Forget home and plastic surgery makeovers, new online video series promotes an "American Makeover"

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The makers of a viral sensation from last year (Built to Last) are back with a new video series that takes a hard look at America’s collective frustration with sprawl and the smarter alternatives for growth and development happening in communities across the country.

Today, the average American spends about three hours per day driving — three hours stuck in traffic, emitting carbon, burning oil, wasting time. The harmful effects of sprawl are well chronicled in recent news stories, books, and documentaries. With ugly sprawl everywhere you look in America, it’s time for a national makeover. So what’s the alternative?

American Makeover is a new web-exclusive series that explores those alternatives in communities across America, looking at what can be done to help our communities grow in such a way that gives us the kind of neighborhoods and choices we’re increasingly looking for.

Episode One, which just launched last week, “sounds the alarm bell on Atlanta’s sprawl.” No one who has ever been to Atlanta will argue their status as poster child of sprawling growth, but it’s encouraging that the filmmakers spend most of the short episode taking a closer look at the alternatives. Or as they say, the “transformational possibilities of new urbanism and traditional neighborhood design” in Atlanta — focusing on those growing millions of people who are looking for places to live that are walkable and connected and don’t entail hour-long car commutes to work, school, or the local market.

In Atlanta, they focus on an intown new urbanist project called Glenwood Park, just a short distance east of downtown Atlanta, where Charles Brewer, a motivated and inspired developer, sought to break the cycle of the same old car-oriented development in Atlanta and build a coherent community rather than just a smattering of homes or businesses. It’s not perfect, and Brewer’s company faced an uphill battle all the way with outdated zoning codes and legal barriers that get in the way of exactly the kind of development that the city desperately needs, but Glenwood Park made a powerful statement in Atlanta about the pent-up demand for walkable neighborhoods and desire for real community.

Dr. Chris Elisara, producer of the series for First+Main Media, told me that the series was born out of the desire to see CNU and other advocates for smart growth or new urbanism reach the masses with this message they’re ready for — but aren’t regularly hearing in a compelling way or with language that makes sense to them.

“There’s a lot of content out there, but people need to see it; connect with it,” he said. “They need to not only read the books and understand the theory, they need to see it in practice and hear about it from people living it.”

A chapter in a book with some facts about how our streets are unwalkable and unforgiving for pedestrians is good, but using video to illustrate the dangerous obstacles that a grandmother in Atlanta has to overcome just to get around her community hits our hearts on a whole different level.

“We saw it all firsthand. We were stuck in the traffic, stuck on those streets. Those pedestrians shots of people crossing those boulevards, it was terrible. That grandmother, Cookie, we filmed her on her walker walking across four lanes of traffic. There wasn’t a sidewalk so she’d walk into the street, then onto a grass berm, back into the street — all the way up to the light. Then she crossed at the light, and we interviewed her. That was sad.”

American Makeover is still very much in the works, with plans to visit 4-5 more cities in the coming months, but they’re looking for support from everyday folks and like-minded organizations to bring the project to fruition. Enter is a funding platform to directly link creative people, great ideas and ambitious endeavors with the scores of potential supporters and followers who could ‘kickstart’ such projects into reality. Kickstarter is powered by a unique all-or-nothing funding method where projects must be fully-funded or no money changes hands,” reads the description on the American Makeover press release.

American Makeover is trying to raise $15,000 to complete the project, and they’re a little more than halfway to their goal. They only have a few days (until May 8, 2010) to hit their mark and the way that Kickstarter works, they need to hit their target or they don’t get any of the money. Financial backers get a stake in the project depending on how much they give, ranging from a thank you in the credits up to an organization’s logo in each video and DVD packaging.

Will you consider helping them out with a donation to see this project through to the end? Smart Growth America is happy to support their efforts and we’re looking forward to using the final products to help communicate our message far and wide.