One of the foundations that Urbanized, Gary Hustwit’s documentary on city planning, establishes early on is that cities represent “the physical manifestation of big ideas”. On February 2nd 2012, the Little Theater in Rochester, New York embodies the burgeoning idea that social awareness often begins with simple curiosity. The screening of the Hustwit film followed by a panel of notable professionals and activists as part of a midyear preview to Rochester’s Greentopia festival, held annually in August.
The film and subsequent panel offer an interesting premise of scope; tonight’s speakers use the film’s creative solutions from Tokyo to Rhode Island as a lens to approach issues in our own city on the Genesee River, which I (attempt to) make applicable to you, the reader in Anytown, Anyplace.
There is little ceremony before the film. A surprisingly diverse audience filters into the understated theater, past the old timey box office into a packed house viewing room. The theater shows no vacancy, a rare sight that megaplex theaters have sold their soul for, all without 3D glasses or Johnny Depp in tights. Viewing a film at an independent theater still feels organic; a throwback to when movies were a community event and a room full of strangers seems the most fitting venue. Of course, this in itself exemplifies one of the main components of the film that sneak up on you when watching. Cities need those landmarks where culture and community are uniquely and concertedly developed.
During the screening, the audience meets with both the stark realities accompanying the epidemic of urban growth and the ingenuity of decision makers and anonymous citizens alike. Dispersed throughout the film’s early segment are some eye opening statistics worth repackaging, statistics that point towards the monumental and potentially balance-shattering growth of cities. In 40 years, for example, while trends suggest that 70 percent of the world’s population will reside within city limits, the city limits themselves are not in a position to change. This means tighter living spaces, scarcer resources and, unless handled properly, abysmal living conditions. To put this in perspective, Urbanized offers this staggering mental imagery: By 2050 Mumbai, India’s most populous city, will be the world’s largest, so large that the area of Mumbai labeled “slums” will equal the entirety of New York and London combined. This poses an unfathomable mass of problems for city planners and activists.
As cities are emergent systems, so much more than a sum of their parts, so too Urbanized implements creativity on every level. One particularly effective scene highlights the music of Kristian Dunn and his band El Ten Eleven, who provide the soundtrack to the film, while shifting from seemingly stock footage of people using their respective cities. El Ten Eleven’s music is as alive and energetic as a walk through a metropolitan intersection. Resonating here is the idea that all around the world, people are “the same walking little animal”.
After the screening, the panel takes the stage, seated at five high chairs present right below the borders of the screen the entire night. Occupying those chairs now are five Rochester professionals who in their diversity emphasize that city planning is the result of many fields. They are: moderator Julie Philipp, presiding over Joni Monroe of the Rochester Regional Community Design Center, Michael Philipson of Garden Aerial and Greentopia, Rich Perrin of the Genesee Transportation Council, Wayne Goodman of the Landmark Society and Mike Governale of Reconnect Rochester. Participants like Perrin and Monroe make perfect sense; what is a committee on design without representation by those actively involved in architecture? However, the expertise of other panel members, like Philipson and Governale, who both work in marketing, are not as easily equated with the charts and zoning laws one associates with urban planning.
At times, the discussion evokes genuine empathy for those public officials on stage and in attendance, as anonymous audience members berate the nonexistent construction of a mythical 100 million dollar interchange, for example. The film illustrates several problems of bureaucracy and logistics of large scale urban planning that the panel provides living proof of. Often times, miscommunication and a lack of a cohesive plan with public support or understanding stand in the way of well-intended projects that would do wonders for the population.
Then there are the big ideas; the ways design can influence the intellectual landscape of a city. One of the most universal discussions arising from the panel is the idea of “design for creativity.” Perrin notes that a successful city’s “future is in creativity. We need to have a design that precedes it.” Here in the Little Theater, this idea of designing for the best possible future is on display. The Greentopia Festival and this screening in particular are more about providing space for creative thought than providing answers.
Currently, Rochester faces the same trials the recession has depressed onto the rest of the country, punctuated by the bankruptcy of Kodak, Rochester’s flagship company and once largest employer. At crossroads such as this, events like Greentopia and films like Urbanized stoke public involvement and curiosity. Most impressive concerning tonight’s screening is undeniably the size and range of the audience, proving that Rochester, like most cities, already possesses the foundation for public involvement. By investing in the ideas of a city’s population, issues of design and their social implications can be truly changed. To quote panel member Perrin, the best ideas are “transformational. [They] recognize what the city is supposed to be”.