As urban planners we most often tend to think of our profession being depicted to the outside world in fairly basic textual and geographic terms. Either it is the written word in somewhat legalistic prose, or it is maps representing land uses and zoning. Sure, there are other representations like photographs and sketches found in planning documents, but by-in-large, planning is all about prose and maps.
Over the years, I have begun to see our profession springing to life in a range of artistic mediums. Certainly, photography and architecture are obvious ones, but I am realizing that urban planning has been/is being depicted in all sorts of art forms including painting, sculpting, cartoons, music, drawings, film, and poetry.
Back in 2011, Arcade Fire won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year for their amazing record entitled The Suburbs. Radiohead released the song “Palo Alto” a B-side tune for the album OK Computer in 1997, which includes the following commentary about the urban condition that sounds awfully familiar these days:
“In the city of the future it is difficult to find a space.”
One can point to “The Last Resort” and “In the City” by the Eagles, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, “In the Ghetto” by Elvis Presley, and many other songs that have direct ties to urban planning issues.
In print, countless books have delved into the planning field. Television shows such as Community and Parks and Recreation dealt with planning topics on a weekly basis. Other programs may address a planning theme only now and then. Meanwhile, in film, documentaries fairly regularly cover planning issues, while major motion pictures such as Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? have planning-related themes and topics incorporated into them.
Perhaps less familiar to the public at large, but no less important in their purpose and intention, are visual works of fine art such as paintings, sculptures, and related medium. The magnificent painting by Shanny Brooke shown at the top of this post is entitled “Best View.” It depicts how views of the Atlantic Ocean are being obstructed by more and more oceanfront high-rises in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Tell me that is not a planning issue – obscured views of Grand Traverse Bay is definitely a hot button topic here in Traverse City and similar contentious debates can been found in other localities across the nation.
All this said, the various forms of art can be an amazing, yet subtle way to depict, comment, and teach others about the planning-related topics. More often than not, the portrayal is less than flattering. Few, if any of the examples listed here contain warm and fuzzy notions about the urbanism. Perhaps though, that is exactly how it should be. Art, in its very essence is meant to elicit and provoke dialog and discourse. What better way to involve a broader spectrum of society in a conversation on planning topics than to use art as that medium?