Urbanized – A Documentary Film by Gary Hustwit

I wouldn’t normally write a post on a single film, but this one moved me in a different way.  I can’t remember exactly who suggested that I watch it, but if you’re out there reading this and remember telling me about it, give me a shout!  Asante Sana!!

“Cities are the physical manifestation of powers at work”

How would you describe urban design? – From the film it was stated that everything you see in a city (especially in urban environments) is planned.  There are four components in the design – architects, developers, government (city/state officials) and the public – When it comes to your own neighborhood, which role do you play?  Do you play a role at all?

Of course resources also play a huge part – the film demonstrates rampant slum dwelling vs. the top 10%; urbanization can have a direct negative effect on health and hygeine due to poplation density and it is incredibly disturbing – in totality this equals a “failure of society.”

“What we know from history, what you need is a small group of innovators (people) that can demonstrate how to do things differently. And once that gets mainstream, change happens really quickly.”    

-Edgar Pieterse Director, African Centre for Cities.

What should we strive for in urban planning?  Civic Pride? Garden City models with minimalist, rational ideals?

In Brazil, one mayor “invested in the people”.  He stated that this is “real democracy at work”.  What did they do in Brazil?  They paved all of the pedestrian and bike trails in the city first, while the cars drove on muddy, potholed roads.  He said that they will address the traffic streets last so that people (humans who walk and bike and don’t use up natural resources that pollute) deserve to feel valued first.

Over a 30 year period in Copenhagen they created four transportation lanes – a lane for pedestrians, a bike lane, a parked car lane, and a lane for car traffic.  Designers proclaim that bikers are protected this way and the number of bikers has more than doubled.  37% of people walk or bike ride to work, regardless of the distance.  They are physically healthier as well.  Makes perfect sense!  Imagaine the increase in self-esteeem and the elimation of some disparities when nearly 40% of the people are biking instead of competing over fancy cars (a.k.a. penis extensions).


When planning, one must acknowledge the fact that grand design can destroy something else (i.e., charm, environment, life), hence the Robert Moses controversey in New York City.  The Master Builder, as he was called, built highways that destroyed entire neighborhoods! – “his insensitivity was legendary.”  What was the real point of it all?  Ego?  Money?  Or was he simply a true visionary who realized the needs of the future?

As a direct opponent of Moses, journalist and urban design activist Jane Jacobs played a huge roll in getting the word out against such destructive urbanization.  Her voice influenced the future of urban design and planning.  She indeed played her role.

Ever seen the New York City High Line?  Check out the pictures.  Do you think this was a desperate attempt to correct the wrongs of the past?  Or simply a great idea?  It looks interesting to say the least.

Next Up?  Beware the Suburban “sprawl!”  Yes, the suburb dwellers don’t get off the hook either just beacuse they don’t actively participate in the day-to-day living of the inner city.  Take a look at these pictures.  What does that say to your spirit in terms of controlled, group-think environments?  Looks a little creepy when you see the aerials like this.

Then we have the true heroes of the group.  Detroit resident Mark Covington founded the Georgia Street Community Garden (now Georgia Street Community Collective), which is (obviously) a section of self-sustaining gardening within the urban areas of Detroit, MI.  The lots are provided by the city, but offer no further assistance.  Simply stated Mark encourages to “Get off your butt and take care of your own”.  Sounds like a plan!  I believe in urban farming whole-heartedly.

Then the urbanizaion dug even deeper.  In Bejiing, China and in parts of India, their own developers are admitting to having made major mistakes in trying to emulate and top America city structures.  They essentially lumped shiny skyscrapers on top of history, culture and tradition, and are paying the price.  Many of the millions of citizens are robotic and miserable.

From a conservative point of view, a small community in Brighton England, called Tidy Street, went after low-tech development, to unplug things and conserve energy.  They painted the streets according to electricity consumption and people became more conscious of their habits. They began changing these behaviors, and the changes have been sustained!

“Architects must be optimists (believers in the future) or else you will not survive in the industry.”

In Rio de Janiero, the mayor began planning by asking the question “how can we take care of people in everyday life using technology?”  Solution?  They now monitor power grids, phone usage, and watch Google Maps to predict and protect their people.  This sounds a little invasive in my opinion, but if it works and awakens its citizens then who am I to judge?

Cape Town, South Africa (Khayelitsha Township)…


In this checkered, port city, there were immediate safety concerns and so they came up with tangible, brick and mortar solutions.  They have now proven that (at least in their case) safety comes from really good lighting at night, look-outs (done in taller buildings within the community – take note Cleveland),  and safe places for children to play. – Murder rate dropped by 40%!   Here is look at the Urban Upgrading program.

And what urbanization doc would be complete without a little post-Katrina New Orleans?!?


According to current developers, the widespread tragedy is that West Coast architects came in and “had a lot of fun”, but with no test, and no sustainable plan to restore the culture in the city and it’s surrounding neighborhoods.  Check out the HBO Series TREME!  Aside from exposing the U.S. and it’s lack of collective planning and action, the music is great!  There’s everyone from Trombone Shorty to Terrence Blanchard making appearances in the show.  But I digress…

In N.O., public artist Candy Chang indulged in a  “I Wish This Was” sticker campaign.


Personally, I think that this a a great idea.  The stickers are removabale so they don’t add to the problem.  Candy stated that this is important becasue “It’s easier to reach out to the entire world then it is to reach out to your neighborhood.”  It provides a voice for the voiceless.  Candy was later featured on the TED Blog.

My final point deals with the political and even violent nature of urbanization, i.e. Stuttgart 21.  In this particular case, there were major peace protesters against development and then many protesters supporting it – a Civil War of sorts.  Violence eventually erupted and it looked so pathetic to see military patrolled city construction sites.  Eventually, a public vote was needed to resolve the divisive issue.  Again, democracy at work?  Truly no progress without struggle.

Whatever the case may be, I know for sure that I was able to take something away from this film.  As in most situations, we must begin with empathy, consideration, critical thinking, and sustainable planning.  SO, as I go to work (in the inner city library), I have a lot to think about (and so do you) namely the plans being made that will directly impact my world, my livelihood, my peace.  I have a role to play and it’s decision time.  Which will it be?  What role will you play?  The first task at hand – don’t be a drone and pay attention!


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