Sticker by New Orleans based activist Candy Chang

In the relatively short space of 85 minutes, Urbanized takes on a huge project – how do we adapt cities to be safe, sustainable and interesting to live in whilst remembering the enormous and accelerating expansion they’re continuously undergoing?

What on paper sounds a tad dry – modern urban planning – turns in Gary Hustwit’s concise and inspiring film (which is above all full of basic good common sense) into a subject that is tremendously interesting. Urbanized returns your faith in positive action – be that something as ‘small’ as one man deciding to create urban gardens for the good of the community in Detroit or walkways being threaded though the Khayelitsha township in South Africa, with look out posts/safe houses at regular intervals so that you are always near a secure spot to run to, or something as ‘large’ as Bogota’s decision to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists when it comes to proper roads while the cars fend for themselves on dirt tracks. Full of thought provoking comments, such as Danish architect Jan Gehl pointing out that in Denmark the cycle paths are laid out in a way so that the parked cars protect the cyclists whereas in the UK the cyclists protect the parked cars. Hmmm,  quite! No wonder that 34% of Danes bicycle to work. I tried to obtain the UK equivalent statistics but after several enquiries to the Department of Transport it was concluded that ‘that particular statistic has not been gathered by us’.

Visually, Urbanized just wows you with stunning shots of the great world cities and while you at times loathe yourself for dreamily thinking ‘but it looks so picturesque’ while the voice-over informs you of the magnitude of Mumbai’s slums, it is also life affirming to a dedicated city lover just how dull a city like Phoenix appears. Despite a well-meaning desire by the developers to return to a suburban idyll for all, it ended up representing soul-killing standardization and the endless overconsumption of carbon-based fuel in order to get from A to B. The case is made for pedestrian-friendly metropolitan cores, bicycle lanes and an ethic that combines the knowledge of experts with the desires and innovations of the local residents who live there.

Urbanized isn’t just Pollyanna-esque, rose-tinted spectacles though, as it also dedicates time to the long, drawn-out battle in Stuttgart to save a park full of old trees and the listed train station from greedy fat-cat developers. Dressed up as democracy, the then ruling political party ushers a luxury development through despite huge protests against it. Urbanised ends on this somewhat dispiriting note as a grim reminder of just how corrupt the world can be and that we should never take any positive change for granted.

The final documentary in director Gary Hustwit’s design film trilogy (Helvetica, Objectified), Urbanized features some of the world’s foremost architects, planners, policymakers, and thinkers, including Sir Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Jan Gehl, Oscar Niemeyer (the latter still kicking at the sprightly age of 104), Amanda Burden, Enrique Peñalosa, Alejandro Aravena, Eduardo Paes, Rahul Mehrotra, Ellen Dunham-Jones, Ricky Burdett, James Corner, Michael Sorkin, Bruce Katz, Candy Chang, Edgar Pieterse, and many more, including extraordinary citizens who have affected change in their cities.

Who is allowed to shape our cities, and how do they do it? And how does the design of our cities affect our lives? By exploring a diverse range of urban design projects in dozens of cities around the world, from massive infrastructure initiatives to temporary interventions, Urbanized frames a global discussion on the future of cities.

Screenings at the Barbican from 16th December 2011
DVD release date  13th February 2012

All images by kind courtesy of Swiss Dots Ltd.

Words by Anna Bang

Starchitect Sir Norman Foster

Sprawling Dharavi slum in Mumbai

The view of an increasingly de-peopled Detroit from the peoplemover


Mumbai billboard workers


anna bang, Gary Hustwit, Jan Gehl, Oscar Niemeyer, Rem Koolhaas, Sir Norman Foster, Urbanized,