Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 03, 2012 8:01 am 
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Urban design matters: cities are where the people are and where they're going to be

Here is one part of the future that can be predicted: cities are where the world's population is going to be increasingly concentrated, half now, about three quarters by 2050. Hence the value of this smart documentary introduction that gives some key examples of good and bad solutions to urban problems. The main issue is that as city populations explode, infrastructures collapse. City planning must step in, but older measures are insufficient. Hustwit's film, a quick look at a vast subject, is about both urban design and urban realities and futures.The focus is on Latin America and Africa, with some glances at India and China, the most populous countries. Some mention is made of traditional spots like London, Paris, and New York; but the megacities are going to be in the Third world. Urbanized is a film that excels in its breezy treatment and use of all sorts of interesting and important talking heads. It tries to cover many fields, and can really only give tastes of each them. Public transportation alone could require a mini-series. But the value of this film as a stimulus to thought, study, and discussion is considerable. Hustwit having previously made 2007's Helvetica, "a documentary about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture," and 2009's Objectified, about the interface between useful objects, users, and their designers, make this in some sense the conclusion of a trilogy focused on aspects of design. But Urbanized considers that topic in broader terms.

Hustwit leads off positively with some good planning solutions to urban issues, especially former mayor and 'New Urbanist' Enrique Peñalosa of Bogotá, Colombia who does his own talking from office, bus stop, and bike. Bogotans had no city pride because the town was a mess when he took office, he says, so he set out to right that by making it easy to get around -- primarily by making war on the car. The right to park isn't in any constitution or UN charter, he says, so he sharply restricted parking and built a TransMilenio bus system that you take like a subway, but utilizes buses. The stations allow for rapid loading and unloading of passengers and the buses run on their own pathways. Roads for cars remain to be improved; they're still bumpy and muddy. Along with this, with parking between car roads and bike paths, the mayor made cycling easy and safe -- and respectable. Now a large percentage of citizens go to work by bike. A big contrast to this is the great-looking but unwieldy planned city of Brazilia, where everything was set far apart, requiring long drives and causing traffic jams. What about suburbs and car-based living? How bad that is is left open. Hustwit lets a developer who loves his garage and his pool have his say. Some of us do love our gardens and our space and may accept the trade-off of a commute.

The best aspect of urban life is its concentration (money, culture, talent, people), and when that's combined with navigable streets, you have a high functioning city, of which Manhattan (though this isn't mentioned) is a key example, with its grid street system and network of underground trains (for north-south long trips) and buses (for going crosstown), not to mention the possibility of walking everywhere within that central borough. Likewise the subway systems of London and Paris. For the latter, Baron Haussmann's 19th-century redesign that gave us the Paris of wide avenues and roundabouts and wiped out clogged small medieval alleyways, is naturally given a nod.

Brazilia is urban planning gone wrong from the get-go. Planning can also go wrong stepping in later to rearrange things, as with the lengthy reign of Robert Moses. Moses might be seen as a New York Haussmann, but Hustwit's film is far from alone in seeing him as a destructive force due to his grand view, favoring cars over people, ignoring neighborhood details and nearly wiping out the Village and SoHo to build overpasses -- while the end of his ascendancy coincided with Jane Jacobs' rise as a non-professional but humanistic thinker about New York's values as a city of intimate neighborhoods.

A Moses-like situation is chronicled in Stuttgart, Germany, where a project to tear down a landmark bus station and park full of ancient trees to rebuild and restructure has met with such vehement citizen revolt that the local government has been voted out in an unprecedented Green Party victory, though the project has not been stopped.

A small positive step is the Tidy Street project in Brighton, England, which has used statistics of energy use stenciled prominently on the paving to encourage locals to be more green. The film touches on the fact that the solution to global warming lies largely with the cities where industry and population are concentrated. In Detroit -- another small chapter of the film -- urban blight gives rise to an awareness of how abandoned structures and spaces can be reused, here, for city vegetable gardens. Another example given is of lower Manhattan's High Line, an abandoned raised train line turned into a kind of park (the development of fashion industry locations here isn't mentioned).

There is always the problem of slums. There will be poor people, and they will be numerous, the more so in the poorer countries. Mumbai will be the world's largest city. How does 600 people per toilet sound? Indian city officials have prevented building plumbing in slums thinking that doing so will only attract people. But on a positive note, Hustwit covers Cape Town, South Africa's successful project to upgrade its outlying poor areas in Khayelitsha township, providing wider, brightly lit walkways and overlook stations to make the neighborhoods safer for workers returning from city toil, and building small but decent dwellings with basic facilities. Naturally the favelas on the edge of Rio come up, and the mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, gets a chance to do some talking. He seems smart and progressive. For the favelas as for Cape Town the stress is on safety and crime-prevention.

The Lower Ninth wasteland produced by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans leads to a critique of the Make It Right redevelopment project of Brad Pitt. The houses may be nice and original architecture for somewhere, Hollywood maybe, speakers say, but don't fit here, and vast empty spaces remain anyway.

Though India and China have their talking heads, and good ones, those countries seem the ones, along with the whole continent of Africa, where the prospects seem most hopeless and overwhelming. Beijing (only the outward example of China's whole world of unimaginably exploding cities) in particular seems only a quickly touched upon topic, with a speaker lamenting the loss of places one could go and people one could talk to, and views of crowds laboring through turnstiles, streets dense with smog, vast new buildings, an urban horror (what of Shanghai? Hong Kong? for that matter Tokyo? but the subject or Asian cities is itself endless). We see Rem Koolhaas' "twisted doughnut" TV building contributing to the avant-garde redesign of Beijing's skyline to impress Olympics visitors and we hear him talk some mumbo jumbo about it: but what can such showoff projects contribute to urban life, other than more debts? The best hope Urbanized leaves us with is that some new innovative planners -- and some leaders like the mayor of Bogotá -- will come along to create new cities that work better, and that the good cities will stay viable and go on being good.

Urbanized was edited by Shelby Siegel and Michael Culyba. The cinematography is by Luke Geissbuhler. A brief summary and list of the talking heads will be found on an 'Urbanizedfilm' website. The film premiered at Toronto and opened in US theaters in September, with Hustwit traveling all over to appear at many US city premieres as well as London and Dublin. It was playing at IFC Center in NYC Jan. 2, 2012, when it was screened for this review.


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