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'Helvetica' Director Gary Hustwit Takes on City Design with 'Urbanized'

'Helvetica' Director Gary Hustwit Takes on City Design with 'Urbanized'
A scene from Beijing in Gary Hustwit's "Urbanized"

Urbanized, the new documentary from director Gary Hustwit, is a globe-trotting, project-touring, expert-filled survey of city design and modern urbanity. From Mumbai to Copenhagen to Beijing to New York, the film documents the forces and people that shape the world’s cities in a global tour that nicely balances both the challenges and prospects of urbanization.

“Originally when I thought of the idea I quickly realized it’s impossible to even scratch the surface: the forces that shape the city, the challenges, the solutions, the people and their different roles. I knew I was going to fail from the get-go,” says Hustwit. “So the question became how to fail as little as possible.”

Despite that challenge, the film neatly encapsulates much of the conversation about today’s cities. Experts like architect Rem Koolhaas, urban designer Jan Gehl, politician Enrique Peñalosa and dozens more expound on the challenges and design issues facing cities, and the camera takes viewers onto the streets where those problems are playing out. Hustwit creates a portrait of The City as a kind of agglomerated mix of trends, problems, and solutions in the realm of urbanism, gleaned from examples all over the world. He and his team filmed in about 25 to 30 cities, eventually focusing on about a dozen that share similar issues.

Hustwit isn’t a trained urban designer or planner, but he has a long-held interest in design. It’s a topic he’s covered in two previous films, Helvetica and Objectified, about typography and industrial design, respectively. “I’ve always been critical about why things are the way they are,” he says.

The film was two and a half years in the making, and over that time Hustwit talked with dozens of experts, officials, designers, and citizens about their cities. Many of the projects highlighted in the film will be familiar, such as the High Line in New York City or the Transmilenio bus rapid transit system in Bogotá.

“Those solutions worked. Are they universal solutions? No,” he says. But there are so many shared characteristics between cities that they can always learn from one another, the film argues.

Two of the projects featured in Urbanized—a community-building effort in a Cape Town township and a mass protest against a rail project in Stuttgart—emphasize the social implications of citymaking and design.

“Ninety-nine percent of the shape of the city is a result of the top-down approach, at least in the formal design,” he says. “Those projects that seem to work best are the ones using people in the city as the compass for deciding what the solution should be.”

Urbanized screens in cities across the country this fall.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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