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A 70-Year-Old Documentary About Cities Shows We Haven't Come Very Far

The walkable, bikable suburb of the "future" looks an awful lot like the smart growth ideas of today.

If you've ever found yourself looking around the sprawled-out, suburbanized American landscape and wondering how we could have thought this was a good idea, watch the 1939 documentary The City, a half-hour film produced by the American Institute of Planners. (Big thanks to @MarcoLangzi for linking to the film on Twitter.)

It’s an excellent and persuasive piece of film-making, directed by the influential filmmakers Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, from an outline by the famed New Deal documentarian Pare Lorentz, with commentary by Lewis Mumford and a fine, evocative score by none other than Aaron Copland. The City begins by lauding the bygone village life of a more bucolic America. This was a decent and happy place, the narrator tells us:

Working and living, we found a balance. The town was us, and we were part of it. We never let our cities grow too big for us to manage. We never pushed the open land too far away.

Then, with the music shrieking in protest, we are dragged into the Industrial Age, illustrated by heart-wrenching footage of malnourished children and their dead-eyed parents trapped in smoky steel-mill slums. The streets of New York are shown as hardly more hospitable to human life. People dart out like frightened animals to avoid the traffic, and hurriedly choke down food that is produced with assembly-line efficiency. On their way to find some respite, they are caught in long lines of traffic, resorting on occasion to picnicking beside the lines of stalled cars. “Death lurks at all crossings,” warns a roadside sign.

“Don’t tell us that this is the best you can do in building cities,” says the narrator. “Who built this place? Who put us here? And how do we get out again? We are asking.”

Then, the music lifts. Salvation awaits through the ministrations of scientific thinking and planning, the narrator tells us.

Science takes flight at last for human goals. This new age builds a better kind of city close to the soil once more, as molded to our human wants as planes are shaped for speed. New cities take form, green cities. They’re built into the countryside, they’re ringed with trees and fields and gardens. New cities are not allowed to grow and overcrowd beyond the size that makes them fit for living in.

And we see the pleasant, sunny result of this planning blossom before our eyes.

What’s interesting is that the idealized suburb/cities presented in the film are all walkable and bikeable. Autos are part of the urban disaster that is to be left behind by progress. We see from the air the familiar cul-de-sacs of today’s America but there are no six-lane arterial roads, no massive shopping centers with enormous parking lots. Kids ride around on bicycles along paths that look very much like what you see in the Netherlands of today, and in a few American cities such as Boulder, Colorado, or Davis, California.

The film was made at a historical moment when artists and thinkers like the ones who worked on it believed that rational, humanistic approaches to planning could triumph over entropy, corruption, and simple thoughtlessness. It seems like an impossibly idealistic view to have held, especially on the eve of World War II. Watching The City, it’s easy to feel a longing for that idealism, not to mention the level of craftsmanship that went into the film itself. Even the "fast food" presented with humorous disdain in the movie looks positively artisanal compared to the fare at McDonald’s.

The City is now more than 70 years old, and yet the dilemmas it presents are if anything more acute than they were in 1939. The urban areas of India and China, in particular, are facing exactly the same issues of industrial pollution and slum proliferation that plagued the American cities of the early 20th century. Will they be able to avoid even a fraction of the mistakes America made as it idealistically moved forward into the perfect, planned future? Here’s how The City wraps up:

Order has come, order and life together….We can reproduce the pattern and better it a thousand times. It’s here, the new city, ready to serve a better age. For you and your children, the choice is yours.

Watch the full documentary here:

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.