Click 'read more' for a review of the WBPT/ PBS documentary: "Imagining a New Florida".
"Imagining a New Florida", a new documentary narrated by TV newscaster Dwight Lauderdale offers a panoramic view of Florida's landscape, with helicopter shot HD fly-bys of gated communities and platted subdivisions and forms of land use that substantially contributed to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It also attempts to focus how people could shape a new sense of place, respecting diversity, the environment, history and all that, to reform Florida's built landscape. What Florida turned into is a quagmire of sprawl. I call the phenomenon, on this blog, the design of the Growth Machine. Its gears and levers include the engineering cartel, rock miners, well drillers, wetland fillers and local legislatures that have deformed democracy from serving the health, welfare and safety of citizens to a money machine driven by campaign contributors from real estate development and related industries.
As to this point of view, fifty eight minutes of documentary film unspooled before-- in the last two minutes-- a conclusion made a belated attempt to define the future of Florida's landscape as a matter of public choice; of people taking the matter of community shape and design into their own hands and out of the hands of Big Box retailers. It was an opportune moment to insert the point that Florida Hometown Democracy's Amendment 4, to be voted in November on a state-wide ballot, is all about giving people a vote in their communities. But not on PBS.
In other words, the elephant in the living room-- the politics of growth and development in Florida-- remained in full disguise behind a fig leaf.
If it were my documentary, I would have established from the start that Florida's GOP legislature has set out repeatedly to destroy what passes for growth management in Florida. But avoiding hard political realities about growth seems to be mostly what PBS in Florida is all about. If not for the fact this is an election year, the Florida Department of Community Affairs would have been decapitated in Tallahassee and its head hoisted on a pike for the red-meat, development interests who have taken the opportunity of serial financial bailouts at the federal level to reinforce their capacity to build more suburban sprawl with less regulations when markets revive. I would have shown how the Growth Machine and its lobbyists think of New Urbanism as a trifling distraction from the hard work of providing more Lowe's Home Improvements stores and Wal Marts in wetlands. If I had given former US Senator Bob Graham a platform in my documentary, I would have shown how Miami Lakes and the Graham Companies represent the conflicted agendas of profit vs. community building vs. the environment.
But it wasn't my documentary. "Imagining a New Florida" stands in a line of PBS Florida documentaries that unspool as though the politics of growth are too radioactive to show the public. This one stands as a harmless primer on the principles of community building and design, intended perhaps for middle school students whose teachers will organize some sort of discussion that will materialize, somehow, in better leadership fifteen or twenty years from now.
The only inkling of substance related to political choices comes through the voice of the former Orange County chairwoman, Linda Chapin. She notes that the challenge for the future of Florida is to convert the old and first ring suburbs around the state's main cities into livable communities with a sense of place. She adds -- correctly-- it is much more difficult and costly to re-invent the built landscape than to build strip malls in farmland. What she didn't say and what the program failed to do was to explain how the entire apparatus of county government, through planning and zoning, has been deformed to avoid this choice and its consequences. The program, for instance, might have described how the investment priority of sprawl and related growth inflicts harsh penalties, mostly, on the poor and least able to afford its costs.
As a penultimate note, I had missed Herald writer Glenn Garvin's senseless tirade against the documentary as "elitist", filled with all the sound and fury of sprawl boosters cloaked in the mantle of libertarianism. All heat, no light. Notably, the documentary did not try to include real actors like the Latin Builders Association, or the Florida Builders, or Associated Industries or the National Association of Homebuilders. Maybe the producers tried but couldn't get them to cooperate, maybe they felt the Florida built landscape in its impoverished, ghost suburbs speaks for itself. But the point is: those are the interests who run Florida. They control the county commission; in Miami-Dade we call it "unreformable" for good reason. Perhaps the documentary producers felt that in an hour, they could take the high road and leave the sprawl behind.
It is not what I think PBS is for. I would have organized the documentary with the intensity of an episode of "Frontline". I would have shown the de facto chair of the county commission Natacha Seijas on camera, scurrying from her Miami Lakes condo to her no-show job at the YMCA, supported by developer contributions. I would have explained how she controls votes on zoning at the county commission, that lead to so much suburban sprawl. I would have shown Joe Martinez and Pepe Diaz and Bruno Barreiro, her cohorts. I would have shown how a quorum of the former Palm Beach County Commission could now be conducted from prison, because of insider deal-making. I would have shown how the politics of Florida are reflected, perfectly, in a marred landscape of low density, scattered subdivisions without a sense of place or community. And I would have ended with a brief view of the New Urbanists and their uphill struggle. My program would not have been the attractive trifle that the Florida Endowment of the Humanities funded and apparently wanted, but it would have been real. REAL. I'm afraid that WPBT has other, smaller fish to fry.
(Note: the documentary will air again on Sunday at 3:30 PM on WPBT.)