June 27, 2007
The American Dream and The Unforeseen
A new documentary delves into the debate between Austin’s development boom and public good.
It’s easy to vilify a maverick developer, but filmmaker Laura Dunn takes a more complex approach in her documentary, The Unforeseen, as she follows Austin real estate mogul Gary Bradley’s rise and eventual fall from financial grace.
Dunn’s film explores what happens when known industrial-polluter Freeport-McMoRan attempts to build a 4,000-acre subdivision that could contaminate the area’s beloved Barton Springs. By following Bradley, a local who is politically and financially linked to Freeport-McMoRan’s Barton Springs development, Dunn takes an objective look at the motivations behind residential developments, and the potential environmental implications of Austin’s resulting sprawl. Between The Unforeseen’s film festival screenings in Dallas and San Francisco, Dunn stopped to talk with Metropolis about her vision for the film and the growth wars in Austin.
What did you know about the world of architecture and development before you began this film?
I would say I knew very little compared to what I know now. I had been more focused on environmental contaminants from petrochemical industries, so I knew about environmental health and politics, but I didn’t really know that much about growth and architecture.
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What is one of the most surprising things you learned about how growth occurs?
There are external forces that create the growth I’m talking about, such as the unsustainable strip malls. It’s not really that people are clamoring for them or that they’re meeting needs. It’s more about real estate speculation from a debt-fueled economy. That speculation is proceeding, anticipating, and even creating needs.
The other factor is how growth happens politically. When I did the research, it was shocking to find that real estate developers are hiring lobbyists, and those lobbyists are the ones writing the legislation.
What did journalist William Greider mean in the film when he said, “You can expand this economy for generations and never add a new home. Improve from within.”
I think he means there’s a lot of ways to grow the economy without destroying our natural resources. In Austin, rather than expanding cheaply built, suburban developments, you could create housing with density in the inner city, or take vacant downtown buildings and redevelop those. And you can make the housing you have now more energy efficient. He talks about rethinking the industrial society so you don’t create a lot of waste, and instead you reuse. It’s not growth vs. no-growth. It’s actually the quality of growth.
Do you think planning movements, such as the shift toward New Urbanism and mixed-use, higher density developments, could be the answer to problems such as the one in Barton Springs?
I think they are part of the solution. Everyone’s looking for the solution to oil, because we’re running out of oil, the prices are going up, we’re polluting, and there are international crises. But there isn’t any energy that has the same density as oil. I always think what people need to talk about, and what no one wants to talk about, is using less energy. You start talking about that and people think you’re a Socialist.
The Unforeseen delves into the history of development in Austin, but there aren’t many solutions offered. Did you encounter any groups that had solutions on how to balance development and the environment?
I think that’s a good point, and that’s been some criticism from some environmental groups. I wasn’t really trying to make that film. I was trying to make a sobering examination of what’s going on and not leave you with a feeling of ‘Oh, everything’s going to be okay.’
But there are alternative ways to look at the issue. I think you see all kinds of good growth springing up in communities. For example, in Austin, we can pass bonds for the city governments to buy up land over the aquifer at Barton Springs so development can’t occur.
Your film doesn’t try to simplify the issue. It takes an in-depth look at a complex issue and explores many of the viewpoints and sub-issues. Do you feel this approach might hurt its popularity?
If you do something that’s different than what people are used to seeing, you can limit your audience. The current trend is all about oversimplifying. People want to come and see things spelled out for them. That’s not the way the world works, and that’s not the film I want to make. Our goal is to make the film we want to make and see where it goes.