TEXT Andrew Persoff
Fresh off a less-than-pleasurable commute through Miami—a city neutered by an underperforming transit system—this article was realized. Having left the airport, I made myself comfortable for a crosstown bus trip—passing through the city’s captivating industrial sections with one too many Newport ads—to arrive at the booming Design District. The Metrorail has yet to offer direct access to true city centers, nor does it cross the bay to South Beach (a result of voting politics in the 80’s), forcing riders to eventually continue their trip on a leisurely bus. On the United States’ roster of flagship cities, Miami falls short largely due to its inadequate public transportation.
Urbanized, the final installment from Gary Hustwit’s acclaimed Design Trilogy, digestibly explores problems such as these. “Everything is considered design,” begins Amanda Burden of New York City’s Department of Planning. From the width of sidewalks to highway signage to a downtown skyline; existent items—those taken for granted or seemingly arbitrary—are the direct construct of human ego, rationality, policy, and opinion. Naturally, Urbanized covers the outermost layer of design, with 2009’s Objectified exploring everyday objects and 2007’s Helvetica exploring tangible and intangible communication design. Working off the estimate that 75% of the global population will inhabit cities by 2050, the film sets its eyes on cities’ abilities to adapt to challenges of the present and future, as well as the ingenuity, necessity, and power of citizens to grow alongside.
Surveying the slums of Mumbai, the modernist pitfalls of Brasília, the bike lanes and buses of Bogotá, the elevated park of New York, and the urban sprawl of Phoenix, Urbanized curates a well-rounded view of quintessential problems and responses in the global community. Keeping in line with both preceding films, commentary is semi-exclusive to professionals in the field. While a fitting choice for esoteric-yet-ubiquitous topics—visual and product design—this format raises questions for a practice directly shaped by professionals and the masses alike. Everyday citizens do receive screen time—activist Mark Covington of the Georgia Street Community Garden, artist Candy Chang in New Orleans, and organizer Jon Bird of Tidy Street in England—yet their stories pale in comparison to the weighty testimonies of the old masters. Perhaps this is less an issue with the film than it is realistic.
Urbanized melds backbone and personality into an otherwise drab topic. The highly considered, well-edited cinematography of Luke Geissbuhler soothingly drives the viewer through the film and steers clear of presenting as academic. In the same vein, Hustwit shrewdly organizes personalities from start to finish. The former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, steals a large chunk of the film discussing his democratic take on public transportation. He is charismatic and likable—pausing to greet an amicable local and continuing the interview via bike—yet blunt and reasonable—“A citizen on a thirty dollar bike is as important as one in a $30,000 car.” That is the mindset behind two successful transportation systems he support realize: the TransMilenio bus system, which mimics the structure and efficiency of a subway, and Ciclorrutas, one of the most extensive networks of dedicated bike paths. Cross-continent in Phoenix, U.S.A., lawyer/real estate developer Grady Gammage Jr. gives his take on suburbia and home ownership. “Living in a condo would be cute and interesting, but I like the way I live,” he says shortly after beginning a sentence with, “If you listen to NPR.” Understandably, he defends suburban lifestyle: the traditional American values of convenience and private space.
Hustwit’s final documentary premiered just before October estimates of the global population hitting 7 billion—an ideal time for the film’s messages and ideals to resonate. Urbanized passes the baton of sustainability and awareness from professionals to the everyman in the most optimistic, brisk, and aesthetic manner; while reminding those professionals about the urgency of considering their approach to rapidly changing landscapes.
Urbanized premiered September 8 globally and September 20 nationally (US). The film will screen in limited engagements until December 23 in the United Kingdom, followed by a digital and DVD release. Running time: 85 min. The film is unrated.