The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Can Your City Star in a Movie?

Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA.  Right look, right scale.  Source:

Before I start, let me say this: the opinions expressed in this post are totally my own, and completely unsupported by any real research and analysis.

I had the occasion to visit Indianapolis last week.  I’ve been to Indy many times; I lived for several years in Muncie, just northeast of Indy, went to school in Bloomington, and many of my friends moved to Indiana’s largest city.  Because of that, I’ve usually had a good time there.

But if I were to evaluate Indianapolis solely on the merits of its appearance, it would get a failing grade.

Indy does not have what I would call an especially exciting viewscape.  In fact, I think the city’s been fighting hard to escape its legacy of having a rather bland looking built environment.  You have a downtown that looks like this:

And neighborhoods that look like this:

And even neighborhoods that look like this:

These are totally random pictures of Indy, but they are relatively descriptive of what you’d find in much of the city — suburban or small town features in one of the nation’s largest cities.  Sometimes I wonder if the “India-no-place” and “Naptown” monikers came about not because of the lack of activity in the city, but the lack of a strong and distinctive sense of place.

Then the thought occurred to me — Indy will never play a starring role in a movie.

You know what I’m talking about.  There are many cities with a built environment that is so distinctive that it can play a character in a movie.  You want to convey complexity and diversity?  New York is the place.  Grittiness?  Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit or Chicago will do.  Other cities, like Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, or Seattle, can play roles in movies as well.

Conversely, there are many large cities whose sprawling blandness, like Indy, render it incapable of playing a role in a movie.  So much of their viewscape can be found in a zillion other cities that they almost become meaningless.  For example, the Indy neighborhood scenes above could be found in, say, Sioux City, IA or Roanoke, VA.  Nothing stands out.

Therefore, I’m offering a chart showing my guess of which of the top 25 metro areas have a distinctive enough viewscape to play a role in a movie:

Metro Area
Can It Star In A Movie?
New York
Sheer size and density.  Starred in a thousand movies already.
Los Angeles
Weather, ocean and mountains.  Known as quintessential sprawl but surprisingly diverse.
Old school and gritty, yet similar to NYC in terms of size and density.
The largest metro with a no.  What distinguishes it from others?
Rowhouses give it character.
How can such a large city look so much like a small town in places?
Monumental architecture and landmarks; history-laden.
The ocean and Art Deco architecture.
Close; older parts may qualify but recent sprawl overwhelms.
See Chicago and Philadelphia.
San Francisco/Oakland
Geography and density combine to create character.
The post-industrial dystopian landscape, yes, but still has some intact citified areas.
Riverside/San Bernardino
Come on.
Really, come on.
Nice natural setting, at a livable scale.
Minneapolis/St. Paul
Midwest version of Seattle, with lakes.
San Diego
Sunshine makes it nice to look at, but still sprawly.
St. Louis
St. Louis’ largely brick construction gives it a rather unique look, similar to Chicago and Detroit.
Natural setting could get it there, but the built environment underwhelms.
Two words: “The Wire.”
Mountains in the background, yes; but I’m not sure about it.
Hills, bridges and grittiness.  Without a doubt.
Like Seattle, but might be even better for people-watching.
I imagine it like Riverside/San Bernardino, just not as big.
A state capital with some nice institutional architecture, but beyond that…

There are smaller metros that could star in a movie — New Orleans and Savannah come to mind.  But unfortunately, the smaller the metro the greater the chance that it looks pretty much like any other place.

I know my tastes run toward more dense cities, but that’s usually because denser cities have a variety and complexity that is visually appealing, like the difference between a Monet painting and a cartoon drawing.

If I were king of a sprawl city, I’d try to find a way to develop and enforce design standards that would create distinctiveness, variety and complexity.  I’d find ways to put utility wires underground, in the rear or in alleys.  Curbs and gutters.  Sidewalks and parkways.  Landscaped roadway medians and parkways.  Decorative streetscaping.  Attractive and unified signage.

Without getting into the whole debate of doing things simply to make a city cool (which I agree is a losing proposition), I do think cities should invest in their visual aesthetic to establish distinctiveness and even create a niche.

2 Responses to “Can Your City Star in a Movie?”

  1. Kevin

    Every once in a while, a city will get lucky and stand out as (nearly) one of the characters in a movie. More frequently, though, they're used to add flavor. Filmmakers frequently ask cities to portray other places, and metros with a variety of landscapes can have an advantage. An anonymous design aesthetic may even be an asset.



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