Saturday, April 9, 2011

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...


  1. Bravo Tim! you took the broader (remote to some) ideas about sprawl and made them particular and exact and tangible in a way people can relate to. Brilliant.

    I am the only person on earth who isn't a big fan of Back To The Future, but i am a big fan of Tim Moerman and I do look forward to further entries in this series.

  2. This was a great entry! I loved it! Can't wait to read the others! :)

  3. Interesting and perceptive entry, not only very entertaining (I'm a big fan of that film myself) but spot on. This will now send me right into IsoHunt for a download and a rewatch of the trilogy. And, I must admit, I've only ever seen the second one, never the third one. The 1885 one probably won't be as interesting as the 2015 one, to see what was anticipated as "the inevitable future". There is, I would say, a somewhat caricatural treatment of the 1985 "present", too. I think toward the end, they show the little downtown movie theatre showing porno, which I take to be a generalization of the skid-row fate of bigger American downtowns. I doubt small towns would've supported such commercial ventures. Anyway, here's looking forward to more!

  4. Stay tuned, Alain. The big finale in this series is an extensive look at downtown Hill Valley.