The Life of a City

The Life of a City

If you're optimistic about our chances of tackling the big challenges facing humanity in the 21st century — poverty, overpopulation, the environment, the fair allocation of political power — then you're likely to feel good about the state of cities. After all, over 50 percent of the world's population now lives in cities, and experts expect that number to soar to something like 70 percent by the middle of this century. If the aforementioned problems are to be solved, their solutions will probably be found in an urban context. Cities consume 75 percent of world energy, so a small improvement in urban power usage can have a huge effect. Urbanized, a new feature-length documentary by filmmaker Gary Hustwit (Helvetica, Objectified), explores the world of contemporary urban design, showcasing how city planning is likely to shape the ways we live and think about shared communal space well into the future. (The film premieres in Hartford this week.) Whether we have good reason to be optimistic is a question left unanswered by the documentary.

The film, the third part in a design-centric trilogy of documentaries by Hustwit, is less a history lesson on how people came to build cities and more of an extended conversation about the ways that somewhat wonky things like public transport, zoning, creative use of lighting and paving, community engagement, preservation and technological innovation can dramatically transform the day-to-day life of city dwellers.

With scores of talking-head architects, historians, landscape designers, artists, activists, developers and politicians, the film moves smoothly through footage of dense urban centers from around the world — Mumbai, Mexico City, New York, Rio, Bogota, Brasilia, Shanghai and elsewhere. The film jumps nimbly from theory and history (about the effects of leveling old neighborhoods for new designs) and ideas of dislocation associated with modernist design (creating cities from a removed perspective versus from an on-the-ground view). It's a battle summed up in the dueling worldviews of community activist Jane Jacobs and justly demonized pavement-crazy New York City planner Robert Moses. In Brasilia — something of a poster child for cold modernism run wild — experts point out how the scale of the city is all wrong: It looks great from an airplane, but doesn't function well for the people on the streets.

"Modern urban planning is very close to modern graphic design or modern industrial design, it's minimalist, very ordered, very rational," says Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architecture professor. What the film shows, though, is that in order for modern urban problems to be solved by design, the designers need to be engaged with the people living in the urban space. This is called "participatory design." Several exciting projects from around the world featured in Urbanized have done just that.

There are quirky pieces of interactive street art and public education designed to inform people about both individual and communal energy consumption.

Officials and architects discuss the importance of smart bike lanes to making a sane and safe city. A definition and history of sprawl is explored. In Mumbai, activists point out the role that "informal settlements" — otherwise known as slums — have in shaping a city. (In Mumbai today the number of slum dwellers equals the entire population of London. There are roughly 600 people for every toilet in the city.) As one activist puts it, if the city makes no place for the poor, then the slum-dwellers carve out a place for themselves in the urban space.

The filmmaker shows scenes of chaotic urban and suburban life — pulsing traffic, hulking braided highway ramps, dense imposing skyscrapers, the jumbled tin rooftops of hillside slums, the circuit-board-like intricacies of cookie-cutter subdivisions and sprawl. But shown from a distance, and set against the cool minimalist soundtrack, all of these images have eye-catching visual rhythms and dynamic patterns; they're almost uniformly lovely to look at, even the ones that, we suspect, are supposed to make us wrinkle our noses. And that is perhaps one of the subthemes of Urbanized: even bad things can be made to look good, but that isn't enough.

Seemingly simple solutions — like the investment in a subway-like bus system (Bogota) or separating bicycle lanes from moving auto traffic by a row of parked cars (Copenhagen), or transforming abandoned industrial space into urban parks (New York) or gardens (Detroit) — are presented as ingenious answers to vexing problems.

Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, is presented as a populist champion. He's seen riding his bike on the city's bustling cycling lanes, decrying people's hunger for parking and espousing the democratic foundation of public transit.

"A bus with 100 people on it has 100 times more right to the road than a car with one," Peñalosa says. "Public good prevails over private interest."

But if there are success stories, there are also cautionary tales and sad failures. The aptly named architect and urban theorist Rem Koolhaas doesn't see the 21st century as a triumph of city planning. "I think that very few cities these days are really designed," says Koolhaas. A look at the plight of a contested plan to modernize the train station in Stuttgart, Germany, where ancient trees were cut down amid public protests, demonstrates how community input and involvement is required at every stage of a project if developers are to gain the support of locals. The lessons are valuable for communities big and small. Any time an old building gets torn down or a new one gets proposed, each project shapes the urban fabric, and the social repercussions are difficult to anticipate. (Isn't high-speed rail worth a sacrifice? Depends who you ask.)

One of the film's most poignant segments looks at efforts to revitalize and rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Celebrities and high-profile architects came in to assist with the project, but there's the suggestion that the designs are divorced from the practical reality of the city's life.

"It's something where architects had a lot of fun at a great expense," says Grover Mouton, of the Tulane Urban Design Center. Mouton is unimpressed by the bright and quirky beach-house-y buildings that sprang up after the storm clean-up. "Just because the architects are so divinely wonderful it isn't going to make a place wonderful."

Worse than the whimsy is the blatant neglect. To combat that, New Orleans artist and activist Candy Chang solicited community input by posting stickers that say "I Wish This Was …." on abandoned properties, leaving markers and a space for passersby to fill in the blank. It's potent. Chang calls it "a love child of urban planning and street art."

As you might expect, some of responses are funny and some are moving, with stickers that read: "I Wish This Was a Dog Park" or "I Wish This Was Not Here" or "I Wish This Was Owned By Someone Who Cared."



Premieres Friday, Feb. 3 at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006,


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