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Powerful film about land development in Austin, TX
JustCuriosity10 March 2007
This film premiered at Austin's SXSW Film Festival after its initial showing a few months ago at Sundance. The Unforeseen is one of the most cinematically beautiful documentaries to appear in a long time. There are stunning sequences of Barton Springs. One could certainly feel the influence of producers Robert Redford (particularly A River Runs Through It) and Terrence Malick. The nature shots were spectacular. The story that is told is particularly powerful to those who know and love Austin, but the broader conflicts between land development and environmental protection are universal and can be well-understood, although perhaps in a less personal way, by those who have never visited Austin.

While the film is clearly takes a pro-environmental stand, it is not a one-sided polemical. It presents a sympathetic and fair portrait of land developer Gary Bradley. It lets him tell his story without making him out to be a cruel unfeeling villain. It presents the history in a nuanced light that is often missing from documentary film-making. The film includes many conflicting voices and let's the audience make its own decisions. This type of film reflects the best standards of journalistic rather ideological Michael Moore-style manipulative film-making. It presents a complicated conflict of values in a way that both takes a stand without mocking those they disagree with. While some of the narrative seems a little self-righteous at times, and the title (taken from a poem used in the film) seems a little confusing and unclear, overall, the film is an excellent lesson in history and politics. I hope that it gets wide distribution, because it is a debate that the American public needs to engage over what trade offs Americans are willing to make between the environment and development. How much of our natural beauty are we willing to give up to accommodate modernity?
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Where's the big picture? Where's the plan?
Chris Knipp5 March 2008
'The Unforeseen' considers the issue of land developers as a source of eco-disaster. These are the guys who come in, acquire chunks of property, subdivide them, establish access to services, water, electricity, roads, and so on, and build houses for people to live in. As a documentary this one, for which Robert Redford is an executive producer (with cultish filmmaker Terrence Malick) and also a meandering talking head, provides a worthwhile new angle, with some pungent characters and some interesting personal stories. Unfortunately this lacks some of the scope and perspective of other ecology-related documentaries and seems to get sidetracked more than once. It has a certain built-in balance since one of its main characters is a failed developer whose tears evoke sympathy. But in view of the magnitude of the issues involved, it would seem that those who herald 'The Unforeseen' as superior to a film of the scope and urgency of Davis Guggenheim's 'An Inconvenient Truth' have gone a bit overboard.

Are developers bad? Environmentalists seem to think so. Some radicals even just set fire to a row of "green" McMansions under construction in the state of Washington. Frontier-oriented advocates of traditional free capitalism are emphatically in the opposite camp. To them, anything that enables people to exploit and own the land is good. Development is the essence of American free enterprise, a God-given right, what we're here for. Getting rich doing it is the essential American dream.. And so is owning your own little house with its garage and its lawn and its picket fence. Real estate people, and this film, give scant consideration to the issue of indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land.

What this film does consider is how developers habitually disregard considerations of proper land use and future degradation, particularly of water resources. Laura Dunn's researches focus on Austin, Texas, a partial childhood home of Robert Redford (he tells us), a college town, a cultural and music center (Willie Nelson speaks for that) and a community whose obvious liberal, preservationist tendencies led its citizens to lock horns with developers in the 1980's, when growth opportunities arose for the appealing, pleasant city and its environs. At the center of the story is a developer named Gary Bradley, whose 4,000-acre Circle C Ranch luxury housing development--conceived as far back as 1980--was set to derail Barton Springs, a large creek near the city linked to the major aquifer of the region. An anti-Bradley Austin website called "Make Gary Pay" calls him "a consummate hustler" and documents how for close to thirty years he has waged war on the city of Austin in cooperation with lobbyists and Good Old Boys of the Texas state legislature.

Central to the citizens' and environmentalists' objection to Bradley's project is its indifference to and damage to the regional aquifer. Wikipedia defines an aquifer as "an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, silt, or clay) from which groundwater can be usefully extracted using a water well." Describing residential land development early in the film, Bradley clearly sees big hunks of land simply as a blank canvas on which the creative real estate guy can draw a lovely new picture. He overlooks what's underneath that canvas--such as aquifers. Another factor the film reveals is that development exhausts energy sources and removes land from agricultural use.

Bradley's voice, rather surprisingly, tends to dominate the film. We learn how he met with consolidated civic objections to his project when it came up for city approval. But later through the efforts of a lobbyist, whose voice we hear, his face sinisterly hidden as he methodically assembles a model bomber plane, a state law protecting projects like Bradley's--allowing them to override new laws and be subject only to ones in effect when they began (it's called "grandfathering") was vetoed in the early 1990's by the then governor Ann Richards, who had a sympathetic ear for environmental activists. But in 1995 George W. Bush became governor and the law was reinstated. And then around the same time Bradley came a cropper through debts he couldn't pay off and lost everything. He fell afoul of the late 1980's-early1990's loan company collapses. His attempt to file bankruptcy was finally defeated just a couple of years ago--right when his mother died, he tells the camera, tears streaming down his face. In fact, he's still a player and a thorn in the side of Austin.

What's the lesson of all this? That real estate developers are foolish? Bradley admits in an audio of the bankruptcy trial that he was miserable at accounting. But not all developers are, though they may be prone to grandiosity--and an excessive sense of entitlement. As we see, they think they should be compensated when new laws lessen the profits they originally expected from a given piece of land. They don't all try to launch a major development right in the midst of a community as liberal and green-activist as Austin, Texas.

Okay, if putting a self-serving and rapacious capitalist in charge of land development, though American as apple pie, is not a foresighted approach, what are the alternatives? Unfortunately Dunn's film doesn't provide strong enough voices in this area. We get to see concerted action of citizens both for and against development: the protectionists are impassioned; the free enterprise/property rights advocates are strident flag-wavers. But the voices for an alternative are feeble. Redford talks about how things were nicer in the past, quieter, more wholesome. 'Rolling Stone' essayist William Greider refers to the idea of reworking existing housing to accommodate new populations as a better way, but the idea's too vague. Nor does the Wendell Berry poem, "The Unforeseen" contribute more than a ringing tone of ruefulness. What we need is analysis, scope, and plans.
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"Keep Austin Weird" -- The Story Behind the Slogan
bburns5 April 2008
During the early 1990's--my college years--Austin and the rest of Texas were not all that far apart politically. Both were generally moderate and bipartisan. Texas had a governor from the liberal wing of the Democratic party (Ann Richards), and Austin had a moderately conservative mayor (Lee Cooke) and city council. But in 1992, things began to change when developer Gary Bradley with the backing of Freeport-McMoran announced plans to build subdivisions over the Edwards Aquifer, which feeds Barton Springs in South Austin and is the source of most of the potable water for Austin, San Antonio, and their suburbs and exurbs. The citizens of Austin rose up and passed the Save Our Springs (S.O.S.) ordinance, which would have curbed the development of these subdivisions, which caused great controversy statewide. "The Unforeseen" is a documentary showing what led up to the controversy and its aftermath.

"The Unforeseen" begins and ends with Gary Bradley, the developer at the heart of the controversy. He grew up in West Texas, a land of droughts and tornadoes, where nature is seen not as a treasure to be protected, but as an enemy to be overcome. He mentions that he enrolled at the University of Texas in 1972, and the movie shows archival footage of Austin during that time, when it was still mostly a college town. Back then, Austin was known as a place where you could call yourself a left-wing hippie *AND* a redneck at the same time (of course Willie Nelson is briefly interviewed).

By 1980, Bradley was a successful developer with dreams of building a self-sufficient subdivision in Southwest Austin called Circle C Ranch. In 1990, he had just won approval from the city to start building, when the S&L collapse hit, sending the country into recession and putting the brakes on the funding for the project. Eventually, though, he was bailed out by Freeport-McMoran, but by this time, the citizens of Austin were in near-unison in their opposition to the project. Footage is shown of the contentious city council meeting where Freeport CEO (and non-Austinite) Jim Bob Moffett arrogantly declares "I know more about Barton Springs than anyone in this room!" In 1992, Austin overwhelmingly passed the S.O.S. initiative to limit development around Barton Creek and over the Edwards Aquifer. This led to incredible resentment among landowners in the outlying areas because it led to the devaluation of their properties. Eventually they hired a lobbyist (whose name I sadly can't remember from the film) to craft Senate Bill 1704, which said that development only has to follow the rules that were in place at the time it was approved, thus effectively nullifying the S.O.S. ordinance. The bill had strong support from pretty much everywhere in Texas outside the city limits of Austin, but Governor Ann Richards vetoed it anyway. In 1994, she was defeated by George W. Bush, who signed SB 1704 into law. It is not shown in the movie, but ever since, the Republicans in the Texas Legislature have never tired of trying to punish Austin for being unlike the rest of the State, and Austin adopted the unofficial motto "Keep Austin Weird" to show our refusal to be homogenized.

I thought the film was fairly good. Director Laura Dunn tries to see all sides of the issue. She makes sure that she gives full voice to the opponents of S.O.S. instead of just a straw-man argument. Gary Bradley is the main interviewee, and he comes off as sympathetic and humble (the fight over Circle C forced him into bankruptcy), but not apologetic. Occasionally, he flashes anger. In one spot, he shouts "What the hell do you know about being a Texan, Berkeley lawyer Bill Bunch?" (Bunch is the guy behind the S.O.S. ordinance, and although he may have gone to school in California, his accent betrays that he grew up here.) However, there is no doubt where her sympathies lie when she interviews the lobbyist behind SB 1704. His face is rarely shown. Instead it shows his hands building model warplanes while he goes on about how backwards Austin is by placing environmental issues ahead of property rights.

However, I do think that the movie is quite flawed. Most of the environmentalists interviewed are new-agers who talk about Barton Springs being somehow sacred (it's very special, but ultimately it's still just a swimming pool), or hippies who reject the American work ethic. And entirely too much screen time is given to Robert Redford, a washed-up semi-talented actor-director, who is not as profound as he thinks he is. And the bit at the end where unchecked growth is compared to cancer is a bit much.

Ultimately, the films greatest strengths are interviews with the late Gov. Richards and William Greider--who both make strong pro-environmental arguments based on fact rather than sentiment--and a portrait of a family recently arrived in Hutto (an Austin exurb): They are excited to be living in a growing community, yet they hope that it doesn't get crowded and bemoan the shortage of potable water. They are happy to be living in a small town far from the city, yet whine about the long distance to the nearest Wal-Mart. Unfortunately, these two great strengths are given short shrift. I think the film would have been better if it had been more fact-oriented and had talked more about our contradictory desires as humans to be connected to the conveniences of cities, but have the isolation of the countryside. Instead we have a paean to a South Austin swimming pool, and the community that thought it was important enough to protect from suburban sprawl and big money. 7 out of 10.
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Short- and Long-Term Gratification.
rmax30482316 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This documentary centers around the commercial development of the land around Austin, Texas, particularly Barton Springs, a natural spring that locals have used for recreation for years. The future of the aquifer beneath, which waters cities like San Antonio as well as Austin, is also problematic. Whence the water for the sprinklers on the golf course? Where does the weed killer from all those lawns settle?

We hear the guy, Gary Bradley, who sounds reasonable enough, nobody's notion of a greedy, reckless money monger, who bought up the land and intended to put a planned housing development on it -- almost identical new houses, golf course, a green belt right out of Lewis Mumford, and the rest. It was opposed by Austin's considerable community of activists and was stymied -- after Bradley had put money "up front" for sewers and some infrastructure -- stymied by limitations on the number of houses he could build on the land. He then teamed up with a notorious mining outfit that hired a lobbyist. The result, however one wants to twist it, was a victory for the developers. There is a Wal-Mart Supercenter in their future.

"Land developer." That's an interesting concept. A land developer is someone like Bradley who buys a great area of land then chops it up into smaller parcels and sells them at a profit. In that sense, a butcher is a "cow developer." Robert Redford reminisces about the summers he spent at Barton Springs as a boy. Willie Nelson is around to make a few comments. Bradley is articulate and intelligent and frustrated. The lobbyist is smooth and patient, musing on his work as he paints and builds model warplanes. But the most articulate commentator is a redneck farmer whose corn field are disappearing, engulfed by urban sprawl. "All houses," he says. "Ain't no more farms. Farmin' is out. . . . What they gonna eat when there's no more farms? That's what I want to know." He echoes the Reverend Thomas Malthus who saw this dilemma coming two hundred years ago.

Malthus is thought of as discredited because his predictions didn't materialize as soon as expected. (The industrial revolution came as a surprise.) But the proposition remains the same. "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man" The environmentalists we see, some of whom sound a little kooky, have a point when they argue that developers think in terms of "cost" and others think of "value." We can measure and, to some extent, like Bradley, predict how many dollars we may make in profit or lose by taking the wrong chance. But one of the environmentalists states that she is turned off by golf courses because they are too perfect, too manicured, an artifact, but not God's artifact. What is the dollar value of, say, the Grand Canyon? Why not build forests of motels, souvenir shops, and fast food places along both its rims? And lush gated communities at the Sonoran bottom? The value may be completely lost, sold down the river, but think of the profit.

The environmentalists will lose in the long run if things don't change dramatically -- and soon. In the last forty years the population of the United States has grown from 200M to more than 320M. The earth's population in 1950 was about 2B. Today it's more than 6B. By 2050 it will approach 12B. It's a familiar trajectory to anyone who's studied population irruptions and the crashes that follow, yet the Chinese seem to be the only nation on earth that recognizes the problem, let alone tries to do anything about it. I said "soon" before because there is a lag time of about two generations between doing something about the problem and realizing the effect. In other words, if you wait until the dimensions of the problem are self evident, it may be too late.

The film is slanted towards this point of view without attacking the explosion of human beings directly. I'm not sure the producers themselves, including Robert Redford, understand where the root of the problem lies. Making money the way Gary Bradley has is, as Redford points out more than once, making short-term profits at the expense of long-term values. But he also notes that the problem goes beyond Barton Springs. The point is not merely to save the springs and the Austin countryside from developers. It's that we must save the earth from ourselves.

There's a challenge for environmentalists and developers both, and neither seems ready to meet it. It's not always easy to interpret Malthus. ("Improper arts to prevent the consequences of irregular connections" may be a reference to abortion.) He suggested that if we didn't check our appetites for reproduction, nature would, in the form of "vice" and "misery." Vice, left undefined, probably means crime. Misery I think most ethologists would define as stress-related disorders like ulcers or the complete breakdown of social organization, like that found in Calhoun's "behavioral sinks." Judging from this movie, the way it circumscribes itself, our capacity for over-reproduction is only exceeded by our capacity for denial. Pretty gloomy stuff. I guess that's why Malthus's notion is called the dismal theorem.
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A Good but Overblown Documentary
johnpetersca25 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
For six months last year I worked in Austin, Texas. There were many things I didn't understand about the place. It has a vibrant live music scene and a semi-official slogan of "Keep Austin Weird" but I found it packed with freeways, office parks, and housing developments with no more than occasional patches of trees and grass. Many of the local people were very nice but, when you got to know them, defensive and depressed. Seeing The Unforeseen helps me to understand why.

The first part of the movie shows an initially successful community effort to stop a large upscale housing development that would destroy Barton Springs, an aquifer and natural pool. There are beautiful shots of it from the 1980s and 90s, combined with documentary footage of meetings and hearings about development permits. Unlike the villains in Michael Moore movies, developers and purchasers of the suburban homes are allowed to speak for themselves. They emerge as sympathetic people caught in a trap that makes a fetish of growth and home ownership regardless of their consequences.

Things change in Austin when George Bush becomes governor of Texas in 1995. His predecessor, Ann Richards, vetoed a pro-development measure that would have overridden environmental decisions made by the Austin City Council. Bush approves the bill with his now familiar smirk. The state legislature makes community action irrelevant and in a few years Barton Springs becomes a polluted ditch.

What's best about the film is its refusal to provide easy answers. Austin, like Dallas and Houston, has become a boom town, especially for makers of computer software. People come to Austin from all over the world and many of them make good money. They want to buy houses. Their employers want office space. It's inevitable that aggressive entrepreneurs will recognize opportunities and do everything they can to promote development. A question that the movie implicitly asks but does not directly answer is exactly what, under these circumstances, should be done.

Perhaps the answers remain unstated because they are hard for participants in a consumer society to accept. They may require a standard of living that places fewer conveniences at our fingertips, dwelling in apartment buildings rather than single-family homes, and riding municipal buses rather than cool cars. Most of all, social stability and preservation of the natural environment would need to be given higher priorities than economic opportunity and growth.

The biggest problem with The Unforeseen is its multiplicity of themes. First and foremost is the conflict between preservation of the natural environment and economic growth. Pictures of beautiful nature support this theme and are well executed. However, footage of a white-coated physician talking about blood capillaries and cancer cells results more in confusing similes than compelling metaphors. The recitation of a Wendell Berry poem about unforeseen consequences is nicely spoken but hardly relevant – what happened to Barton Springs was foreseen. A shorter, simpler film might have better made its points.
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How human greed can easily destroy the world around us.
TxMike21 October 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I coincidentally live in a section of Texas that is heavily wooded, mostly prominently with tall, old-growth Pine trees. In the 22 years I have lived here I shudder a bit each time I witness a plot of lend being clear-cut to make yet another "subdivision" or "business park", wondering about the mentality that drives the people behind these developments.

This film, "The Unforeseen", helps answer that question, delving into the mind of Texas Developer Gary Bradley.

Gary Bradley grew up far from the big city, in a rural farming community, but always knew he wanted to make something more of himself. He ended up at the University and later in Austin as a developer. He was the kind of developer who had the big plans, but by his own admission was lousy with the accounting. As a result he and his company went bankrupt and he ended up in jail. His story is folded into the broader story of how two segments of society can be at odds.

The tragedy that ensued was the spoiling of Barton Creek, an almost religious location for many on the one side that wants to preserve nature. The other side are all those who relish the jobs and boost to their economy that "development" brings.

The conservation group succeeded in convincing Texas that development of an area immediately upstream of Barton Creek would spoil the area, and one step in the process was to have then governor Ann Richards veto a bill that would have "grandfathered" zoning and construction regulations, which would have permitted development under old rules, even if modern technology shows that it would do undue harm. But when good old liberal, business partner George Bush got elected, the bill was re-introduced and this time Bush signed it, signaling the gradual death of Barton Creek. Ironcally the same Bush who initiated the unwise war in Iraq.

What this movie goes to show is how one incompetent person (in this case George Bush) can undo and override the efforts of untold numbers of good-intentioned people.

Robert Redford was a producer for this film, and he is shown in it. It is interesting that he said he learned to swim in Barton Creek when he was 6 years old.

Good film, but hard to watch as it clearly shows the human stupidity at work.
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The Unforeseen
ed-georganna25 February 2008
Riveting narrative of a classic confrontation between land developers and the environmental community in Austin, Texas. At issue is the economic development of land in close proximity to Barton Springs, a naturally spring-fed body of water that has been a treasure in the Austin community for generations dating back to the 18th century. Land developer, Gary Bradley, argues for his right to pursue the American dream at the expense of degrading Barton Springs which has inestimable value to the community. Individual property rights are in conflict with community rights to an invaluable natural asset. Dunn presents a balanced view on both sides of this debate with uncommon sensitivity to the people, the community and the natural environment. The pageantry of this narrative is displayed with breathtaking cinematography and motion graphics that highlight Dunn's unique contribution to the world of documentary film.
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"The Unforeseen" is worth seeing, a beautiful film that is poetic and mesmerizing and at the heart very sad, you feel a great loss watching this very personal film.
kbaxters9 November 2007
I just saw "The Unforeseen" yesterday in Los Angeles at the AFI film festival. It is worth seeing, not preachy but really makes you understand how developers have such different interests(money)than you and I do. What happened in Austin has happened everywhere and I think the best message from the film is that we cannot go back and change the damage done but it is clearly time to take a mature look going forward in the future at each of our responsibility and stewardship for the land and nature, we must find a balance. Laura Dunn made a beautiful film that is poetic and mesmerizing and at the heart very sad, you feel a great loss watching this very personal film.
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imxo20 May 2008
Whether you support unfettered property rights on the one hand or a government's exercise of power to defend the common good on the other hand, this film will let you down. On the left, it's often unenlightening clap trap, especially when you notice the horribly sentimental background music. On the right, it points out the selfishness of those claiming to be the real Americans when they are mostly just "real loud" Americans. Someone should tell those folks that common sense says you don't shite where you eat, but as long as they're taking cash to the bank they'll apparently just do their business wherever they please. These people probably know that everything has consequences, but they plan for the other guy to bear those consequences, a guaranteed formula for social meltdown.

The only admirable figures in the film were a wizened old farmer and a young boy in a new suburb. Those two seemed to possess a clarity of thought singularly missing from the property developers on one side and the ecological "Nimbys" on the other. It was nice, though, to see the late Texas governor Ann Richards again, certainly a far more lucid politician than the person who replaced her.

I think neither side was well depicted in this film of the ongoing battle between personal vs. social, private vs. public. Ultimately, The Unforeseen is, unfortunately, a lightweight film on a very serious subject.
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Disorganized information patched up together, confused of what is it trying to say
karlcchen10 August 2009
What's the movie trying to say, what's the issue it trying g to raise? If you know nothing about the subject/place and just watch this movie, you will never know. Just like another engineer finish another Operational Manual - only good for people only know how to operate the machine.

The movie should be clear and self-sufficient for people know nothing about the current issue(s) so people know what it is trying to say.

This movie is only good for people already know about the issue and want to get more information.

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As a film, not great at all.
sb-2912 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
As one who enjoys a good documentary and also passionate about the fact that we're heading for eco-disaster, I was kind of looking forward to watching this movie.

Unfortunately, the only thing I got out of it was that Austin seems like a nice place to visit or live (thus attracting more people and more development), and that the Springs in question were very attractive, and worth preserving.

But the movie just goes on for hours about a subject which could be summed up in a 15 minute news article.

Also, this stuff is what we should have been watching in the 80's. Its too late for this now. We have more important stuff to worry about, like where the refugees from the frozen, scorched, and flooded parts of the world are going to live. And what we're gonna eat when we have 10 billion people.

Geez, its human survival we're fighting for, not just a pretty hot spring !!! Perspective please !!

I wanna see James Cameron or Roland Emmerich making something about how, just before the world was about to end, everyone got off their asses and did something, and we all lived happily ever after.

-------------- The above was written after about the first half of the movie when I was wondering if I was alone in thinking the movie sucked.

Now I've completed the movie, my opinion has degraded further. There was a small improvement, but the ending was just bizarre !

Ending on the developer going out of business ?? What point is the film trying to make?

And then more touching music and poetry. Give me a break.

I would not recommend this movie to anyone. Just read these reviews then watch Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's latest talk on TED, A Crude Awakening, 11th Hour etc. etc. oh and "The Day After Tomorrow" !!
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Taking on the American Dream
enviromac12 July 2007
I saw this film previewed on PBS' NOW. It is just wonderful that someone has done a film about this issue. I love that the director took the time to learn about alternative views. This type of film making has the possibility of bringing people together to work on consensus.

In an interview with the Austinist, Laura Dunn states:

Unfortunately, the "American Dream" has become owning a house with a yard and a fence around it. And these days, unfortunately, that house has to be 2300 square feet, and you have to have a green lawn, and there are all these connotations and associations that are built into the American Dream that--given where we are in terms of our environment...are totally at odds with a sustainable future.

We desperately need to have this film screened in Sacramento, California. The pressures we face from development are enormous. Does anyone know who I can contact about this?
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