ten years--not long enough to force the wholesale rearrangement of the built environment we live with today.

By 1985, though, the town has sprawled enough to present a by-now familiar plot problem for any movie involving teenagers: namely, how do we give someone enough access to his setting to make a story possible?

In most movies, we wave this problem away by assuming that the teenager has his own car, or at least access to one, at all critical story points. When we want to show that a teenaged character is a loser or otherwise some kind of underdog, we show him driving a, you know, really old beat-up car which is supposed to suck terribly. (In Savage Steve Holland's "Better Off Dead," released the same year as BTTF, being stuck driving the family station wagon to the local ski hill is apparently enough of an existential humiliation to justify multiple suicide attempts.) In fact, I can't think of a single movie where teenagers have to take the bus everywhere.

I think this explains a lot more about the world than we care to admit. When you're a kid, forming your first impression of how the world works, you're watching movies and TV shows full of people you're supposed to identify with. But they invariably have far more mobility and autonomy than you do. What's missing is the boredom. They seem to be always able to go where the action is, and get there before it's over. They don't have to spend two hours and three transfers taking transit to their friends' houses, and they don't have to duck out of the school dance halfway through Stairway To Heaven because the last bus is at 12:45. So you spend your first four years as a non-child wondering why your life sucks, and no one can quite explain why.

By the time you're sixteen, you've figured it out: North America is designed for the exclusive enjoyment of people with the health and wealth required to own and operate a vehicle. No wonder, when hard times hit, people are more likely to give up their homes and live in their cars than vice versa.

In this respect, Back To The Future faces the teenage mobility quandary more honestly than most films. Access to the family car is make-or-break for Marty's personal life, and when that car gets totalled he's up the proverbial creek, his upcoming hot date with Jennifer presumably replaced by an evening at home with a box of Kleenex.

Faced with the same shit sandwich as every real-life suburban teenager physically stranded in his elders' version of the American Dream, Marty's next-best option is... suicidally dangerous skateboard stunts in rush-hour traffic!

Maybe, like his grandfather suggests, he's just an idiot. (After all, he did need to be told that Riverside Drive in his hometown must be located next to the river!) But I think it's more basic than that. I don't know a single teenager who, faced with marooning in some Bungaloid Acres subdivision, wouldn't gladly sell his left kidney to Satan for an alternative--any alternative.

So it's significant that the top of Marty's big wish list is that shiny new Toyota 4x4. The definitive sign, once he's returned to 1985, that he's changed history is that he now owns one.

I once heard a critic chalk this up to that old 1980's materialism (dreadfully passé and dated, to hear him say it--yeah, like we're all a bunch of burlap-wearing monks now.)

But I think it really resonates with teenagers. It's like, "Well, I changed the past... my dad is no longer a coward and a failure, my mom is no longer an alcoholic and the meathead who tormented them both is now a neutered little lapdog. That's nice but the important thing is that I now have full access to the world around me!"

In any case, even before he goes back, Marty has it comparatively easy. According to the road sign in 1955, the site of his future home is a mere 2 miles from Hill Valley proper. He can walk there in about 45 minutes if he has to. Most suburban kids in 2010 (or in 1985 for that matter) should be so lucky.

But technological progress will make things worse by 2015.

"Where we're going, we don't need roads!"

2015 Hill Valley is a kitchy techno-utopian future right out of Popular Mechanics. The most noticeable change is the profusion of flying cars. Finally--oh, God, finally!--traffic jams are a thing of the past. Goldie Wilson III flat-out tells us so on his animated jumbotron ad.

And yet five minutes later, we learn that the skyway out to the future McFly home in Hilldale is jammed with rush-hour traffic!

It's actually so bad that it's dark by the time they get there.

So there it is, the lesson that some of the smartest people on the planet have spent a hundred years and billions of dollars failing to learn: No matter how advanced your technology and infrastructure, it still somehow takes 45 minutes to get across town. The only thing that changes is how big "town" becomes, how much it costs to build and maintain that system, and (presumably) how crummy and inaccessible the world becomes when you don't have a flying car.

To be continued...

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective. (Part One.)

A former student of mine recently emailed me to ask what had driven me to choose city planning as a career.

I told her about car dependency and its effect on the environment; the fact that the spaces we build and live in have a profound effect on our health and happiness and ability to deal with the world; and the fact that after living in three major cities and working in a half-dozen more, I had started to get some very definite ideas about what worked and what didn't.

What I left out is that I am a huge Back To The Future geek.

When the time-travel fantasy came out in the summer of 1985, I was so blown away that I went back to see it three days in a row. Twenty-six years later I've probably watched it a hundred times; I still find stuff in it that I didn't notice before.

And much of its appeal comes from its setting, the fictional town of Hill Valley, California. Over the course of the trilogy, we get to see Hill Valley in no less than five distinct time periods. Starting from its "current" incarnation in 1985, we see the same places in 1955, 1885, a parallel-nightmare-Pottersville version of 1985, and finally the impossibly far-flung future of 2015.

The town is more than a setting; in many ways it's the central character of the series. I wonder if there's anyone my age or younger in the planning profession who hasn't been influenced in it; who had the place-making bug stuck in their ear first by watching Hill Valley change through past, present and future.

At least I hope they were. 'Cause if they're getting their ideas from Star Wars we're all in big fat trouble...

This series of posts looks at the Back To The Future trilogy from a city planning geek's perspective. It is liberally sprinkled with frame-grabs from the films; these frames are copyright Universal Pictures and are used here on the basis of fair use, for purposes of commentary.

Part 1: Doc Brown's Lab

The first film opens in 1985 in the laboratory of Dr. Emmett Brown, a mad scientist with a clock obsession. We're not sure where this lab is, exactly. A framed newspaper clipping informs us that Doc's house burned down at some point, the land sold to developers. It's not clear when, exactly, but the clipping is yellow enough that it was probably awhile ago.

It looks like Doc has been living here in his lab for quite some time. But where is it? Where does a scientist go to lease laboratory space in a small town anyway? (A question that presumably dogs small-town mad scientists all over America. You may know how to build an eighth-dimensional balonium fraculator but try getting that past the zoning board...)

When Marty emerges from the building, we see that it is a run-down, single-storey structure at the back of a Burger King parking lot on a suburban commercial strip.

Anyone who's ever dealt with a suburban commercial chain-store developer knows their mulish refusal to work around anything that's already there, especially some crummy old shed. So what's the deal?

Finding himself stranded in the fifties, Marty looks up Doc Brown, who in 1955 lives somewhere called Riverside Drive. He's never heard of Riverside Drive; asking for directions, he learns that it's the street he knows in 1985 as John F. Kennedy Drive.

So he goes there to find a beautiful, graceful Arts and Crafts mansion on a manicured lot with a detached garage or carriage house. The garage looks familiar....

It's Doc Brown's lab from 1985!

Suddenly the whole site is thrown into context. When Doc Brown's house burned down, he moved into his garage and sold the surrounding land to developers, who went on to scrape the site bare and plop down parking lots, burger huts and gas stations all around the garage parcel. Riverside Drive has evolved bit by bit into a suburban commercial wasteland renamed John F. Kennedy Drive. It's taken a mere thirty years for this..

to turn into this:

It's Robert Crumb's A Short History of America come to life, and our first hint that Hill Valley in 1985 actually sucks pretty hard. It says a lot about how well the film is set up that we are able to believe that Marty really wants to get back to 1985. That Jennifer Parker must really be something...

The garage is one of those leftover buildings that line first-wave suburban strips all over North America. These former roads out of town gradually attracted one commercial development after another, which are now mixed in with rundown old houses from the street's past life as a rural road. These roads are typically no good to anyone. Because of the old lot fabric and access rights, there are driveways every forty or fifty feet, making the strip next to useless for moving traffic. And yet the built environment is completely devoted to cars at the expense of any pedestrian amenity. Old buildings remain but it's not worth keeping them up so they are allowed to decrepitate while the owners wait for Dunkin' Donuts to show up and buy them out. The strip is just commercially viable enough to suck the life out of downtown, but not enough to succeed as an environment in its own right.

Since this strip used to be called Riverside Drive, it's a safe bet that it's located along the river. In a chronically water-starved state such as California, what should be the town's major amenity is instead occupied by the the loading docks and dumpsters of convenience stores and lube shops built with their backs to the river. All that asphalt is probably wreaking havoc with drainage, dumping torrents of greasy stormwater and Whopper wrappers into the Hill River every time it rains.

We don't get to see this part of town in 2015. That's probably a good thing. In the real-life 2015, the urban boundary will have grown beyond even the old rural fringe. City Council after City Council will have spent a couple of stealth bombers' worth of tax money tackling the endless traffic snarl, upgrading John F. Kennedy Drive to as many lanes as it can hold. But you can't stop progress, and JFK won't be able to compete with new greenfield sites with more convenient traffic geometry out off the Interstate. A lot of this strip will be practically abandoned to pawn shops, payday loan agents and other sunset uses, while the retail and fast-food action migrates to Shonash Corners power center. When that day comes, Doc Brown's lab will probably still be there, used by his 21st-century counterpart to brew crystal meth.

Oh, and one more point about Doc's lab. The address in 1955 is 1640 Riverside Drive...

but in 1985 the street number is 1646.

I always figured Doc probably torched his own house to get the money to fund his time machine. But I only just realized, on viewing number eleventy, that before he did that, he subdivided the property, establishing the garage with its own address, allowing him to keep his lab while selling off the rest of the land unencumbered.

To be continued...