Reviewing the Best Planning Movies

Marisa Cravens examines planning through the cinematic lens with a recent compilation of important planning movies reflecting the instincts and hidden goals of planners.

 Marisa CravensThe experience of professional planning tilts between the bureaucratically mundane and the wildly imaginative. How does one navigate the miasma of rules and regulations while maintaining a social vision? Do we ever really understand the visionary aspect of our work, or is it merely a secret wish beneath our daily meetings and political squabbling?

Film is one barometer of the instincts and hidden goals of planners. I recently compiled a list of important planning movies for the nationwide organization Planners Network, surveying its members on the films that they felt influenced their work. The list was included as a media resource in the Planners Network Disorientation Guide, a manual for progressive planning students, but its diversity reflects contributions from professionals, academics, and activists. Like the guide, the movies present a disorienting perspective on the field. Some of the selections are, in fact, about absurdity and bureaucracy: Ikiru (Japan, 1952), The Death of a Bureaucrat (Cuba, 1966), and Local Hero (Scotland, 1983). For the most part, however, the chosen movies capture the imaginative part of planning that can often become buried beneath countless correspondences, permits, forms and fees. Although I for one relish the scientific zeal of planners who can endlessly debate land use regulations, sometimes the urge to turn everyday planning practices upside down demands satisfaction through a brief escape.

 Blade Runner PosterThus the inclusion in the Planners Network list of the "Disorientation" film series from the Van Alen Institute in New York, including Fool Throttle (USA, 2004), featuring two men in a comedic fight for motor scooter dominance, and Souls of New York (USA, 2002), documenting, among other architectural oddities, cable-walkers on New York's Verrezano Bridge. One of the most popular submissions was director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's City of Lost Children (France, 1995), a nightmarish fairy tale of kidnapped children and their stolen dreams. Were there ever to be a Lifetime Achievement Award (or a Cesar, in France's case) for the imaginative representation of place on film, Jeunet would surely be nominated: his other film locations include the rhythmic, impoverished and corrupt housing complex in Delicatessen (France, 1991), and the artificially-enhanced colors of Paris in Amelie (France, 2001). Blade Runner (USA, 1982) is another fantasy film that triggers viewers' fascination with space and place.

 City of Lost ChildrenWhat makes a movie relevant to planners? To be considered a planning movie, a film should not just be set in a particular locale but must demonstrate the influence of the built environment on its characters. An outstanding example is the Brazilian movie City of God (2002), revealing the social networks in a planned community built to replace one destroyed in a natural disaster. Chaos foments in the characters' lives, at odds with their ordered and sterile public housing. Many planners must identify strongly with Orson Welles, since Force of Evil (1948), The Third Man (1949) and Citizen Kane (1941) all made the cut. John Sayles' films of small town America also gained numerous mentions.

Another popular category of planning movie includes films that are determined to exploit the seamy underbelly of picture-perfect American suburbs. Edward Scissorhands (1990), Lawn and Order (1994) and Pleasantville (1998) suggest antagonism towards freaks or outsiders, unhealthy obsessions with order, and entrapment -- in that order. American Beauty (1999) is another popular suburban film, but its redemptive theme transcends the seamy. The Truman Show (1998), on the other hand, might remind planners of the dark side of Utopian visions and the dangers of paternalism.

Numerous documentaries cover planning topics, from homelessness (Dark Days [USA, 2000]) to land trusts (Homes and Hands [USA, 1998]) to community gardens (Beyond Organic [USA, 2000]). The curated Prelinger planning film archives include downloadable planning hyperbole, including The Dynamic American City (1956) and The City (1939), narrated by Lewis Mumford. While some of these documentaries might only be interesting to planning intellectuals or historians, others are great educational tools. A high school teacher contacted me for recommendations, intending to create a week-long module for her class. Among other films, I suggested the skateboarding documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys (USA, 2001). What's more relevant to planning than the creative use of abandoned infrastructure? Many of the above films can be used for popular education by demonstrating the nature of the planning process to those not involved in it. Ultimately, films can be used to create exposure for the field, nourishing the profession by reaching out to underrepresented populations. Plenty of young people have an active interest in the built environment, but are not yet aware of the planning process.

While you may not see a "Planning" section in your local video store any time soon (unless you are lucky enough to have one of those local temples of film geekdom, like I do), an awareness and understanding of these movies can, in addition to fostering professional education and outreach, create the potential for self-reflection as planners. By understanding which movies resonate with our professionalism and why, we may illuminate what we feel to be the most daunting challenges and possibilities locked within our practice. Film helps us to reconfigure our perspective on what is possible and what is real in planning, the construction of human interactions in space.

Marisa Cravens, a recent planning graduate of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, now lives in Portland, Oregon. A complete list of recommended Planning Films is available in the Planners Network Disorientation Guide, at

Planners Network
The Death of a Bureaucrat
Local Hero
Van Alen Institute
Fool Throttle
City of Lost Children
Blade Runner
City of God
Force of Evil
The Third Man
Citizen Kane
Edward Scissorhands
Lawn and Order
American Beauty
The Truman Show
Dark Days
Homes and Hands
Beyond Organic
Prelinger Film Archives
Dogtown and Z-Boys



Two Greats

Godzilla was the most influential planner of all time. You can see his students work all over Connecticut.

The Jetsons had the best utopia.

One Night on Earth

I think One Night on Earth is a good candidate. I haven't seen it in years, but the juxtaposition of the New York cabbie immigrant, to the career cabbie in Rome, to the disconnected Los Angeles cabbie are all good testaments as to spirit and life somehow connected to the environment in which you live.


Must ad the movie Brazil, esp the scene w/Robert DeNiro as the plumber activist.

anything by barry levinson

I can't believe I had to read all of these comments to find out no one chimmed in with Barry Levinson's Baltimore films---Diner, Tin Men, Liberty Heights,and of course Avalon!

Not scholarly but....

The love interest (Campbell Scott) in Singles (1992) was an Urban Planner in Seattle dealing with trying to pitch a new commuter rail for the city and the local politics of such a proposal. But the rest of the movie is about, well singles in Seattle with the grunge scene as a back drop. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe (not one of his better movies).

Poltergeist - suburban sprawl/planning gone wrong

Poltergeist - suburban sprawl/planning gone wrong!

Uh, Singles?

Ditto Peter Vaughn. Only Cameron Crowe could insert planning as a sub-plot. "Do you ever think about traffic, because I do." Classic.

Dark City

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the ultimate urban planning movie, Dark City. A group of aliens steals an entire city (with inhabitants) from Earth, sets it up on an asteroid, then creates a giant machine that allows them to rearrange the buildings and streets at will. Since viewing the movie, acquiring such a machine has become my personal ambition as a planner.


As strange as it sounds, the ultra-violent movie, Robocop is pretty interesting to watch. A satire on urban renewal, the premise of the movie is that privatization of Detroit's local police force has created a cybernetic police force which will be used to clear the slums of criminals, so that the city can redevelop the blighted areas. There is also some pretty funny commentary on America's infatuation with fuel-inefficient automobiles.

Movies and Planning

Although "Office Space" is a movie not worth the effort of considering a viewing, it depicts corporate architecture as bland and meaningless and residential construction as dull, cheap, and offering little more than its minimal funtionality.

Batteries not Included

a movie about space aliens fighting against gentrification in nyc. classic spielburg cheese.

Silver City?

If you haven't seen it, you should. Not the greatest movie, but it really looks at the wide scope of attitudes about land use. Good Aritcle.

Planning Movies addition

What about "Sunshine State" and "Episode I and II" in the Star Wars prequels? "Sunshine State" is about the development frenzy in Florida. The Star Wars prequels have some amazing shots of futuristic cities and other semiurban enclaves in those galaxies located far, far, away...

A great movie line for planners

Independence Day has absolutely no relevance for planners -- unless you think of it as extraterrestrial urban renewal. But it does have one of my favorite lines for planning:

A survivor of the aliens assault talks about how he escaped death by using Los Angeles' subways. He says "Thank god for public transportation."

The BEST planning movie

You forgot the mention the best planning movie of them all... the Walt Disney classic "The Music Man." For those inclined check out T. Kloster's analysis at


Thank you for all your responses. Many of the "omitted" films are actually in the PN list that this article is based on (such as Koyaanisqatsi, Casablanca and the Milagro-Beanfiled War). I have received many new recommendations, though! I also really like Joyce Levine's idea of the "City as Actor" category. There is also a comic book--The Authority--in which one of the superheroes can physically change himself into urban infrastructure. Not baaaaaaaaad.

Anne your comment is my favorite. "Overall the idea of achieving goals by applying laws selectively gives me comfort in struggling with the overly regulated world that we live in." There are many ways to interpret that, depending on what kind of planner one is.

Planning movies

Please add to the list one of my all time planning favorites: The Malagro Bean Field Wars. There is nothing more important than water and how the lack of it or glut of it can impact our lives.

Another good one is: Man With a Plan. This Vermont made film CAN be rented from any video store. Fred Tucker is an aging farmer who needs to find a job with good benefits that doesn't require an education. Why not run for Congress? By the way, Fred actually ran for office and won the primary.

One more addtion

Great list....I'm glad somebody took it on. My personal favorite, for one or two scenes is "Office Space." The best scene invloves a group of disfunctional 20 somethings trying to walk to lunch in the "bussiness park" complete with no sidewalks and having to scale those gawd awful burms that everybody seems to like. The opening credits were a man in a walker beats the kid in the car to work is pretty good too. There is a lot of good stuff about meaningless paperwork and office politics too of course.

Best Planning Movies

Evan beat me to mentioning "Brazil," and "Koyaanisqatsi" and "Chinatown" are other grreat flicks. Were Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and Chaplin's "Modern Times" mentioned? Heck, "True Stories" (Talking Heads - 1986), "Herbie the Love Bug," "Clerks," the Godzilla chain could also be mentioned.

The city as actor

Another overlooked movie type involves the city or community as integral to the storyline -- for example, several of Woody Allen's movies are unthinkable without New York City. The neuroses he portrays just wouldn't be the same in Chicago or LA or Miami. (Which, of course, brings to mind the former TV series Miami Vice.)

Another good example of this type is Angel Heart, to which New Orleans is integral.

an unfortunate omission

How about "Office Space"?
A must see for anyone who's ever had to walk through berms to get to the outparcel TGI Friday's!

Planning Movies

Am I the only person who saw a recent French/Canadian Film "Seducing Dr. Lewis?" That's the English title. Very funny, little, "Local Hero" type of tale about a distressed Quebec fishing village trying to attract a factory to their shores. Perhaps more of a tale of Economic Development than Planning. Perhaps both.

What about Koyaanisqatsi?

Epic film about planning, the built environment and nature.... not a word of dialogue, but it's not needed.

Planners on Film

Another planning movies category should be characters who were identified or played the role of a planner. The only one I can recall is Bill Murray in Quick Change - I think he is identified as a planner by a single line in the movie. Does anyone remember others?

Quick Change (1990)

Genre: Action, Crime, Suspense
Starring: Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Jason Robards, Jamey Sheridan, Randy Quaid
Director: Bill Murray, Howard Franklin
Release Date: July 13, 1990

Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid play three friends who decide to make a quick score by robbing a bank and taking off for a faraway island. They set up an elaborate, almost playful plan, but every step of the way either Quaid screws it up or New York City just won't let them go, allowing detective Jason Robards to get closer and closer. With the money strapped to their bodies, the hapless trio gets caught up in a series of misadventures as they try desperately to get to the airport.

planning movies

Your article was great, I thought I was the only one thinking of movies in a planning, community development framework.

My personal nomination for a planning movie is Casablanca. For example, when the inspector sees the gambling tables that have existed for many years and says :"I am shocked to see gambling here, arrest these people immediately." Also the line "We have a murder here, Arrest all the usual suspects." The murder was committed in front of the inspector but he is willing to ignore this so the hero can escape and fight the Nazis. This is a somewhat cynical view of the political process. Overall the idea of achieving goals by applying laws selectively gives me comfort in struggling with the overly regulated world that we live in.

Honourable mentions

The 'Burbs.

Quite a lot of Spielbergs films' as well. They usually feature some version of American middle class suburbia.

Maybe also recent tv series Desperate Housewives.

Planning Movie Omission

While there may be many planning movies, might I suggest a funny one called singles. The environmentalist drives a car across town and revels in her garage door opener while her boyfriend the Transportation planner for Seattle is involved in the "Super Train" which the mayor shoots down saying noone will use it.

Art imitating Virtual Reality...

The future city of "Minority Report" depicts a mile-high freeway with on/off ramps more like vertical elevators. This fiction may be derived from the preposterous notion that hydrogen fuel cell cars may employ drive-by-wire technologies. Art imitating virtual reality?

As long as hollywood delivers such fictions, my preference will be with comic versions such as "Jimmy Neutron", where an 'advanced' alien race resolved its development problems by physically devolving into amoebic blobs living 24-7 inside egg-shaped mobility devices that double as housing. Now, that's entertainment!


I would add Chinatown; land speculation and the struggle for control over water rights in California.

Planning Movies

You forgot "Brazil." Always be sure you have the proper permit before you start a project!

another urban planner movie

alright if the definition of an urban planning movie is to be the influence of the built structure on its characters then I believe New Jack City is a good candidate for the evils of inner city ghettos.

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