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Telling the Stories of Green Urbanism

Much of my research and writing over the years has focused on telling stories-innovative efforts at moving cities and urban neighborhoods in the direction of sustainability, at finding ways to build economy, reconnect to place and environment, and at once to enhance quality of life and reduce ecological footprints. Recent books, such as Green Urbanism Down Under, with Peter Newman, involve this collecting and telling of compelling and inspiration stories. I am more likely these days to describe myself as a storyteller than a Planning scholar. Recently I have discovered the power of film and the increasingly egalitarian nature of this medium as a way to educate about place and community and to tell these compelling stories, and I continue to ponder where this might lead.  This year in my Sustainable Communities course at the University of Virginia students were charged with capturing local sustainability stories by producing 5-10 minute short documentaries.  Our digital media lab put the students through a kind of filmmaking boot-camp, offered them cameras, and nurtured them along as they learned the art of shooting and editing. Most of the students shot their films with very small, and relatively inexpensive, Flip camcorders. The model we used recorded up to an hour of video and plugged directed into a computer USB port for quick upload.  So small that they fit into one's front pocket they offer the possibility of capturing events and thoughts and fleeting elements of place that might otherwise be lost if a larger camera shoot were required. The results of our film experiment have been spectacular: eighteen unique and compelling stories that captured at least a bit of the green energy and passion of the people and businesses in our region.  They are at once educational, inspirational (many of the stories were of people launching a new business or community venture, involving a certain amount of personal and professional risk, driven by a sense of wanting to make a difference, wanting to make a significant personal contribution to their community). One of the virtues of this kind of exercise is that you begin to better appreciate the range and extent of things going on in the community and region. While Charlottesville might be a bit unusual in the extent of its green activities, every community will have things to report and stories to tell. The range of activities and initiatives and businesses profiled in our films was remarkable.  One film followed a group of students on their Friday forage for food—with the epiphany of how much edible there actually is, by accident or design, around town. Another film followed a local non-profit bike advocacy group on a community bike ride, an innovative program (called Discover Transportation Freedom) designed to tempt and nudge residents onto bikes, and to help in overcoming fears and inertia. Another film profiled a local farm, offering a visual image and family history of a farm that many in the area know by name. Yet another film profiled a unique kind of farm that sustainably converts the City of Charlottesville's supply of fall leaves into salable, valuable compost, and recently started taking organic food waste from a UVA dining hall. This is a story most don't know. The winning film—the film thought the best by the students in the class—was a documentary about a program to provide bicycles to refugees that recently moved to Charlottesville, most of whom do not have a automobile. This film was produced by Todd Gerarden, a third year Engineering student, who both participated in the program and eloquently tells the story in film (Here is a link to the film, now up on YouTube:) Each film is its own gold nugget, some of course are more refined and polished than others. It will be interesting to see what life these short documentaries will have beyond the class—some will be used I think in promoting the mission of some of the organizations profiled, others may provide good ideas for other communities, perhaps hundreds of miles away. Perhaps in some small way the films will help our community further build up its pride of place. We shall see. I would love to hear about how film and filmmaking is creatively used in other parts of the country and world to tell stories about place and sustainable placemaking. Please share some of these stories here! ---------- Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. He co-authored Resilient Cities and Green Urbanism Down Under and is the author of the upcoming Planning for Coastal Resilience.