Elegantly Urbanized

Gary Hustwit’s theatrically released documentary Urbanized is an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to make sense of a world flowing into cities. This visually arresting film, like Hustwit’s past work, elegantly conveys the omnipresence of design in daily life. If planning and architecture are so fluid in our surroundings that we scarcely think about them, Urbanized cries out for an eyes-wide-open meditation. At the same time its contemplative style belies urgent social imperatives.

An unprecedented 75 percent of the world will live in cities by 2050. If cities are containers, as Lewis Mumford posited, than what happens when the cup runneth over? Urbanized makes clear that trend lines point toward demographic dystopia, particularly in burgeoning Asian and African megacities. The film advances this narrative with images of slums, skylines, packed streets, and third-world traffic jams. Images like these are on the verge of cinematic cliché in a world where social problems are fast becoming urbanized. This might be problematic had Hustwit not elevated the bar so high. In the film’s most telling scene, we run the loop of Detroit’s innocently futuristic downtown people mover, coursing through buildings bereft of modern use.

Just as cities expand beyond all reason, they decline. What, if any, meaning do this city’s silent arteries retain? This is one of the most haunting images of corrupted urbanity since Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes silently scrolled through the vast dehumanizing aesthetics of a Chinese factory. Hustwit’s global sensibilities are especially relevant at a time when urban inequality is shaped by economic forces much larger than any one individual or community. In an urban rendition of Thoreau, Urbanized posits that city dwellers must not only forge an innovative self-reliance, they must imagine higher forms of living. The radical fluctuations of growth and decline happening in modern cities necessitate infinite innovation. For Detroit, this means welcoming so-called urban pioneers. For Mumbai, it means bringing sanitation to slums. In Santiago it means affordable construction through frugal design.

The ideal form can be found in walkable cities with strong community ties. Hustwit is on the lookout for democracy at the neighborhood level. Greenwich Village’s rescue from redevelopment—now firmly recognized as a triumph of humane urban values—contrasts with the automobile-centric landscapes of Phoenix or the harsh modernism of Brasilia. In that spirit, activists in Stuttgart battle a new high-speed rail project that swept away some of the city’s most cherished park spaces. Evoking Jane Jacobs, South African designers in urban slums rebuild community centers to provide “eyes on the street” in service of safer walking spaces. Indicative footage notwithstanding, the film’s fixation on overpopulation in underdeveloped megacities misses the point. Horrendous living conditions are not fueled by a lack of space, but by an irrationally unequal distribution of it. Moreover Urbanized does not get us much closer to understanding the profit-driven planning that incentivized modern monoliths like Shanghai’s World Financial Center or Manhattan’s World Trade Center One. The film’s standard laments of Robert Moses seem passé when something altogether new must be driving the architectural brutalism of the 21st century. Still, this is essential viewing for the urban design community.

Joshua K. Leon is an assistant professor of political science and international studies at Iona College. He has also taught at Villanova, Temple, and Drexel Universities. He covered the 2010 Shanghai World Expo for Next American City magazine and Foreign Policy In Focus. He is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and was author of the "World Watch" column for Next American City from 2008-2011. His articles have also recently appeared in The China Beat, Cities, Cambridge Review of International Affairs and Z-Magazine. A doctorate in Political Science, he writes on development, poverty, global health, and urbanization. He lives in New York City.

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