Learning about urban planning policies can be as exciting as learning the tax code. All too often, community members are left scratching their heads about policy issues that seem esoteric and disconnected from their daily experiences.
Civic Eye Collaborative uses film as a medium for community storytelling that can engage communities about urban planning issues, building on a long tradition of urban documentary filmmaking.
The earliest films were single-shot moments called “actualities:” a train entering a station, a boat docking or a city street scene. Films such as San Francisco: Aftermath of Earthquake (1906) were incorporated into newsreels, a tradition that continued into the 1950s.
English filmmaker John Grierson - best know for The Drifters (1929) - coined the term documentary, which he defined as the “creative treatment of actuality,” setting it apart from travelogues and newsreels.
Grierson’s films influenced documentary work in the United States, including The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The City (1939), both powerful reflections on the relationship between people and their environment.
As early as the 1940s, American documentaries began focusing on issues of city congestion and urban sprawl with films such as Cities: How They Grow (1952) and The Changing City (1963). In the 1960s, American Urbanist William H. Whyte began wielding still cameras, movie cameras and notebooks in order to describe urban life in an objective and measurable way. His findings culminated into a book published in 1980, and later a companion film released in 1988, both titled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.
With the availability of low-cost, high-quality video cameras, high-speed internet access and social networking tools, documentary filmmaking has flourished online. In 2006, Streetsblog (which later evolved into Streetfilms) was established to produce short films explaining transportation planning policies.
With this long tradition in mind, two New Jersey urban planners, Ranjit Walia and Peter Bilton joined me - a photographer and filmmaker based out of New York - to found Civic Eye Collaborative.
We recently partnered with Hoboken, New Jersey to produce a film documenting some of the strategies that have been implemented to reduce the need for automobile ownership, and to enhance and promote access to transit and non-motorized transportation modes. The film features interviews with Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and Transportation and Parking Director Ian Sacs, alongside on-the-street interviews with community members about their experiences.
On March 4th, the film premiered at the NJ Future Redevelopment Forum, where Ranjit led a session titled “Talking About Transportation: Making Smarter Choices Using New Communication Techniques.”
When focused on the details of daily life, film has the power to show how fundamental urban planning is to the quality of life of citizens, and how important these issues are to a city’s vitality.