Of all the films that could change your outlook on life, Gary Hustwit’s trilogy of documentaries on design does so most immediately upon leaving the theater. His first, “Helvetica,” articulated the feeling we get from fonts, the subconscious influence of reading street signs to product labels, while his second “Objectified” examined the creation and our use of manufactured goods. “Urbanized,” which has been touted as the final chapter of this series, is both the broadest film he’s made since it deals with how city planning dictates mass behavior, but it also leaves the most room for the individual viewer to act in the world after describing how it’s largely been defined by others.
Ironically, room is something that’s in increasingly short supply in cities, where the experts in “Urbanized” predict 75 percent of the world’s population will live by 2050 and could be a problem for places that clearly weren’t designed with liveability in mind. But whereas many of the places that were built by architects who never had to consider living there themselves, Hustwit and many of the people he interviews suggest that urban planning is becoming more and more of a participatory activity, with architects such as Chile’ Alejandro Aravena creating $10,000 houses where potential owners may have to choose between a bathtub or a water heater, but never have to worry about a roof over their heads, or coalitions of citizens determining what’s best for their community and taking action, such as the proponents of reviving the High Line in New York, where a dilapidated elevated railroad was transformed into a parkway.
When Danish architect Jan Gehl describes Brasilia’s innovative but unusable cityscape as something that “looks fantastic from an airplane, but at ground level, it’s a disaster,” it becomes a battle cry for the rest of the film as Hustwit travels the world seeking out the ways communities have battled crime in Cape Town with the simple addition of street lights, replaced food stamps with sustainable gardens in Detroit and reduced electricity use with street art in Brighton, England. These may be the most exciting elements of “Urbanized” since they are all developing as we speak and within our own reach, but as in his previous docs, it’s Hustwit’s ability to convey the history that has led us here in a crisp, accessible way that’s most impressive. (And without dumbing it down for professionals, as was demonstrated by their large turnout for the film’s TIFF premiere — when Hustwit asked how many skipped work to catch the 3 p.m. screening, plenty of hands shot up, leading the director to joke, “I’d like to think I’m bringing Toronto’s creative community to a screeching halt.”)
It’s no wonder that the late Jane Jacobs, a writer and activist with no formal education in architecture and city planning, emerges as one of the major heroes in the film, having peeled back some of New York master planner Robert Moses’ metropolis-optimized design in favor of an approach that built up strong bonds between neighbors. The mix of interviews with revolutionaries such as former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa and New York city planner Amanda Burden amongst the architects such as Rem Koolhaas who have carried out their visions paints a full picture of the opportunities that still exist in even where the architectural landscape became entrenched centuries before, making clear the inefficiencies in the system that could prevent innovation, but illuminating the ways in which people, professional or not, have and are getting around them to truly make the world a better place.
Once again, Hustwit has made an invigorating film out of a subject with no flesh or blood, and yet speaks so much to the way we live. Certainly, you’ll never look at that planter on a street corner the same way again, thinking about all the time and consideration that went into putting it there.
"Urbanized" will play Toronto twice more on September 11th at AMC 10 and September 16th at AMC 6. It will also have screenings across the country in the weeks ahead. A full schedule is here.