In his documentaries Helvetica and Objectified, Gary Hustwit considered aspects of design largely hidden to the layman, covering the history and philosophy behind what we see every day. With the third part of his “design trilogy,” Urbanized, Hustwit tackles a subject that’s often very present in people’s minds: the design of cities, and how the combination of housing, retail, transit, and parking affects urbanites’ quality of life. Talking with architects, city planners, real-estate developers, and social activists, Hustwit offers an overview of the problems and solutions facing urban areas, both today and in the past. He looks at how city fathers once planned from on high, dividing spaces into neat little circles and squares without really considering how those choices would impact convenience and comfort for the citizens at street-level. Now a new wave of visionaries are rethinking transportation, green-space, and public housing; but because civic projects are expensive to complete and difficult to modify, change is difficult.
The beauty of Helvetica was that it took something small and used it to explore broader issues of art, commerce, and function. Urbanized, like Objectified before it, suffers some from taking on a much bigger topic. The documentary’s 85-minute running time doesn’t really allow Hustwit to delve into everything affecting cities today, so the film skips quickly from one idea to the next, spending five minutes on the urban agricultural movement, then a few minutes on historic preservation, then a little time on the efforts to reduce crime by getting the poor out of towering apartment buildings and into neighborhoods with well-lit plazas, and so on.
But there’s still plenty in Urbanized to make viewers aware of what’s happening and why it matters, and Hustwit looks for ways to convey this information through images as much as words. He doesn’t just have people talking about how the population of Detroit has been reduced by more than 50 percent since its heyday; he puts a camera on the front of an elevated train and shows a city that looks virtually vacant. He also travels to cities where bold innovations seem to be showing welcome results, such as Bogotá, where the bus system runs as swiftly as any subway, with more flexibility to create new routes and much less investment in infrastructure. Unlike some docs that dwell on how terrible everything is, Urbanized shows that there are people out there making improvements, even within a system that often seems stacked against them.
Key features: Almost an hour’s worth of additional footage of talking heads and urban spaces, largely noteworthy for the way it allows the experts to expound at length on subjects they previously touched on only in passing.