John Simmerman is a long time Strong Towns member and the founder of Active Towns, a non-profit initiative focussed on profiling the people, places and programs that promote and sustain a "culture of activity."
He is in the process of creating a feature-length documentary following the progress of the growing nationwide movement to dramatically increase the number of people riding bikes over the next three years. It's called Making the Big Jump and it will focus on ten neighborhoods across the country that are part of People for Bikes' "Big Jump" Project, from South Memphis to Austin's Central Core. The initiative aims to double or triple bike ridership in these neighborhoods, and hopes to prove that when cities make smart changes, more people ride bikes, and communities become better places to live, work and play.
I had the chance to connect with John Simmerman this week to hear about how his project launch is going and what his hopes are for this film.
Rachel: What inspired you to create this documentary?
John: It kind of goes back to this whole concept of wanting to do a better job of story telling and trying to […] deal with the resistance that comes up whenever any sort of change comes about. Early on when I first launched the Active Towns tour and I was traveling all the country, one of the things Chuck Marohn asked me is “What are you doing this for?” And I said, “I’m not really sure at this point, but I know there’s a story to be told.”
The early stages of traveling to these places with what I call a “culture of activity” were a lot of photography. After about two years of doing that, racking up some 100+ cities from across the country and prior to going to Europe for a month, it hit me that I have to find a more active medium than still photography and the written word. I have nothing against those media, but I’m trying to tell the story of physical activity and I was doing it in this stationary format. […] I wanted to learn how to be a more effective storyteller.
I had a chance to really get to know Gracen Johnson during our very first Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis [in 2014]. She had just produced the first Curbside Chat video trailer. I tagged along with her to this Open Streets event and was inspired by what she was doing. For somebody who had 25+ years of work in public health and advocating for the built environment to support active living, I said “This old dog can learn some new tricks.”
Specifically the idea for Making the Big Jump came from my immersion in this sort of work in Austin. […] I was here and documenting this stuff, and the lightning bolt struck. [...] I made a proposal to People for Bikes to make a feature length documentary following the 10 cities in their Big Jump initiative and trying to capture the spirit of how they go about dealing with their challenges and celebrating their successes.
Rachel: Where will you be filming this documentary?
John: The 10 cities that are part of the Big Jump Project will provide the core of the film, but there’s also energy and stories happening in so many other places across the city… I’ll also capture those along the way.
Rachel: Who are you working with on this film?
John: Mostly it’s me doing the lion’s share of lifting at this stage. I’d love to be able to raise enough money to bring on an entire team; there’s only so much one person can do. You take any given beautiful weekend in the spring or fall, and there could be multiple cities having an event that would be good to capture. But with just me, I can’t be in more than one place at any given time.
Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms has agreed to help me out in Queens when he has the ability to do it. I’m cool with keeping it small and nimble. My style is, I do a lot of stuff with handheld cameras and I do a lot of filming while I’m on the bike.
Rachel: Do you do the editing and post-production as well?
John: When I taught myself how to become a filmmaker it was everything: from the preplanning of a shoot to the final editing and distribution. […] I quickly ran out of really easily accessible music. So I even taught myself how to mix my own songs using Apple Loops.
Rachel: What sorts of footage are you planning to capture in this film? What will be the focus?
John: I don’t want this to be a story about data and process and community meetings. […] Ultimately what’s going to be interesting is the stories that emerge. It’s going to rely on images that have activity in them, interviews of people who are expressing some passion or frustration or gratitude for things that are happening in their cities.
Often, [in this field] we’re sending and broadcasting messages out that just reinforce our own view of life. This is one of the challenges we have in a fragmented and polarized world. […]
If we can tell stories that are universal, like being able to walk or bike safely to a school , a library, a grocery store — who wouldn’t support that? That’s one of the reasons I want to be able to do this in such a way that I’m not just parroting the numbers (although the numbers will be in there).
Rachel: When are you aiming to have the film finished? How long will the project take?
John: This is a 3-4 year process. The goal is also to produce short-form video and snippets from the road as I go, so there’ll be a constant stream that is part of the Active Towns Vimeo channel and social media feeds that will provide glimpses of what’s happening.
One of the things I don’t want to have happen is if there’s a really important message that needs to be told and celebrated today, we don’t want to wait 3-4 years to see it. [...] When I see stuff like that, I’m not just going to sit on it. I’ll get it out there in a digestible, 3-7 minute format.
Rachel: That sounds like a great way for people to keep up with what you're doing. How can people support your work now?
John: The two biggest areas of support are raising funds and being able to spread the word. At the end of the day, if this is still within my sphere of influence and our echo chamber of city planners and architects and urbanists and bike/ped advocates, yeah I’ll be able to produce a cute little thing that everyone will think is nice…but really this has to make it outside. Please share this with your family and friends, especially those outside our echo chamber.
I’m also going to need help with homestays as I’m traveling around the country to be able to keep costs down so I don’t have to do hotels at each location. Donations of airline miles [is another way to help]. Also, suggestions: If somebody knows of a community doing something extraordinary to really facilitate an all ages and abilities network that’s not one of my target cities, let me know and I’ll see if I can link it into one of the other trips.
Learn more about this film and contribute to the IndieGoGo campaign. The project is aiming to raise $5,000 by the end of September. Any donations you can offer will help make it happen!
Interview edited for clarity and length. Top photo source: Active Towns Facebook page.