Planning Juno

Samuel Staley's picture

Many viewers may not fully appreciate movies as a visual story-telling medium, but that fact came home to me dramatically the other night while watching "Juno," the off beat, smart and funny film that just snagged a best screenplay Oscar. The deliberate use of architecture and public spaces, in particular, was quite effective although you probably won't find these references in plot summaries or synopses.

            Movies, of course, are best viewed reflectively. They aren't social science or history. Nevertheless, the use of image and metaphor can be effective in conveying salient aspects of human relationships. "Juno's" imagery is particularly subtle, but powerful nonetheless.

            Juno, for those who haven't seen the movie or read a review, is a 16-year old high school student who becomes pregnant. She decides not to have an abortion, and the movie traces her life through four seasons where she finds an adoptive couple, follows through with the pregnancy, and gives the child up for adoption.

            As in any good movie, the human relationships and characters give the story heart. The clever use of set and backgrounds reinforces these plot lines, relationships, and inevitable twists.

            So, where's the planning? Juno doesn't live in a well-to-do suburb. That would be too convenient and, at least in movie plot lines, a bit cliché. Rather, she lives in an older, blue-collar central-city neighborhood of walkable single family, detached homes on small lots (mostly likely in St. Paul, Minnesota). Her father is a heating and air conditioning repairman, and her stepmother owns a nail salon.

            At first, we think of Juno's family as the dysfunctional one-Dad is an ex-marine, not particularly ambitious near-do well. Juno is the off beat, maladjusted teenager from the first marriage with the frosty relationship with Brenda, the (evil?) step Mom. Juno finds the "perfect" adoptive couple in Vanessa and Mark, two wealthy up-and-coming professionals living in an upscale suburb of St. Cloud about an hour north.

            This perception fits the landscape. As Juno is driving to meet Vanessa and Mark, we see her drive through her run-down neighborhood of eclectic single family homes and enter into the wealthier, cookie-cutter sprawl of large, well adorned ones inhabited in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

            This sets up a cinematically and artistically visual contrast. It turns out Juno's family, living in the decidedly less affluent neighborhood (albeit early 20th century sprawl), is far more stable, loving, and grounded than the picture perfect couple in the wealthier contemporary suburb.

            More intriguing, however, is the director's use of public space as crucial backdrop for the story. Much of the film's action takes place at school, but for my purposes I want to focus on the shopping mall. For the first part of the movie, Vanessa is seen as detached and wistful about the prospect of adopting Juno's child. It's not until a chance encounter between them in the shopping mall that we see the first signs of Vanessa's humanity and longing for motherhood.

First, we see her through Juno's eyes as she is playing with kids in the mall's indoor playground. Then, in one of the movie's most poignant scenes, Vanessa becomes emotionally vulnerable and attached to the child growing inside Juno. The chaos and activity of the mall-a very carefully crafted and scripted public space-is used to provide a context for a spontaneous, highly personal moment between the two characters.

            Of course, the shopping mall (as well as modern-day suburbia) is usually depicted by planners as sterile, uninviting and devoid of the characteristics of place that promote human interaction. In "Juno," these places are used to accent the humanity and emotional transformations of the characters and propel the story forward.

            This brings me to the main point of today's post. At the end of the day, what is the relationship between people and place?

            The message, I think, is simple and relevant: People make places; places do not make people. That's not to say that planning isn't valuable or important. It is.

            But the character of the individuals who inhabit our places-whether they are walkable old neighborhoods, "sterile" shopping malls, or upscale sprawling communities-determines the ultimate outcome. People trump place. Stable, successful neighborhoods can be built without sidewalks or transit. High rise apartment buildings can be healthy living environments or death traps, depending on who makes them home and what investments (personal and financial) they make in them. The well planned park is little more than public art unless people use it. Shopping malls serve no purpose unless they can attract people-usually families and teenagers.

            Architecture and planning have important roles to play in facilitating the success of these communities, but they cannot determine the outcome. In the parlance of quantitative analysis, good urban planning has a statically significant and positive impact, but the magnitude of the impact is a lot smaller than we may think. Most of what we try to do in planning is to increase the size of the impact, but it won't be able to overcome the dominance of personal character. In my view, that's the reflective reality check for urban planning imbedded in "Juno."

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.



Place <---> People

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Robert Putnam's seminal work, Making Democracy Work, might be a better reference source than "Juno" to answer the question of whether people make places, or places make people. His study of Italy focuses what might be called a "democracy experiment" in 1970s Italy.

A remarkable finding of his study is that the trends in social trust, quality of government, etc. can be measured and traced back hundreds of years into the mists of recorded history. In spite of centuries of migration and social change in Italy, he suggests that characteristics of human relationships seem to be rooted in place.

This isn't to say that northern Italy is still reaping the genius of long-dead urban planners, and that southern Italy bears the curse of some mad developer. But like the chicken and the egg, what's the point of trying to answer this question?

Planning Juno

The people/place debate probably presents a false dichotomy but underscores an important point about the limits of good planning and design. That is, good planning and design only takes one so far, and in itself, will not save the world. The civic art of Camillo Sitte and his disciples and all the fine, rich historic urbanism of Germany didn't do a thing to prevent the Nazi's from coming to power. Bad things (and bad people) can and do happen in well planned, beautiful places. Good urbanism is no substitute for goodness.


Umm ... the movie was scripted.

Umm ... the movie was scripted.

“Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure”

- Thorstein Veblen

Is Staley Ripe For Conversion?

This post makes it sound like Mr. Staley is ripe for conversion, ready to leave the Reason Foundation and join the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Consider these statements:

"As Juno is driving to meet Vanessa and Mark, we see her drive through her run-down neighborhood of eclectic single family homes and enter into the wealthier, cookie-cutter sprawl of large, well adorned ones inhabited in St. Cloud, Minnesota."

"the character of the individuals who inhabit our places—whether they are walkable old neighborhoods, “sterile” shopping malls, or upscale sprawling communities—determines the ultimate outcome. People trump place."

The post says that that sort of developments that the Reason Foundation usually supports are made up of ugly, sprawling, cookie-cutter subdivisions and sterile shopping malls.

The only redeeming feature of these developments is that "people trump place" - you can have a human relationship even in a sterile suburban shopping mall.

If this style of development is so awful, if the best thing you can say about it is that people are so resiliant that they can thrive even in this awful type of development, then why do you support this style of development?

Charles Siegel

Completely missing the point

Charles, I believe you are making a fatal error in judgement. Libertarians or free market thinkers don't necessarily care about any style of development, despite what you might think. What they care about is the process of how you do or don't get there. It's about process, not outcome, per se. If you had minimal government intervention and retained strong private property rights and the market just chose a new urban style, I guaranty you Staley would not object (if you don't believe me, ask him). It's the growth moratoria, boundaries, downzoning, eminent domain (procedural stuff) that he objects to, not the outcome. Unfortunately, new urbanists, smart growth advocates, and environmentalists always boil down the argument to these people defend sprawl and we hate it. That is too bad because that group is completely focused on outcome and the free market group is completely focused on process. (there are a couple who simply oppose higher density and some of the design stuff like Randall O'Toole, but they really aren't true free market thinkers).

Reports Of Fatality Are Exaggerated

CP: Your point about libertarians is correct.

But I believe the Reason Foundation vocally opposes "smart growth" and other restrictions on sprawl, but it does not oppose suburban zoning laws that restrict higher densities and mixed uses. Correct me if I am wrong about this, but I believe the Reason Foundation is like O'Toole - libertarian rhetoric used to justify pro-sprawl politics.

You are a more consistent libertarian than that, and you actually call for policies that follow the point you make in your comment.

Also, as a writer, I have to object to your statement:

"I believe you are making a fatal error in judgement."

The main meaning of "fatal" is "tending to cause death." During my life, I have made many embarrassing errors in judgment, but I don't think I have made any errors in judgment that have caused fatalities.

Charles Siegel

Thanks Charles

I guess I am the one making a "fatal" error- just kidding. There goes my writing career.

As far as the Reason Foundation, I can't say 100% whether you are correct or not. But, here is what leads me to believe that they are, generally speaking, true libertarians. Do you ever read their non urban-development material? It seems pretty lib to me, more or less. Now, I know they give their associates a fair amount of latitude which is why you get an O'Toole who is an anti-density guy in disguise, but I think as an organization, they stand for limited government. I know of one instance where they objected to a certain CA proposition despite the fact that it had support from much of their donor base. They did it on principle. After all, what is the point if you are just a hired gun. And despite what some detractors think, they are not.

I think Staley is one of the good ones, in my opinion. Not only does he stand for breaking down suburban zoning regs, he is sympathetic to the NU cause, to some degree. Plus, he has some current real world experience as he is a member on his local planning commission. He is certainly ripe for discussion much like we have discussed and agreed on some policy issues.

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