I used to write about the Internet and telecommunications for a living, but urban planning frequently seems even tougher to describe. I’m not sure why. I often felt that the tech community never figured out that acronyms were meant to make things easier to remember, not harder. RSS feeds? JPEGs? VOIP? DSL? Really? Planners don’t traffic in such odd terminology, but the field can still seem hard to convey. It’s rooted in data and science and seeks to analyze large-scale cause and effect over a long span. That’s why I was excited when a colleague forwarded me a link to Saga City, a video produced by a Quebec firm called Vivre en Ville. It depicts — in cartoon form, of all things — how suburban sprawl occurs, why it hastens climate change and why planning is crucial to confront that challenge.
The narrative focuses on a family of four in a fictional town called Colvert, but it’s a fairly even-handed composite of modern suburban life. It’s not disparaging or hectoring. It simply recognizes the unintended consequences of land-use patterns of the past half-century that relied very heavily on the automobile. Decisions that people made long ago to put greater distance between the places they live and work seemed to make sense when they made them — to gain more quiet, more space, less proximity to pollution. But the impact of those decisions multiplied millions of times over many, many years has created, in fact, more pollution for all, heavier dependence on gasoline (which drives up price), less opportunity to walk and more opportunity to gain weight and weakened older communities.
Pierre-Yves Chopin, project manager for Vivre en Ville, said in an e-mail that sprawl concerns in Canada are similar to those in many places in the United States. The urban area of Quebec City, for example, expanded by 2 1/2 times over 30 years, much greater than the 42-percent increase in population during that time. Maryland has had a similar experience in recent decades, consuming forest and farmland for development at triple the rate of population growth.
The Saga City video took two years to produce, including research, funding and production. Between the original French-language version released in 2011 and an English version released this spring, the feature has been viewed more than 20 000 times. Chopin said while that may not seem like a lot, it’s significant considering the 16-minute length of the movie and the weighty topic. The firm has sponsored about 65 official screenings and conferences with the video throughout Québec province. Chopin wrote that he believes the film is beginning to make a difference in persuading urban communities of the need to improve their policies and planning. “However,” he said, “this remains a long-term quest for everyone involved in promoting sustainable communities.”