TV is my Teacher: Urban Planning in a New Light
Can I be honest?
Though cities and transport thrill me, I find urban planning to be incredibly boring. The copy-and-pasted analyses, obsession with maps, transit data, and the act of intellectualizing problems rather than solving them does not encourage me. But what does is finding new ways to help people draw connections from culture, daily life, and the systemic challenges we face — in forms that are fresh and relevant. Not for the sake of talking about it, but to help others move into action, which is vital for a profession that can be so monotonous, guarded, and frankly, uninspiring.
I don’t have a superpower, but if I did, it would be to make the invisible visible. That’s mostly why I love urban planning, particularly transportation, so much. People are to a city as fish are to water. We’re so in it; we don’t even realize we are.
So, in my mission for others to possess this power, too, in terms of the city and all its workings, here are some movies and shows that make invisible issues tangible right at your fingertips.
The O.C. Netflix
Califorrrrrniiiaaaaa. Now, this one might seem like a mistake, but trust me — it’s not. My uncle had great advice about watching old films from the 1930’s — he said, “In those times, you get to see how people really thought of you.” The same goes for the 2003 series, The O.C., which is aptly about the geography of opportunity. The show’s main character, Ryan Atwood from Chino, California, gets a chance at a better life when the benevolent Cohens — a family of real estate developers — who live in the esteemed zipcode of Newport Beach take him in. When watched with an urban planning lens, The O.C. is a great analysis of whiteness, class, and geography — all before the 2008 crash.
Pocahontas + Atlantis Disney+
These movies are problematic. I don't appreciate how the indigenous women in both films are sexualized and depicted as manic pixie dream girls with white saviors. I put these two movies together because I can’t help but think about the parallels between good-willed community engagement and first interactions with curious colonial-settlers when I watch these movies. These movies make a clear connection between curiosity and colonization (or, in present-day terms, gentrification).
The Good Place Netflix
This show is hands down one of my favorite television series ever. The Good Place starts after death. The show centers Elenor, our dearly departed, and Michael, the Architect, who shows a few more transitioned humans what awaits them at the pearly gates — a mix-used development called, The Good Place. Though this show seems like it's suitable for philosophy types, this show is for the planning ones, too. The Good Place shows us that “heaven,” as we know it is not only a pedestrian-friendly area but that the bar for planning great cities is literally in hell.
Lovecraft Country HBO Max
If you’ve ever heard tell of the Green Book or took road trips to-and-fro the south with your grandparents, then Lovecraft Country is for you. Set in 1950’s Jim Crow America, between Chicago and Ardham, the show centers Atticus Freeman ( Jonathan Majors ) as he sojourns from the belly of the South to Massachusetts’ biting mouth in search of his estranged, yet missing father, Montrose Freeman (Michael Kenneth Williams). For a deeper dive into the historical and present impacts on urban planning today, check out my analysis of the first two episodes here and here.
Fear City Netflix
This show is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. There’s lots of violence. This show does a great job showing that the planning process, in theory, is severely incongruent with the realities of how it actually operates, from design to construction. People often say, follow the money, but in this show, you should follow the concrete.
Out of all the recommended shows, Moana is the one that brings me to tears the most. As a movie and not a series, it’s easier to watch in terms of time (plus, the soundtrack is amazing). Moana is based on, well, Moana!, a descendant of voyagers who yearns to see what’s beyond the shore and her horizons. Rift with natural landmarks, co-operation, and coconuts, Moana is an excellent film to watch to learn more about the importance of TEK, traditional ecological knowledge, and living in harmony with the land, or else, face the consequences.
Of course, there are more movies, shows, and media I’d love to share, but this is enough to last you for a month. With a free weekend and a few friends’ streaming subscriptions (say that 5x fast), I hope you can rewatch or tune into some staple shows that show the city and how it’s made in a brighter light.