Let’s say you decide to host a dinner party with some of the world’s most powerful and eloquent urban thinkers and designers. On the table for discussion: urban poverty, sustainability and exploding populations, along with questions like what provokes the architectural magic that can zap a city, and what qualities make people reject public space or stay to luxuriate for hours in it.
Organizing an epic dinner party is how New York filmmaker Gary Hustwit first conceived of his enlightening and sumptuous film Urbanized, which premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, and which returns (in a newly re-edited version) to the TIFF Bell Lightbox this weekend along with the other films in Hustwit’s trilogy of design documentaries, Helvetica (2007) and Objectified (2009). Naturally, every politician in Canada should attend, especially Rob Ford, who runs the nation’s largest city as if it were a dollar store.
Urbanized is an intellectual breaking of bread that takes place in dozens of cities, in which more than 30 experts reveal their inner, mostly optimistic thoughts about the state of 21st-century urbanity, their voices providing the narrative for gorgeous visuals of London’s skyline, the veil of smog obscuring corporate Beijing and Rio de Janeiro’s clearing house of urban data with more screens than Nasdaq. We see footage of urban flow, with masses of people on trains, buses, bikes and diagonal crosswalks. Even Toronto is captured in the film’s opening sequence, with a helicopter buzzing a path in front of the dense mass of waterfront condominiums.
Unlike a raucous dinner party with its soundtrack of competing voices, Urbanized allows us to tune into carefully articulated declarations and some fighting words by many of the world’s key urbanists. There are the likely suspects, such as British starchitect Norman Foster (the brains behind the gherkin-shaped Swiss Re tower in London and the Leslie Dan Pharmacy Building at the University of Toronto), who clearly enjoys his mellifluous voice though he doesn’t really manage to say much, and Copenhagen’s Jan Gehl, the gentle knight crusading for a softer, more sensory public space that embraces pedestrians and bicycles, rather than cars and drivers. Dutch superstar architect Rem Koolhaas blows off steam about the energy-draining scourge of design competitions. And there’s also comic relief about celebrity actor Brad Pitt’s attempts at healing New Orleans, dismissed by a local architect as the kind of design that resembles his best friend’s mother’s place in Malibu.
Shooting some 300 hours of urban footage and interviews with the help of director of photography, Luke Geissbühler, Hustwit lands some shimmering views of the epic city. He ignores lots that shapes cities, such as the Bilbao effect – named for Frank Gehry’s 1990s design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that launched a global reinvention of cultural and academic institutions in cities that could afford it. But it’s a pleasure to witness the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer being interviewed, still lucid at 103: “I think architecture is invention. In architecture, it isn’t enough to just have a building that functions. It can be beautiful. It can create surprise.”
Hustwit skips over the really bad architecture that does just the opposite, oppressing the human spirit in most cities around the world. Instead, Urbanized bounces often to happy instances of citizen engagement: the designers in Brighton, England, who sweetly chart the energy usage of residents living on a little street, or the collective of architects in Khayelitsha, South Africa, who design bold red buildings as safe havens for locals walking home late at night from work. Citizens can make a difference. But, sadly, their opinions matter not nearly as much as the real-estate developers and meddlesome politicians in, say, Toronto, where the bargain-basement vision of Mayor Rob Ford and his store-clerk minions is capable of undoing years of hard-fought citizen triumphs.
In the end, Urbanized soars when it allows people on the street and in their polished offices to speak simple truths about humanity and the urban condition. Ricky Burdett, director of LSE Cities, points out that, for better or worse, the 21st century is inextricably defined by cities: “By the 20th century, 20 per cent of the world’s population was living in cities. Only two years ago, it was 50 per cent. If we continue at this pace, it’ll be 75 per cent in 40 years time.” People are arriving in droves to city states with economic promise: Mexico City, Mumbai, Lagos and Sao Paulo. The Greater Toronto area can expect to absorb about one million newcomers within the next 30 years. That’s daunting enough to imagine, but consider that many cities around the world are labouring under the weight of informal settlements containing hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, much of the important footage in Urbanized scans the flimsy makeshift shacks of the favelas in South America and India. “Thirty-three per cent of new urban dwellers today live in slums,” adds Burdett. “That’s a third of the world’s population without sewers, without water, without sanitation.”
“In Mumbai,” says Sheela Patel, an advocate for that city’s pavement dwellers and chair of Shack/Slum Dwellers International, “what you have in the city are real-estate developers and slum dwellers who are carving out the design of the city. The poor people are doing it because the plan has no space for them.” Meanwhile, the sad reality is that there are 600 people for every toilet seat. It makes the woes of Canadian cities seen trivial.
There was a time when highways that looped like noodles around cities like Los Angeles, Montreal and Cairo were applauded as emblems of postwar progress. It seems unthinkable now but planners were actually paid to sever the workplace from housing. “We’ve been getting more and more of these massive developments by large home builders where every house is cookie-cutter and all of the big-box stores look exactly the same,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture at Georgia Tech. “More and more cars are required to drive much longer distances. This is now sprawl. This is not just suburbia.”
So we've come full circle, and what matters now is creating intimacy and exquisite detail within the city. “The eye can't command an area more than about 100 metres by 100 metres,” notes the erudite observer of public space Jan Gehl. That's why Amanda Burden, chair of New York's Planning Commission, obsessed along with activist citizens to ensure the High Line public park was created on a fairly narrow historic elevated rail line that runs above Manhattan's West End. That's why she speaks about the beauty of the movable chair as a tool to engage people, whether they be in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris or a newly pedestrianized section of NYC’s Broadway Avenue: “When people sit in a chair that’s movable, they move it just so much, so that it’s their chair. Movable chairs let you socialize, or they let you be by yourself. You can be part of the city, or away from the city.”
Urbanized reminds politicians they must be innovative in problem-solving. Subways, for example, may be only part of the solution for expanding public transit, especially as they're expensive and their construction can lag badly behind newly erupting city centres. The charismatic Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota who lectures globally on ways to humanize cities with better flow, describes his approach: “The only way to restrict traffic jams is to restrict car use and the most obvious way to restrict car use is to restrict parking. ... In our constitution, there are many rights – the right to housing, the right to education, the right to health – but I don’t see the right to park. When I was elected mayor, we started investing in people. We started investing in sidewalks and schools and great parks and libraries. And ... we started to create a bus-based public transport system called the TransMilenio. It works much more like a subway with the buses operating on exclusive lanes. For the same cost as a 25-kilometre subway, it’s possible to build 400 kilometres of TransMilenio.”
Urbanized makes city building a thrilling, if often daunting project. It takes knowledge and guts to do it well, which is why tuning in to this doc is not only cool for urbanites, it’s a necessary primer for any leaders who dare to call themselves urban.
Design for Living: Gary Hustwit’s Design Trilogy screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox Saturday through Tuesday (with the filmmaker introducing some screenings): Helvetica, Saturday, 12:30 p.m.; Objectified Saturday, 3 p.m.; Urbanized, Sunday, 8:30 p.m.; Tuesday, 6:30 p.m., 9 p.m.;
Urbanized also screens in Ottawa Jan. 25 and Calgary Feb. 1.