Sustainable and Green Cities Are Focus of Film by Planning Professor Timothy Beatley

October 22, 2009
October 22, 2009 — For University of Virginia planning professor Timothy Beatley, cities are not just about buildings, roads and transportation. They are about building and sustaining community.

An expert on sustainable and green cities, Beatley is the author of numerous books, including "Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities," "Native to Nowhere: Sustaining Home and Community in a Global Age" and "The Ecology of Place: Planning for Environment, Economy, and Community," coauthored with Kristy Manning.

Beatley recently turned to film to express his work. He collaborated with Boulder, Colo.-based filmmaker Chuck Davis to write and direct "The Nature of Cities," a one-hour exploration of nature found – and designed – within cities.

"The Nature of Cities" will have a Richmond premiere on Oct. 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden's Massie Auditorium. The screening is free and open to the public, and is being shown as part of the symposium "Timeless Design in a Sustainable World: The Charles F. Gillette Forum."

"'The Nature of Cities' is about the work of green urbanism," said Davis, who met Beatley in Sun Valley, Idaho, at a sustainability conference where they both presented their work. Davis had just completed a film about people working to face the challenges of climate change and was looking for a new project.

After talking with Beatley, Davis was convinced he wanted to make a film exploring nature in urban spaces through projects that show how the built environment and nature can work together to sustain and rejuvenate life.

The documentary includes commentary by Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods," who coined the phrase "nature-deficit-disorder"; and Stephen Kellert, professor of social ecology at Yale University, who advocates connecting people with nature through design.

As the camera follows Beatley around cities in the United States and Europe, he explores "what it means to talk about nature in a city," he said.

An urban bat colony in Austin, Texas, has been protected and celebrated as a source of economic development. Every evening, crowds gather to watch the bats swarm from their habitat under a major city bridge in funnels that are visible for miles. "They generate a lot of tourism dollars. In addition, they eat a lot of insects," Beatley said.

Although the bats nested under the bridge by happenstance, and were once the focus of eradication efforts, the Texas highway department is now intentionally building bridges at other locations with similar bat-attracting designs.

In San Diego, Beatley visited some of the more than 100 canyons that form islands of nature amidst urban buildup. Local groups have explored numerous ways to help citizens interact with the nature in their backyards.

San Diego's Balboa Park is the site of a 24-hour inventory of biodiversity called a "BioBlitz." Groups of all ages scour the park to help identify the area's diverse wildlife, including spiders, ants and water creatures. The effort highlights the importance of preserving these spaces.

Examples from Europe include Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden, where the densely built community is connected to an adjacent grove of ancient oaks, which provides a natural play area for children to explore.

A car-limited housing project in Amsterdam was planned to allow space for residents to have gardens in the central common area. Another neighborhood nearby features a walkable community with a "free range" habitat for children that promotes an open flow between inside and outside, and also sports solar panels, small windmills and other renewable energy features visible to the children at play.

The Western Harbor community in Malmo, Sweden, features green roofs, rainwater retention in courtyard ponds and channels that support plants and wildlife. With solar collectors, wind turbines and other sustainable energy measures, the community has achieved its goal of being 100 percent dependent on locally-produced renewable energy.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, one-third of the residents commute to work by bike. The city's green cycle routes initiative provides about 70 miles of safe paths through parks, open spaces, along the water and over roadways with heavy auto traffic to make near-suburbs and regions of the city accessible.

"There are so many other stories out there about how we can creatively design and integrate nature in urban areas," Beatley said. He and Davis are talking about the possibility of continuing the story with another film highlighting green urbanism efforts in Asia and Australia.

Through this exploration, Beatley has become convinced of the power of representing these stories in film. He screens the "The Nature of Cities" film trailer as he travels the world giving lectures. "I can tell from audience reaction that the ideas reach them and become more powerful," he said.

Filmmaking has also become part of a course he teaches on sustainable communities. Students are required to use portable cameras to make five-minute documentaries that feature an aspect of sustainable efforts in the Charlottesville community. Of the 19 that were produced last year, two were posted on YouTube.

Beatley said he also foresees filmmaking being a valuable skill in many aspects of planning. "Capturing stories can be a useful and powerful tool to inspire officials," he said.

For information about the free film screening in Richmond, contact Adele MacLean at 804-262-9887, ext. 222. For information about the symposium, for which there is a fee, visit the Web site or call 804-262-9887.

— By Jane Ford