City planning doc from director Gary Hustwit


Rating UrbanizedUrbanizedUrbanizedUrbanized

Directed by Gary Hustwit.

Note: Urbanized will premiere on May 26th at Kino Svĕtozor as part of Prague’s reSITE Festival, which is taking a look at the city’s urban development; click here for more on reSITE.

In his previous documentaries, director Gary Hustwit has shed some fascinating light on things we encounter on a daily basis but rarely think twice about: Helvetica (2007) took a look at the ubiquitous font type, and Objectified (2009) focused on the design and packaging of everyday objects and how they affect us.

In Urbanized, Hustwit turns his gaze to urban planning, taking a look at a range of cities across North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. We see how ideas behind urban planning have changed over the years, particularly in North America, where the automotive revolution led to suburban districts, and how contemporary ideas are shaping the future of our cities.

Urbanized is not the definitive city planning movie, nor does it really try to be; while the initial segments tend to look at the process of urban planning, and how it has shaped and is shaping major cities, later scenes focus more on the thematic aspect of the documentary: that governments and architects cannot successfully design a city without the input of the city’s inhabitants.

As populations surge, concentrating more and more in urban areas, city planning is taking on enormous responsibility. Traffic is a major concern; in Bogotá, bike lanes are being paved while cars drive in mud and on overcrowded highways. Living conditions are also vital; in Santiago, low-cost housing is being erected in the same area as the slums, recognizing that there’s a reason the slums exist where they do.

Urbanized looks at cities that have done or are doing right, but also ones that have done it wrong: the sprawling open spaces of Brasília and Phoenix are cited as examples of cities that have been designed according to particular ideologies that have lost favor, and are now entirely impractical for their inhabitants.

The film’s second half generally focuses on initiatives taken by residents to improve their living environment. In New York, an abandoned railway line has been converted into a walkway. In Detroit (the empty, Omega Man-like city is depicted in a stunning shot from a moving el train), suburban residents have started their own community farming.

Of Hustwit’s work, Helvetica was the most focused and, I think, the best. Objectified and Urbanized look at much more sprawling subjects and ideas, and it’s harder to do them justice in the limited span of a documentary feature.

But the most important aspect of Urbanized is how it gets us to think about the planning of our own cities. We cannot walk or drive down the street without seeing construction, reconstruction, blueprints for the ever-changing city we live in. But who decides what will go where, and what is their motivation? Have you ever walked by a construction site, and known exactly what should go in that space?

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