Urbanized, the third film in Gary Hustwit’s trilogy on design, explores how and why cities take the forms they do through a crash course in all the elements of city life that concern planners, architects, politicians, and activists: housing, transportation, growth, crime, and sanitation.
With cities on five continents as exemplars and a collection of experts just as diverse, Hustwit defines the urban experience as a global phenomenon, exhibiting problems so great that they require global efforts to find solutions. Working with a much broader topic than either Helvetica, the 2007 film on the ubiquitous typeface, and Objectified (2009), on industrial design, the director offers a welter of history, statistics, examples, and perspectives, but refrains from sanctioning any particular view or course of action.
A “Director’s Statement” included in the DVD case glosses this approach to filmmaking. “I’ve always felt that a less-rigid narrative structure in documentaries engages viewers and challenges them to form their own opinions about the subject matter,” Hustwit writes. Printed on the inside of a single-fold sheet bearing only a portion of the film’s title (Urb), as if in acknowledgement that Urbanized captures only a part of its grand topic, the statement summarizes how the documentary came together over the course of several years.
After a brief opening sequence combines shots of various cities around the globe with voiceovers from experts who establish population centers as the locus for social, commercial, environmental, and personal transformation, Urbanized presents a series of contemporary and historical urban interventions.
Some of the most striking are from South America. At the turn of the millennium, Bogotá, Colombia, mayor Enrique Peñalosa addressed the city’s chronic traffic congestion by building a rapid transit system that combines the best features of bus and subway systems. TransMilenio deploys a fleet of buses that travel in designated street lanes free of car traffic and exchange passengers at stops that function like subway platforms. A series of sliding doors at stops match up with similar portals on the buses, enabling the rapid exit and entrance of riders. The system thus has the speed and efficiency of a subway without the need for expensive subterranean railway lines and stations. And as the city grows, stops can be relocated and routes altered in response to changing traffic patterns.
Architect Alejandro Aravena narrates an instance of “participatory design” in Santiago, Chile, carried out in 2010 by the architectural firm Elemental. In an experiment in how the city might accommodate migrants who would otherwise end up inhabiting slums, Elemental created a low-cost housing development by building incomplete dwellings. Each house is the same basic shell, but home owners, who are involved in the process from the beginning, decide what components they want installed by Elemental before they take occupancy (e.g., a bathtub or a water heater; a finished tile floor or subflooring), and what they will add themselves later, when they can afford it.
Hustwit also details projects that involve little money or resources. In 2011 a neighborhood in Brighton, England, took part in a small-scale, low-tech experiment in conserving energy. Residents of Tidy Street were given meters so they could track their electrical usage, which they logged on a website devoted to the project. The researchers leading the effort collated data, then chalked a graph of consumption on the street itself, along with average electricity use for all of Brighton. Participation in the project and the public display of residents’ energy habits were enough to affect behavior. After three weeks, electricity use on Tidy Street dropped 15 percent.
Engaging in what she calls “a love child of urban planning and street art”, New Orleans public artist Candy Chang places vinyl stickers and a pen on buildings abandoned after hurricane Katrina, inviting passersby to finish the sentence “I wish this was ..” Among the answers: “Owned by someone who cared”, “A grocery! With fresh produce and pumpkin pie”, “A pasture.”
The DVD extras show how expertly Hustwit has edited Urbanized to balance hopeful developments with sobering statistics. In the film proper, African Centre for Cities Director Edgar Pieterse confesses that “It’s very easy to get incredibly pessimistic and dark about the just the prospects looking forward” in the face of the projected doubling of urban populations in the next few decades. He nevertheless allows that with effective innovations, “change happens really quickly”.
Additional interview footage offers more provocative examples and insights, but also so tips toward the pessimism Pieterse cites that you wonder if the director isn’t using the bonus materials to make another statement about his documentary practice. Ricky Burdett, director of LSE Cities / Urban Age—fond of reciting statistics in Urbanized—bludgeons with facts and figures to the point of fatigue and disinterest, while opposing opinions about San Francisco expressed by several other experts suggests that agreement among urban planners is rare. A mesmerizing chapter on the demolition of the final building of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green public housing project captures a wrecking ball slowing breaking the structure down. No humans appear in any of the shots; it’s as if the deserted city is consuming itself.
Extras aside, Urbanized, for all its frank assessments and gloomy predictions, generates a kind of exhilaration. Practitioners of city planning like Pieterse and Peñalosa can’t suppress their love of the urban experience—the heights and the depths, the successes and the failures. They don’t just describe the vitality that characterizes city life, they also embody it, and their guarded enthusiasm is finally infectious.