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Movies play a powerful, if rarely recognized, role in how we understand urbanism, whether they are set in drivable suburban or walkable urban places. So in the run-up to the Academy Awards on March 2, it seems appropriate and mildly educational to present our entirely subjective list of the top 12 movies about urbanism.
We used three criteria to add a veneer of scholarly rigor to our rankings. First, the movies had to be popular, not obscure indie films. Second, the urban/suburban setting was an essential “character” in the film, even if a subtle one. Third, there are lessons to learn from the film about urbanism and its consequences on society, economics and the environment.
1. Back to the Future I & II. Steven Spielberg’s classic is our choice for the most important movie about urbanism — or more accurately, two movies from a series, as BTF III is worthless — since it shows two forms the built environment can take, walkable urban and drivable suburban, in three different time periods. The walkable urban form is dominant in 1955 downtown Hill Valley, an invented small California town centered on a grassy plaza. There is a vibrant town life with most jobs, shopping, school and houses within walking distance, though the car (and skateboard) integrates well into its character.