how the imagery of “urbanized” motivates better places

Seattle-based writer and futurist Alex Steffen (left) joins Gary Hustwit on stage

As a survey text in visual form, Gary Hustwit’s Urbanized is a frank introduction to the buzz about cities in our age of right-minded sustainability. Lurking amid the narration and vignettes is a scalable world view where the car is no longer king, and community priorities rather than government mandates often set the agenda for change.

Seattle had the chance to view Hustwit’s new release last night, and in my estimation, the audience saw local issues reflected back from the screen, as will city-dwellers everywhere who attend an Urbanized presentation. Hustwit clearly succeeds in highlighting a universal cast of diverse and sometimes conflicting stakeholders who must balance and integrate ideas, technology and economic forces characteristic of an urbanizing world.

Other articles about Urbanized have set the stage well, among them a Hustwit interview in TheCityFix, a review by Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times (who notes Southern California is missing in Hustwit’s lexicon) and a concise entry by Nate Berg on the new Atlantic Cities site.

In short, Hustwit, while not an architect or urban planner, aptly synthesizes the hottest urban issues—from carbon neutrality to safety to human-scale transportation. He employs voices of the well known, the lesser known, and fast-moving urban imagery, which guides the film from Mumbai to Santiagp, to Brasila, Bogota and around the world.

I’ve written lately about the value of imagery in conveying the messages of cities. In this context, Urbanized gives rich meaning to street scenes, infrastructure, and the single building as part of an urban framework.

Through the film’s masterful editing, reality abounds.

Santiago slum dwellers participate in the design of new dwellings, and choose bathtubs over water heaters to escape the communal shower left behind. Brasilia is a planned joy from the air, yet a disconnected trek for the pedestrian. Beijing, with narration by architect Yung Ho Chang, becomes a city of wide avenues no longer a place where friends cross paths. Adjacent to Cape Town, in the township of Khayelitsha, a community project team builds safety through light and other urban design features.

Hustwit also honors his cast and blends them skillfully with their environments.

Former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa is one with the bus rapid transit and bicycle infrastructure which made his reputation. Landscape Architect James Corner hears the noises around him on New York’s High Line and acknowledges them as an undeniable piece of the urban experience. And the camera is loyal to the anthropological perspectives presented by Danish urban designer Jan Gehl as he suggests angles of view characteristic of evolved homo sapiens in their urban habitat.

While some have said that Urbanized is more primer than graduate seminar, it is still a must-see as a one-sitting wonder. Seldom do we get to see the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz espouse optimism for cities as opportune laboratories for reinvention and competition, within moments of dramatic scenes of tension between citizens and government. Hustwit has a knack of mixing and matching, and merging problem with opportunity.

A visual triumph, Urbanized could nonetheless feature more cities, reference more history and, sometimes better blend the film’s talking heads with the community they espouse.

Yet the film says more than meets the eye, and in my view, issues an undeniable challenge to all who embrace cities: capture ideas, and make better urban places going forward.

Initial image composed by the author at the Egyptian Theater, Seattle.

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