Urbanized – Documentary Review

March 28, 2012

By Matt Palmer

I’ve lived in cities my whole life, probably like most people. Big cities enthrall and inspire me. When I was about ten my family moved to Toronto. At that time, Calgary was still a pretty small place of a few hundred thousand. Flying into Toronto the first time, the city spread out for what seemed like forever. As I looked out the airplane window I saw pockets of what looked like skyscrapers, actually apartment complexes, and I thought they were “little downtowns”. Toronto provided so many interesting places to explore from the waterfront, Toronto Island, to Kensington. We spent a year and half in Toronto before moving back to Calgary, a place that has always felt like home. In my experience, every city has a feel.

Years later, I moved to Montreal to complete my education at Concordia University. While Toronto had excited me as a young boy, as an adult, Montreal was magical. The mix of French and English, the history, the feeling of community that I felt walking along St Denis where so many people escaped their small apartments to commune with friends over good food, coffee and wine, inspired a sense of belonging, even though I was an outsider.

Within a few decades, 75% of the world’s population will live in cities. In his latest documentary “Urbanized“, the last film in a trilogy including “Helvetica” and “Objectified”, Director Gary Hustwit looks at cities from the perspective of design, livability, and functionality. Cities in many ways are living breathing organisms that assert enormous influence on our daily lives. Well designed cities can breathe life and inspiration into its populous, or squelch it.

“Urbanized” explores these themes traveling around the world, visiting great and not so great cities. What I really appreciated about the narrative is how Hustwit for the most part focuses on solutions to the big problems some of these cities faced, rather than dwelling on the problems. This is a significant and important shift in storytelling technique, that many documentaries could benefit from studying.

Focusing on innovative solutions, such as how Bogota, Columbia addressed crime issues through a unique transit system, had me thoroughly engaged, and wondering how my city of Calgary could benefit from such an approach, rather than building more LRT lines. Bogota had major issues back in the early nineties. As their Mayor explains in the film, they could have built subways, but the above ground transit buses had greater effect and positive outcomes, particularly for lower-income people. Another thing that Bogota did in the early nineties to combat crime, this is not in the film, was firing the corrupt transit police and bringing in “clowns”. The mimes were a massive success, and crimes rates plummeted as result.

The documentary moves episodically presenting case studies of cities like Beijing, Mumbai, Rio, Cape Town, and New York City. We hear from many luminaries in the architectural and urban design world, including Sir Norman Foster whose company designed “The Bow”, Calgary’s now flagship standard of architecture. The episodic design of the film is my one quibble with the overall flow of the film. Perhaps I need a second viewing, I had to watch in two sittings, but the film could have used stronger linking between the episodes to the overall thematic of the story.

There is much to enjoy and learn from in this film. How cities are designed will have tremendous impact in the quality of life for humanity. These quality of life issues directly relate to the environmental strength or failings of cities design and functionality.

I was a downtown dweller for many years, and I loved being able to walk. When I go to big cities, walking is how I see the city and experience its character. Now I live in a suburban neighbourhood, a choice driven by the location of our children’s school. Most people of the world will not have the luxury of owning a home with a yard so the ability to have liveable spaces, green spaces, public gathering areas will nurture community in healthy ways. I particularly loved the story of the group in Detroit that turned abandoned areas into urban food gardens. These types of initiates can transform people’s lives.

“Urbanized” highlights the great need for vision and foresight for the present and future in the design of cities. Urban design decisions being made today have far-reaching impacts. Take some time and check out this entertaining and thought-provoking film.

About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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