Lee Hachadoorian on Nov 27th 2011

I recently saw Urbanized, a documentary film about urban design showing at a handful of cinemas around the country. The film examines planning and design at cities around the world, generally focusing on specific projects in each city, such as the High Line in New York City, the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system in Bogotá, and a system of pedestrian paths in a South African township. There are also segments discussing citywide planning, for example in Phoenix and Brasília. While the projects chosen vary, a recurring theme is the impact of planning and design on the day-to-day lives of the lower class.

An example of this theme is a housing development in Chile, where the projected budgeted an impossibly small amount (as I recall, somewhere around $10,000) for each home, which included materials, labor, and land acquisition. A starting point for the development was the idea that informal settlements are springing up where they are needed, that is in locations that give the poor and landless access to the parts of the city where they find employment and services. The development was therefore built near existing informal settlements. The houses were built in an unfinished state, so that the occupants would be provided with shelter immediately, but could add flooring, wall tiles, nicer fixtures, etc., when they could afford to. The occupants were also given choices in the design, including the choice between a bathtub or hot water. Virtually all chose the bathtub. One of the reasons is that hot water requires an ongoing expense, which they might not be able to continue paying, while the bathtub represented a one-time cost. Hot water was therefore something they would rather do without until their financial situations were more secure.

Another example was the pedestrian paths in a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa. The townships were created as places for non-whites to live. They provided access to jobs in the cities, while keeping the non-whites out of the white living areas. They had no independent economic base, no infrastructure, and no services. They are, predictably and virtually by design, repositories for poverty and violent crime. The pedestrian path project was designed to create high traffic corridors connected by safe harbors, buildings positioned so that a pedestrian would always be able to see the last one and the next one. These connecting buildings were designed as “beacons”, lit from the inside so that they would be visible at night, and occupied by a caretaker 24/7. The buildings also served as activity centers and included nearby playgrounds. The overall purpose was to create the “eyes on the street” that Jane Jacobs writes about. Violent crime indeed declined following construction.

Coming back to the United States, the film profiled urban agriculture in Detroit. Detroit has been shedding jobs and population for decades, including 237,000 residents (25% of its population) between 2000 and 2010. Vast areas of the city are occupied by empty lots and dilapidated or abandoned houses. A local resident, apparently without any real planning or forethought, one day started clearing an empty lot in order to plant vegetables. The project is small, but important to those who use it. It provides fresh produce for people who otherwise do not have easy access to fresh produce, but it also has served as a social connector, bringing together residents who might otherwise not have had contact with each other.

A segment on Brasília is critical, while giving its principal architect, Oscar Niemeyer, a respectful viewing. To critics, Brasília stands as the reductio ad absurdum of modernist planning. It is, one interview subject comments, beautiful from the air. But on the ground, its wide open spaces and separation of functions means that a resident must drive long distances to get from anywhere to anywhere else. A segment on Stuttgart 21, a high-speed rail and urban redevelopment project in Stuttgart, Germany, was curiously bloodless. This project was highly controversial, leading to confrontations between police and protesters, and credited with the Green Party winning control of the state government in 2009. The film gives both sides a respectful airing, perhaps too respectful, as I found it hard to identify with either side or understand the substance of the disagreement. An interview with a developer in Phoenix provided a tepid defense of “sprawl”. Most such arguments are misguided, mostly because they conflate sprawl with virtually any urban growth, when the issue is really what form urban growth should take. Nonetheless, the interview subject did not mount the best possible argument for Phoenix-style development. (For example, the anti-corporate film The Corporation, includes some reasonably cogent opposition voices.) Perhaps the filmmaker could have found an interviewee to discuss the contention that many of the “sprawling” cities of the South and West have shorter commute times and less racial segregation than the older, denser cities of the Northeast. I don’t know whether this was an editorial choice on the part of the filmmaker or a question of who he could find to give an interview.

On the whole this was an excellent film which I think everyone should see. I was a fan of Hustwit’s earlier film Helvetica (about the ubuiquitous typeface used, among other places, on New York City subway signage), but I have been somewhat guarded in recommending it widely, as I’m not sure how well it would be received by someone who didn’t already have an interest in the subject matter. Urbanized does a better job of making itself accessible to a broad audience, and addressing concerns that people will readily identify with. But it is also a vitally important film, that limns the importance of urban design, and will hopefully engage a broad audience in understanding and participating in their own future.

Filed in Housing,Planning,Transportation | One response so far

One Response to “Urbanized”

  1. Kiddoon 09 Dec 2011 at 5:47 am

    Thanks, that sounds great! I was aware of “Helvetica”, although I´ve never seen it myself (it was recommended to me by a friend who´s an illustrator, so I guess I kind of always thought it might be interesting for “insiders” only) but like you said, this one is possibly going to be more interesting for a larger spectrum of people. All the examples you´ve cited are interesting in their own right and would probably be worth of a (short) documentary alone – I´ve actually seen one last year about Detroit, which I can´t sadly remember the name of (there seems to be quite a few out there though).
    I will be definitely check this out ASAP.

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