Review: URBANIZED

Going by the feverish buzz around city planning documentary Urbanized (the third of Gary Hustwit's recent series of films on modern design, after Helvetica and Objectified), you could be forgiven for expecting some kind of rapturous epiphany on how the world works. While the film is good - very good, in places - it's not quite as transcendent as some of the more enthusiastic pull quotes would have you believe. Much of this is simply down to the sheer scale of the subject the director decides to tackle; how cities work, why they work that way and what people are doing to change the status quo.

There's simply too much material here, to be fair, too many possible angles for anyone bar a genius to adequately explore the good stuff in a single film. But Urbanized doesn't do an amazing job of pulling together what it does go with. There are some fascinating bits and pieces here, informative, wryly funny and gorgeously shot. Yet there's little linkage or sense of flow, far too many opportunities left unexplored, questions left unasked and common sense presented as deep wisdom ('Everything you see when you walk down the street has been designed by someone' - you don't say?).

It's an undeniably attractive film, featuring an impressive array of the earth's cities - some obvious choices, maybe, but they give a good sense of the breadth of different problems facing governments, NGOs and concerned citizens trying to manage the inexorable growth in new arrivals streaming from rural areas to urban centres. From people planting gardens in the empty neighbourhoods of Detroit, to artists beautifying inner-city relics like New York's The Highline, to the slums of Mumbai or Santiago there's enough in each new location for a whole TV series.

While the talking heads freely acknowledge the terrifying scale of the numbers, Urbanized is relatively optimistic, with solutions to various problems getting airtime. Santiago sees a new initiative aimed at better utilising the limited funds available to build housing for the poor, and a South African township gets a redevelopment program meant to redesign open spaces to make them safer, giving gang members fewer places to hide and citizens more places to congregate without fear of violence.

But Urbanized doesn't do anywhere near as much as it could to tie these things together. You can sympathise with Hustwit - this isn't the History Channel, and the obvious tack of starting way, way back in time and working up to the present day must have seemed a fairly boring prospect. Still, the intermittent jumping around is a constant source of frustration; to cite one example they mention the redevelopment of medieval Paris, and the career of Robert Moses as he blitzed through New York, but there's no sense of any unifying context - as in these all being part of an attempt to improve conditions and damn the consequences.

Some of the different vignettes seem pretty edifying, like the new houses in Santiago, but others seem fairly unremarkable, more like free PR for the city in question. The Mayor of Bogotá gets a chance to explain what the public transport systems he introduced did for the city's psyche, and while the man clearly cares about his work there's a little too much of the practised statesman to his monologues and not too much content. If you put the right bus routes in, give them dedicated lanes and clean, efficient stops, people will use the things? Hustwit does his best, but it's not rocket science no matter how you sell it.

And Urbanized misses multiple opportunities to really capitalise on knotty questions raised, or plain ignores them. One contributor condemns the Mumbai slums as 'unliveable' - obviously they're pretty horrible... but surely some residents might take issue with his choice of words? Interviewing an ageing Oskar Niemeyer then having further architects condemn Brasília as a disaster suggests a more confrontational agenda that never materialises. Or, more comically, Rem Koolhaas is interviewed and specifically linked to his design for the CCTV headquarters in Beijing, but no-one notes city residents mockingly named the building 'the Big Underpants'.

Gary Hustwit is a talented visual director, and he clearly has a very wide range of interests, both of which mean if you have any intention of seeking Urbanized out there's liable to be something in it that'll grab you. There is some absolutely stunning imagery here, and the different scenarios touched on make for a very good primer on the complexity of keeping any city growing and developing into the next century and beyond. Yet the film continually presents the issues involved in a way that suggests it wants to be something more, but never adequately follows through on any of them.

Urbanized plays more like the pitch for what would probably be a fantastic TV series than any life-changing documentary. By all means go and see it if you have any interest in the subject matter: there's too much good stuff here to pass it by simply because it doesn't live up to expectations. But every time it flits across half the world and leaves a potentially riveting subject behind, never to be mentioned again, the only epiphany that results is how some subjects are probably too big to be covered in a scant ninety minutes. Consider Urbanized definitely recommended, but just bear that in mind.
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