One of the great things about planning is that everyone, whether they realize it or not, has formed basic thoughts about what they think is “good planning.”  So often when I tell people I’m a planner, I’m met with an empty smile and a nod.  Sometimes it’s just a raised eyebrow. Or a couple of rapid, confused blinks.  But a funny thing happens when I explain what an urban planner does; suddenly, there’s a barrage of questions about why a certain zoning law was enacted, or why we don’t build bigger roads, or why a certain city doesn’t spend its money on what “everyone knows” that city needs instead of things like more affordable housing.  

Everyday citizens interact with our built environments, too—even if they’re not planners!  The lady stuck in traffic on her way home from work wonders why there aren’t better routes for her to take home.  A man stuck at a traffic light wonders why he has a red light for so long even though there’s very little cross traffic.  These little interactions between everyday citizens and their surroundings are so salient that planning is a fairly popular topic in media, both directly and indirectly.  Whether it’s a dystopian future where a crumbling former metropolis poses new and often terrifying challenges or a documentary about a parking lot, planning has found its way into the big screen.  

Here’s my list of ten planning-related films, shows and documentaries that planners and non-planners alike will find both interesting and thought-provoking:

Urbanized (2011)

Netflix, Amazon Instant Streaming ($3.99), YoutubeTrailer Here.

“Urbanized is a feature-length documentary about the design of cities, which looks at the issues and strategies behind urban design and features some of the world’s foremost architects, planners, policymakers, builders, and thinkers.  Who is allowed to shape our cities, and how do they do it? By exploring a diverse range of urban design projects around the world, Urbanized frames a global discussion on the future of cites.”  -Official website of the film

This movie serves as a fantastic introduction to urban planning (and more specifically, urban design) by interviewing some of the top thinkers and leaders in the field, and taking you around the globe to see how innovation in design has created better cities.  Whether you’re a newbie to planning or have been in practice for years, you’ll find yourself drawn in to this documentary.

Bonus: this film is part of a 3-documentary series.  The other two films, Helvetica and Objectified, explore graphic design and industrial design, respectively—both are also highly recommended watching!

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

Netflix, youtubeTrailer Here.

“It began as a housing marvel. Two decades later, it ended in rubble. But what happened to those caught in between? The Pruitt-Igoe Myth tells the story of the transformation of theAmerican city in the decades after World War II, through the lens of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing development and the St. Louis residents who called it home.” -Official website of the film

This highly-regarded film takes an in-depth look at the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex developing in the 1960s in St. Louis.  At the heart of the film is a critical review of the Urban Renewal program taking place in the United States during the period, but the film’s true strength is the telling of real life people’s story and how Pruitt-Igoe impacted them.  Taubman College’s own Robert Fishman makes an appearance in the film, as well.  


Sprawling from Grace (2008)

Amazon Instant Video ($2.99), youtube, Hulu Trailer Here.

“The days of cheap energy have ended. America's love affair with the automobile is unsustainable, and like Nero, we are fiddling away, confident that tomorrow will be as promising as today. The wakeup call is coming.”  -Official website of the film

This documentary takes a look at how American land use and transportation decisions in the last several decades have strengthened our dependence on oil and all of the ills that come along it.This film does a good job of explaining how the built environment forces Americans to live and travel in particular ways, even when we know they are not optimal, and proposes several ways to tackle the problem at hand.


Cool It (2010)

Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant VideoTrailer Here.

“Climate catastrophe? The end of civilization as we know it? COOL IT is based upon the book of the same name and lectures by Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial author of The SkepticalEnvironmentalist. Amidst the strong and polarized opinions within the global warming debate, COOL IT follows Lomborg on his mission to bring the smartest solutions to climate change,environmental pollution, and other major problems in the world.” –ITunes Movie Synopsis

What’s life without a bit of controversy?  This film and its associated book  have drawn heavy criticism from environmentalists and the left for several years for it’s perceived “climate change denial.”   That’s pretty unfounded criticism if you ask me.  Though Bjorn Lomborg does believe in climate change—and even that humans are causing it—he proposes an alternate approach to dealing with the problem.  Challenge your views on climate change and dig in to this eye-opening documentary.  

The Parking Lot Movie (2010)

Amazon Instant Video, ($2.99), youtube instant ($3.99)  Trailer Here.

“The Parking Lot Movie follows a select group of parking lot attendants who work at The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia. The eccentric brotherhood of attendants consist of grad students, overeducated philosophers, surly artists, middle-age slackers and more. In what becomes a discourse on American life, these overeducated parking attendants wax profoundly about car culture and capitalism, seek vengeance against entitled patrons and thieves, and make fun of drunken jerks.  If the intersection between the status quo and the quest for freedom is their ultimate challenge, could a slab of asphalt be an emotional way station for The American Dream?" –Official website of the film

This movie is kind of like if Trailer Park Boys and a transportation planner decided to have a lovechild.  Yes, it’s a bit absurd.  But the entire movie takes place in a parking lot, what would you expect?  This movie is surprisingly fascinating, and gives an even more surprisingly insightful look into American culture and how we make everyday decisions.


Detropia (2012)

Netflix, YoutubeTrailer Here.

“Detroit's story has encapsulated the iconic narrative of America over the last century— the Great Migration of African Americans escaping Jim Crow; the rise of manufacturing and the middle class; the love affair with automobiles; the flowering of the American dream; and now the collapse of the economy and the fading American mythos. With its vivid, painterly palette and haunting score, Detropia sculpts a dreamlike collage of a grand city teetering on the brink of dissolution. These soulful pragmatists and stalwart philosophers strive to make ends meet and make sense of it all, refusing to abandon hope or resistance. Their grit and pluck embody the spirit of the Motor City as it struggles to survive postindustrial America and begins to envision a radically different future.” –Official website of the film

I really went back and forth about including this film on this list.  As someone who’s lived in the greater Detroit region for quite some time, I’m frankly pretty tired of hearing/seeing Detroit’s problems and “ruin porn” being glorified all the time. (for those of you who’ve never been there—there’s TONS more than just busted houses and homeless people and shootouts—take a visit and see for yourself!).  But ultimately, this film made it to the list because I think it does a fairly good job of telling the stories of everyday Detroiters and gives outsiders an opportunity to see the hard work and pride of native Detroiters despite their challenges.   

Keep in mind while watching that the film is slightly out of date already, with massive changes having affected both the social and physical places of the city in the last 3 years alone.  

Portlandia (2011-present)

Netflix, IFC ChannelWatch a clip here. And here. And here.

“A sketch-comedy series that parodies life in Portland, Oregon.” –

This Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning sketch comedy show by former Saturday NightLive cast member Fred Armisen and Sleater Kinney front woman Carrie Brownstein is a planner’s comedy.  And it is hilarious.  I’ve actually had to stop watching it late at night because my maniacal laughter was preventing my roommate from sleeping.  Whether Fred and Carrie are parodying farm-to-table, the sharing economy, environmental regulation, or Portland cycling culture, planners will find the issues the show deals with extremely familiar, and the non-planner in your life will be laughing right along with you.

Human Scale (2013)

Amazon Prime Instant Streaming Trailer Here.

“50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050 this will increase to 80%.  Life in a mega city is both enchanting and problematic.  Today we face peak oil, climate change,loneliness and severe health issues due to our way of life.  But why?  The Danish architect and professor Jan Gehl has studied human behavior in cities through 40 years.  He has documented how modern cities repel human interaction, and argues that we can build cities in a way that takes human needs for inclusion and intimacy into account.” –Official website of the film

This film explores how humanity is rapidly urbanizing and how humans are adapting to the new lifestyle, and wonders aloud if the way we currently build cities is conducive for human needs of the future.  Inspired by Jan Gehl, the film is full of beautiful shots of global cities combined with interesting human element-focused narrative.  


16 Acres (2012)

Netflix, youtube ($3.99) Trailer Here.

“Terrorists destroyed New York’s Twin Towers in minutes.  It took miles of red tape and more than a decade to rebuild.”  -Netflix title description

This movie takes a look at how competing interests, political battles, national sentiments, and local regulations collided to create one of the most unique and complicated real estate process in history in the wake of September 11th. Planners will appreciate the difficulty and pain of the process as the new towers are shaped and reshaped through the film, and will be interested in the complicated nature of rebuilding Ground Zero.

Generation Earth (2012)

Netflix, Youtube

“A look at how mankind not only impacts, but shapes the world to make previously insurmountable obstacles a thing of the past.” title description

This BBC miniseries consists of three 45-minute episodes: A Place to Live, The Way We Move, and Food, Fire and Water.  Each episode looks at how humans have transformed civilization using intuition, technology, and creativity to achieve newer and better standards of living.  The entire series deals with how we shape the built environment to work for humans, and describes the processes that allow this to happen.  Planners and non-planners alike will finish this miniseries inspired and proud of our species’ achievements to better our lives.  


Think this list missed something?  Say so in the comments below!

1 Comment