Documentary Review: “Urbanized” by Gary Hustwit

Gary Hustwit’s 2011 documentary, Urbanized, discusses design projects across multiple continents and includes innovative projects in housing, mobility, public space, and infrastructure. Despite its rich project diversity, the organization and lack of a target audience ultimately left me with a bitter taste. 

The film highlights some of the world’s most innovative and landmark design decisions in cities across the world by talking to the experts. Despite features from some of the most renowned architects, designers, and planners, the film fails to address a particular audience. As a planner, this documentary is definitely on your films to watch list. But as a planner, the coverage of planning history seems a bit rudimentary. You’re left with the thought then, is this film for non-planners? With that intended audience, however, do you really expect a viewer to understand the effect of the City Beautiful movement or the Garden City?

Nevertheless, planners and non-planners alike can enjoy the film for covering projects that you may not hear about in the US—Lo Barnechea in Chile, for example. Slums and favelas, otherwise known as substandard housing, are larger issues in some countries. The discussion on Mumbai’s slum population as being larger than all of London forces you to address the problem, instead of brushing it under the rug like we do Skid Row. Lo Barnechea exemplifies participatory development at its finest—building the basic infrastructural services significantly improves the health problems faced in slums. Rather than constructing public housing and dispersing the community that already exists, Lo Barnechea emphasized proximity to the slum and personalization of the dwelling. More than that, it allowed the future residents to become involved in the planning process.

Beside the slum housing discussion, the most inspiring section of the documentary featured Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. He proves that cities with limited resources can implement innovative, flexible transportation projects that truly serve the people. His pedestrian-oriented mindset transformed Bogotá by paving the pedestrian walkways (and not the streets), by creating bus rapid transit lanes straying away from the automobile, and further by choosing cost-effective means of investing in infrastructure.

As the documentary moves on to discuss hits like the High Line in NYC, Ciclovia in Bogotá, and more, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the ending. Stuttgart 21 is far from innovative or inspiring—the demonstrations, the opposition, and police power involved truly show the negative and political side of planning.  While an extreme version of everything that could possibly go wrong, the project actually passed with a 58% approval for funding—designating a failure for the large opposition. So did Hustwit save the best for last? Hardly.

Despite the bitter ending, Urbanized’s approach allows the viewer to step out of a US-centric planning mindset and experience a taste of global planning—whether it’s in Curitiba, Brasil or townships outside of Cape Town, South Africa. The film tactfully address issues of population growth and climate change interwoven with interviews and case studies from across the globe. Ultimately, it inspires you to ride a bike, start an urban farm, and re-think your approach on housing.

Grade: B+/A-

– Claudia Preciado, 1st Year MPL, Concentration: Sustainable Land Use


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