Following his acclaimed films about fonts and industrial design, Helvetica and Objectified, the final instalment in director Gary Hustwit’s design trilogy focuses on 21st-century cities. Urbanized was conceived in 2007 while Hustwit was on screening tour with Helvetica. ‘I didn’t start these films with a thesis or agenda; they’ve really been explorations into subjects I’m curious about,’ says Hustwit. ‘But I think it is critical [in Urbanized’s case] to share these ideas between cities and citizens, and get people more involved in envisioning what kind of city they want to live in.’
Urbanized is a whistlestop tour of major cities across the world examining the issues of urbanisation, encompassing the strategies that underpin transport, planning, public space, sanitation, sustainability, density and democracy in the built environment. The cinematography is slick, and the talking heads of the likes of Sir Norman Foster
, Rem Koolhaas
and Oscar Niemeyer
indicate the kind of gravitas that Hustwit is looking to assert through the film.
It opens in contemplative tone, with familiar images of everyday urban life from Rome, Mumbai, New York overdubbed with facts like ‘75 per cent of people will live in cities in 40 years’ time‘, or pointing out that the same number of people live in slums in Mumbai as live in the whole of London. This is delivered with a chirpy inquisitiveness that makes it clear that we are going to be looking at the problem from the top down, with an emphasis on positive change.
Urbanized neatly packages a city, a project and its effect on a population into around 14 brief features offering an overview of some of the successful ideas that have made a positive impact in various cities. In Bogota, for example, we get the former mayor explaining how cycle lanes and the bus system have allowed people who use them to move around the city more efficiently than those in cars, and from Manhattan we have the example of the High Line
, which thanks to Diller Scofidio + Renfro
is a great way of reinterpreting problematic, redundant infrastructure as enjoyable public space.
Urbanized also offers warnings about the development of modern cities, notably the north American model that is being transplanted to the burgeoning Eastern nations – Detroit, everyone’s favourite piece of dereliction pornography, is pondered over then identified as a place to implement technologies for retrofitting the creaking infrastructures that support cities. New Orleans is quite rightly identified as a mess where architects are doing the wrong thing with good intentions. Here the good work of understanding the city then looking for ways to implement change is found on the dirty streets, not in the offices of architects and planners.
Illustrating this street-up approach are market gardens in Detroit that are bringing back a sense of community to underpopulated neighbourhoods, and from New Orleans an initiative by artist Kandy Chang
, that simply gives a voice to residents on what they would like to see in their environment.
The whole tone of Urbanized has an admirable optimism. It is a showreel for architects, planners and urban designers who have faith in their abilities to make a positive difference – but also for the actions of individuals and communities that have decided to be proactive in making the city a better place. Yet the manner in which it is presented and the simplified way in which the case studies are presented ultimately amounts to something quite superficial. There is little that could be deemed revelatory and there is no critique of the factors that influence the perpetual development of the urban environment.
The fundamental problem with cities is that the velocity and trajectory of their population growth is exponentially faster than the speed at which problems that arise as a result are being dealt with. We are retrospectively solving the old model for urbanisation and presenting it as a solution for the future. Urbanized shies away from looking at just how bad things could get and instead offers individual case studies as tangible instances of an idealised city.
Hustwit does, however, demonstrate in his film that change manifests itself at every level of society: cities are defined by the perception and actions of individuals and in most cases, we have the skill and vision to make places better. If we didn’t believe that, then we might as well give up now.
Urbanized is available on DVD from 13 February