Review: ‘Urbanized’

Nov. 11, 2011, 12:37 a.m.

We are a society becoming increasingly urbanized. Fifty percent of us already live in cities, and 75 percent of us will by 2050. Cities face significant challenges: sustainable urban mobility, maintaining green spaces while allowing development, recovering from natural disasters, ensuring good infrastructure and many more. Gary Hustwit’s film “Urbanized” touches on many of these topics to give a broad portrait of cities today by introducing us to some exciting projects happening around the world.

Hustwit takes us to Copenhagen, Denmark to discover the extensive bike path system in the city where 55 percent of the population commutes by bicycle. We travel to Manhattan to see the High Line, an elevated park atop abandoned railroad tracks in the West Side where people gather to picnic, walk and sunbathe–beneficiaries of a community-led initiative to improve their city.

One of the best stories in the film takes place in Bogotá, Colombia, where we meet the mayor who is working to cheaply transform public transit in the city, improve the service and de-stigmatize its use. A subway system was too expensive, so they built an extensive bus network instead and tried to make the bus-riding experience similar to riding the subway. Buses stop at indoor stations, have comfortable interiors and are given dedicated lanes on highways and in cities to make it clear that buses take priority. Since funds are limited for building infrastructure for cars and bikes, bike lanes get first priority for creation and maintenance; only once bike lanes are fully functional will funds be dedicated to constructing roads for cars. We see streets where cars drive on a bumpy dirt road next to a newly paved bike lane. Again, the city makes a statement that cyclists and public-transit users take priority.

This is the third film in Hustwit’s design trilogy after “Helvetica” and “Objectified,” and it’s the most mature, concise and watchable. Hustwit’s team reduced hundreds of hours of footage to this very tight film, which covers an enormous amount of ground but only scratches the surface of the issue. It’s a broad review of how the design of cities affects the experience of living in cities. It’s also a celebration of the energy in cities where communities mobilize to transform the area where they live. But perhaps its greatest strength is in raising many questions, leaving us hoping for multiple follow-up films to cover them. What makes public transit systems work? What makes communities mobilize? How can cities recover from natural disasters? Just what is it about cities that make their dwellers so excited and passionate about them?

Alexandra Heeney writes film, theater and jazz reviews. She has covered the Sundance Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival and her favorite, the Toronto International Film Festival. As a Toronto native, the lack of Oxford commas and Canadian spelling in this bio continue to keep her up at night. In her spare time, Alex does research on reducing the environmental impact of food waste for her PhD in Management Science and Engineering.

Login or create an account