FILM: Urbanization

‘Urbanized’ directed by Gary Hustwit, 2011

Reviewed by Michael Owens | 25 June 2012

Urbanized is the cinematic delight one might expect of Gary Hustwit, the director of this, the third in a trilogy of studies in design, following Helvetica (modernism in a typeface), and Objectified (industrial and product design). Each deals with a dimension of design’s intimate relationship daily life. Here, we look at design interventions in cities through the eyes of their inhabitants.

Urbanized is a review of how urban design practice is responding to the global forces driving city development. Ricky Burdett provides the opening: a graphic commentary about the enormity of the shift in human circumstances that is unfolding in our lifetime. Soon we join a history trip of city planning and development, complete a world tour of mega cities, and meet a star cast of urban practitioners of Rem Koolhaas, Jan Gehl, Foster and more. On the way, we meet Enrique Peñalosa, the Mayor of Bogota, New York’s City Planner, and a kaleidoscope of the world’s citizens. Are you breathless yet?

Hustwit’s subjects make the case for a collaborative form of urban design in which citizens make cities: where they don’t cities fail. Peñalosa pedals along Bogota’s high grade cycle routes next to the unmade road for cars, telling us this is democracy in action; Stuttgart’s green campaigners clash with police as they attempt to halt the High Speed Rail Plan; migrants choose which between the bathtub and the water heater in the cost-constrained development of their social housing. The voice for the suburbs is given to a weighty man telling us he likes his swimming pool; we are invited to note that he evidently doesn’t make daily vigorous use of it.

Herein lies the rub. The film takes political positions through its subjects; it polemicises and we consume. I highly recommend the documentary because it is provocative and moreover it is beautiful. However, for the genre to work, the provocations demand a response, so here’s my opening contribution to the discussion it demands.

First, the alluring cinematography runs the risk of reducing its subjects to urban design as travelogue. We tend to see the poor and dispossessed of the world’s cities in a kind of slum dog millionaire hyper-reality. Second, by putting urban design at the heart of the discourse, the film leads us to believe that professional and technical interventions can resolve deep structural economic, social and political issues. Third, the film advocates for a compact, sustainable urbanism against urban sprawl. For another view, read Robert Bruegmann’s brilliant ‘Sprawl: A Compact History’ (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Watch this film, buy the DVD, and let the arguments begin.


Michael Owens is the founder and owner of the planning and regeneration consultancy MOA and is an associate of SMART URBANISM. He is producing the session ‘To build or not to build?’ at Battle of Ideas 2012

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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