Downtown Detroit as seen in the documentary “Urbanized.”
By A. O. SCOTTThose of us who live in cities — more than half the world’s population, according to many recent estimates — experience them mainly at eye and street level. Each urban environment has its own character and can therefore seem more like the result of natural processes than of complex human intentions. A city develops organically, through the complex interplay of economics, biology and countless local, individual decisions, but also by means of planning on the part of architects, engineers and politicians.
The mingling of design and happenstance is, to some extent, the deep subject of “Urbanized,” Gary Hustwit’s fascinating, idea-packed new documentary. In this remarkably concise film — which could easily have sprawled to 15 hours on public television — Mr. Hustwit and his crew survey both the challenges and promises facing some of the world’s important cities. Their itinerary may not take them everywhere you want it to, but it also turns up some unexpected vistas along with familiar ones.
Here is Paris, yes, and New York (looking especially gorgeous in the movie’s final shot), and here are the slums of Mumbai and the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. But have you heard about the bike lanes of Bogotá, Colombia? About the walkways threaded through the townships on the outskirts of Cape Town? About the new housing projects that are replacing the informal settlements in Santiago, Chile?
All of that was news to me, but even viewers with deep knowledge of modern urban planning are likely to learn something from the carefully selected images and thoughtful interviews that make up most of “Urbanized.” This is the third film in Mr. Hustwit’s trilogy of documentaries on the role of design in the modern world, and it can be thought of as the conceptual shell that contains the other two. The first, “Helvetica,” is about the shape of the printed word, and in particular the font named in the title. “Objectified” concerns itself with the shape and packaging of the things we buy, sell and carry. In both cases a phenomenon likely to be taken for granted is shown to have a complex back story, a set of often unexamined reasons for being the way it is.
“Urbanized” is less focused on the history of cities than on the way they are adapting to the challenges of the present and future, notably climate change and population growth. This slant leaves some inevitable gaps — the David-and-Goliath battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs is mentioned, but important earlier figures like Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted are not — and there is a distinct bias in favor of Jacobs-influenced new urbanism and against other approaches to city planning.
Defenders of mid-20th-century Brasília and early-21st-century Phoenix are heard from, but the prevailing argument in “Urbanized” is that these cities are examples of how to do it wrong. The Brazilian capital is seen as a monument of modernist arrogance, while Phoenix represents soul-killing standardization and the reckless overconsumption of carbon-based fuel. Against these follies, 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 local residents.
Mr. Hustwit relies more on the testimony of professionals than on the wisdom of ordinary people, but that is in keeping with the overall mood of the film, which is lively, curious and pedagogical. Like a really good class taught by a team of enthusiastic professors, “Urbanized” supplies grist for many late-night arguments or solitary ruminations. It is worth venturing out of your room, climbing on your bike or boarding a low-emissions bus and fighting your way through a crowd to see.