Urbanized is the third entry in Gary Hustwit's designed-themed trilogy. The first film, Helvetica, explored the nerdery of how information is designed and shared through the world's most ubiquitous typeface. The sequel, Objectified, took a step back and looked at how nearly everything we interact with each day, from the toothbrush in our bathroom to the chairs we sit in has been designed by someone, somewhere.
Urbanized continues where Objectified left off, picking up with the design of cities and urban landscapes. Trading in the riser of a typeset letter for a highway overpass, we see designers, city planners, citizen groups, lawyers, developers, and others laboring over the details and designs that make cities livable.
The thesis of the film, if it has one, is that cities are an example of balance. Just as a designer must balance various customer needs, material constraints, and economics, cities must balance the needs of many different residents, from schoolchildren to industrial manufacturers, and between green spaces and the built environment. Some cities do a better job than others, and none are perfect.
The film launches from the statistic that 75 percent of the world's population is expected to live in cities by 2050 - up from 50 percent in 2010. Hustwit wastes no time in jet setting from country to country to give voice to a cast of well-known architects and urban planners, and lesser known non-profit administrators and street artists. From from Brighton, England to Beijing, China, Mr. Hustwit weaves together common themes in sustainability, transportation, and affordable housing.
The film plays like a clean NPR piece where there lies a future where the car is no longer king, and communities thrive. Underneath the sheen of slick editing and gorgeous cinematography, we see that when done correctly, cities can offer a space for creativity and security. When done poorly, cities can suffocate under their own weight and congestion, resulting in poor air and water quality, crime, and slums.
In Santiago, Chile, we meet architect Alejandro Aravena of Elemental who leads an affordable housing development designed to help poor families lift themselves out of poverty through home ownership. The new homeowners unanimously choose bathtubs over hot water heaters, escaping the public showers in the city's slums.
The Elemental developments are an uplifting example of thoughtful design of affordable housing can help people lift themselves out of poverty. But in the same breath, we are reminded of the challenges facing millions of city dwellers. Halfway around the world in Mumbai, India, we see an endless landscape of corrugated steel roofs and learn that slum dwellers face deeply inadequate sanitation - some 600 people share a single toilet.
Finding the balance between a growing population and basic services is not always achieved.
Proponents of alternative transportation will get a particular kick out of former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who while riding his bicycle through town, enthusiastically talks about the changes to Bogota's transportation system. Peñalosa makes the case that automobile parking is not a constitutionally-defined right, and modern cities should evolve beyond the automobile and highways. Forward thinking policy, he tells the audience, can make people's lives better.
And this is where I think the strength of Urbanized lies. Whereas both Helvetica and Objectified played to the typical cadre of design enthusiasts, Urbanized shows how design can affect change on a large scale by relying on people of all different stripes and backgrounds. The future of cities - and by transitive property, the prosperity of modern society - depends on a patchwork of architects, politicians, engineers, citizen activists and others to balance the environmental and social problems with a growing population.