I recently watched Gary Hustwit’s film Urbanized – and then quickly realized I was watching it for the third or fourth time, since I keep forgetting it and then getting intrigued whenever I see it mentioned. 😅
Hence, I’m writing up a brief synopsis and some main takeaways from the film, so I don’t forget it again. Overall, I found it to be an excellent (and visually stunning) primer on contemporary urban planning principles for those not familiar with the field.
Urbanized is a documentary film that explores modern urban design and how it shapes the lives of people around the world, primarily through a series of stories and interviews with prominent practitioners in the field. It engages in discussions about mass migration into cities, how community-driven design can lead to better outcomes, the democratization of transportation away from auto-centric planning, transformations of historical infrastructure, and how to make public spaces more attractive and livelier. Ultimately, it concedes that the challenges of urban design are immense, but innovative approaches co-designed between planners and their communities are promising and should be celebrated.
The film begins with a broad overview of how our world has been rapidly urbanizing, with no slowdown in sight over the next century. Cities inexorably attract people seeking economic opportunities, and hence they will continue to grow as long as sufficient opportunities are readily attainable. Notably, there are cities that are on the decline (e.g., Detroit) which have their own unique problems to solve, but these are the exceptions in the film. The interviewees explain that mass migration into cities result in slums by default (given limited housing and facilities), and it takes consistent and concerted efforts to avoid this fate. They warn that the new wave of megacities being built in China and India should not aim to copy designs from 20th-century America, as this would be disastrous for both their own people and the global climate situation.
The importance of community input as part of the design process is emphasized many times throughout the film. In the case study of Brasília, it was shown how architects built the most aesthetically pleasing buildings and lay out the finest of plans – but all of this work was ultimately pointless as the resulting city lacked a human-scale experience at ground level and wasn’t comfortable for the average resident. Letting people decide what facilities would be best for them can sometimes result in findings counter to planners’ intuition (e.g., in the case of bathtubs versus water heaters for new housing in Santiago, or pedestrian desire lines in Khayelitsha). In some situations, the best action a city can take is to just let the community do what they want with underutilized land, as seen in the community garden project on empty lots in Detroit. Finally, it was shown that initiatives aiming to change behaviors are more effective if they bring the community together around a shared vision or goal, such as in the case of energy use monitoring on Tidy Street.
Bogotá was prominently highlighted in the film as a city that applied the principles of democracy to transportation planning. Recognizing that a bus with 100 people should have the right to 100 times the road space as a car only holding one person, city officials created a bus-based rapid transit system with exclusive lanes (TransMilenio) now known as the global model for well-designed BRT. They also had the strength of political will to restrict car parking, knowing that it would be the most effective way of reducing car use and hence traffic congestion. They went even further and invested in extensive pedestrian and bicycle-only street networks, paving these paths first and leaving the cars to drive in mud – thus demonstrating their commitment to putting pedestrians and bicyclists first. Since cars were owned only by the richest citizens, prioritizing infrastructure improvements in this way was also an equity play. The desire to make bicycling more inviting for the general public was mirrored in Copenhagen, where streets were rearranged to protect bicyclists with rows of parked cars. Both cities showed remarkable results in the number of people who chose to ride bicycles for commuting or leisure over time.
The challenges of designing around historical infrastructure were also touched upon in several cases. On the one hand, urban design can transform historically neglected infrastructure into something new and desirable for the modern era, as was seen in the case of the High Line restoration in New York City. However, some advocacy groups may see historical buildings as needing preservation at all costs, even if this gets in the way of valuable future infrastructure (e.g., in the case of the Stuttgart 21 project). Historical buildings that are preserved may also present difficulties in the future as developments may need to scale appropriately if adjacent to them, as was the case with the Brooklyn Academy of Music building. Ultimately, the importance of community input was re-emphasized – projects such as the High Line were only possible with deep and continuous community involvement, and Stuttgart 21 could only proceed after another public referendum vote.
The film also explored best practices for the design of public spaces, showcasing examples from New York City and Copenhagen. Jane Jacobs was referenced extensively for her wisdom regarding the importance of making public spaces active and lively. In her view, having “eyes on the street” at all times also made spaces safer and more comfortable. One way to encourage this is to make public spaces appealing to linger in, as opposed to just pass through. Providing ample seating (ideally movable seating, so people can feel that it’s “theirs” to adjust as they wish) is one way to encourage more time spent in these spaces. The size of the space also matters, as it was noted how the human eye can only really command an area of about 100 meters by 100 meters – anything larger would make people less comfortable and exposed. Finally, the importance of public spaces as a stage for democracy was emphasized (e.g., in demonstrations against the Stuttgart 21 development project).
Other ideas not covered
While many topics in contemporary urban planning practice were touched upon in this film, there were some notable exceptions that are tangential to the topics discussed but are nonetheless timely urban issues. For example, while slums were discussed as the default urbanized outcome without targeted housing production, the film could have gone further in discussing the related, relatively modern phenomenon of homelessness in many developed cities. A segment could have been dedicated to the root causes of homelessness (i.e., housing unaffordability, lack of mental health services, etc.) and the ongoing housing crises happening in many otherwise wealthy communities. Zoning is another related topic that did not get much attention, though it can play a large part in enabling greater quantities of more affordable housing stock and thus help alleviate the shortages. A segment looking back at the history of zoning might also touch upon the politics of race and suburban “white flight”, which also played a part in the auto-centric policies and urban designs that the film recognizes as destructive. Expanding on the transportation segment, the film could have also discussed the recent innovations in new mobility options, including bikeshare, scooters, carshare, ride-hailing, etc. Finally, while the film hints at the impact of cities on climate, there is a whole subfield on climate resiliency that could have been introduced (i.e., how cities are adapting for sea level rise, more extreme weather patterns, etc.). Of course, it would be difficult to cover all these topics in one feature-length film – but one could easily imagine sequels to this work.
Clearly the importance of community involvement in planning cannot be overstated, and the film took every opportunity to reinforce this point. A more nuanced takeaway, however, is that there are ways to engage with the community that are more productive than others. Providing clear options (e.g., a bathtub or a water heater, a park or an abandoned rail line, etc.) and sufficient context/education is essential to help the community make good decisions. The engagement must also be ongoing and the public must be kept updated as plans change, especially for long-running projects such as Stuttgart 21 where the community members may eventually forget about past decisions. Furthermore, it’s important to be somewhat picky about which voices to amplify over others, since the community does not always speak with one voice. For example, the city officials in Bogotá had to focus on the plight of the lower-income citizens who couldn’t afford cars and dismiss (to some extent) those who continued to demand parking as if it were a Constitutional right.
The need to design at human-scale was another major takeaway from the film. Architects and planners can easily get lost in the big picture or a birds-eye view, but all cities are eventually experienced from the ground level. Respecting human features and characteristics (such as our ability to only see ~100 meters out) as part of the design process will result in much more enjoyable spaces. Of course, there will be times for big systems thinking (e.g., while planning regional transportation networks like BRT), but these systems must ultimately be tested and evaluated at eye level.
Finally, the film instilled an urgency to apply good urban design principles in as many cities around the world as possible. Already we see that some of the mistakes of the past are being replicated in rapidly urbanizing countries (e.g., significant car-centric infrastructure, unwalkable neighborhoods, and sprawl in China), so it is crucial that we spread modern best practices quickly to head off some of their more deleterious effects.