A wide-ranging overview of the concerns facing modern city-dwellers, activists, planners and architects, “Urbanized” smartly concludes Gary Hustwit’s expansive docu trilogy on the prevalence of visual design in daily life. Rattling off a globe-trotting series of case studies in urban innovation, some more laudable than others, this 85-minute item functions more as introduction than analysis, glossing over issues that could easily sustain longform treatment. Still, it’s a well-packaged primer whose preaching-to-the-choir tendencies feel more appealingly commonsensical than obnoxious. Pic is now screening in key markets before a Gotham theatrical run starting Oct. 28.
In his previous documentaries, Hustwit turned miniatures into conversation pieces, using something as simple as a sans-serif typeface (in 2007’s “Helvetica”) or a household item (in 2009’s “Objectified”) to open a thought-provoking discussion of man-made objects in all their aesthetic, political, cultural and environmental implications. He has a much more sprawling subject on his hands in “Urbanized,” and if the pic’s city-by-city structure feels a bit rote and repetitive by comparison, the discourse proves typically energetic, stimulating and even eye-opening.
Proceeding from the statistic that 75% of the human population will live in cities by the year 2050, the pic delves into some of the world’s most densely inhabited areas. Hustwit and his crew move from the slums of Mumbai, where the ratio of people to toilets is about 600 to 1; to Santiago, Chile, whose Lo Barnechea housing project tailors living spaces and utilities to families’ specific needs.
More developed cities serve as demonstrations of urbanist principles in action, none more rousingly than Bogota, where officials have curtailed traffic problems by restricting the number of parking spaces. (“I don’t see any constitution that includes the right to park,” scoffs former mayor Enrique Penalosa, interviewed happily riding his bicycle.) Brighton, U.K., is home to the Tidy Street Project, where one block is spray-painted with an infographic displaying the town’s daily electricity usage, a concrete way to boost environmental awareness. Similarly green-minded is Detroit resident Mark Covington, who converted three empty lots into the now-thriving Georgia Street Community Garden.
Emphasizing the vibrancy and vitality of city life and the importance of carbon-footprint awareness and sustainability, “Urbanized” can feel, almost by its own admission, like a filmed tract for NPR listeners. The lone voice from the other side is Phoenix land-use attorney Grady Gammage Jr., who offers an articulate defense of suburban sprawl and the American ideals of car and home ownership; while he’s treated respectfully enough, pin-drop silence seems to greet his every word.
To Hustwit’s credit, the film complicates the debate by highlighting the potential pitfalls of urbanization. Seen from the air, with its fabulously futuristic architecture, Brasilia is “the ultimate modernistic city,” per one observer; at ground level, however, life in Brazil’s capital has proved impractical and inconvenient. Halfway around the world, Beijing’s astounding transformation over the past 30 years fills architects like Yung Ho Chang with unease: “It’s a new Beijing, but I’m not sure I like it.”
Redesign efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans come in for a particularly stinging slap on the wrist, none more so than those undertaken by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. Shots of brightly colored duplexes, looking alien against the backdrop of the Lower Ninth Ward, serve the pic’s point about what happens when high-minded architecture is prioritized at the expense of a city’s unique history and personality.
Luke Geissbuhler’s lensing provides clean, attractive metropolitan views without turning into fetishistic eye-candy, and Shelby Siegel and Michael Culyba’s fleet editing keeps things moving at a brisk, efficient clip.