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ADVANCE: Urbanized - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
ADVANCE: Urbanized
Directing: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

Urban design is a ridiculously broad concept, so how do you narrow it down enough for an 85-minute documentary and still retain focus? Well, Gary Hustwit, the director who regards this as the third of a trilogy after his Helvetica (2007) and Objectified (2009), found a way.

Hustwit was present at the advance screening in Seattle, and he noted that over 300 hours of footage was shot from around the world. Clearly creating a cohesive picture of city planning was no easy task. But he smartly keeps things simple: very early on, it's noted that by 2050, 75% of the world's population will be living in cities. Small towns just aren't where it's at anymore -- there's a systematic migration to the urban cores all over the globe. And since it's happening very quickly, how does the local civic leadership in each city plan for that strain on their resources, and how do they incorporate design into the process?

What follows is essentially a series of cities worldwide used as examples of how this process is best being handled. In only a few cases are cities used as examples of poor urban planning: Brasilia, Brazil looks fantastic from the air but is incredibly impractical for movement on the ground; Phoenix, Arizona is used as the poster city for sprawl (though the one person interviewed from Phoenix defends their city infrastructure).

Otherwise, though, we are treated to a presentation of the physical manifestations of some of the most innovative ideas around the world. An example: over a third of Copenhagen's citizens commute every day by bicycle. The mayor notes that they deliberately constructed bike paths between sidewalks and parked cars. "That way the parked cars are protecting the bicyclists, instead of the bicyclists protecting the parked cars." Unsurprisingly, at the screening I attended here in Seattle, a fairly bike-friendly city itself, this elicited immediate and enthusiastic applause.

Another standout includes Bogota, Columbia, where a bus system was recently implemented that has striking similarities to a subway system, just above ground: passengers pay at turnstiles entering the stations; station doors and bus doors open simultaneously and create large enough entry space for quick loading and unloading; and the buses have their own dedicated street lanes that bypass traffic congestion. Former mayor Enrique Peñalosa notes that the benefit of this system over a far more expensive subway system is the rapidly changing dynamics of a city and where the highest concentrations of people may be over time. A subway tunnel can't be re-aligned, but a bus route can. A valid point.

Part of what makes Urbanized unique, somewhat ironically, is the way it underscores the nature of human living, and how consistent it is around the globe regardless of the vast cultural differences. Nearly all public squares never exceed a certain size, due simply to the inability of the human eye to detect movement from father away. In some senses, this is an objective look at the natural behavior of a specific animal species: people.

That said, much of the urban planning featured could be useful to other cities facing similar issues. One town in South Africa cuts crime by constructing well-lit pedestrian paths through low-income neighborhoods, complete with manned lookout towers spaced just close enough so they are always in view. Anyone who might feel unsafe can always see and find their way to a safe place. A ton of American cities could take a cue from that.

Many American cities are featured, though. It comes as no surprise that New York City comes up several times, perhaps most notably to showcase the High Line, the former elevated railroad track that stopped being used in 1980 and just sat rotting for the next three decades -- and is now arguably the nicest city park in Manhattan, drawing visitors not only from all over the city but all over the country and the world. American cities with peculiar and specific challenges include the post-Katrina New Orleans, where a woman is putting "I wish this was" stickers on abandoned buildings to allow locals to voice their wishes for their community; and the post-automotive Detroit, which has shrunk to less than half its peak population of two million but is now using vacant lots for urban farming.

All in all, Urbanized paints a very optimistic portrait of urban design and planning -- if not how cities are always designed, then how they can be. It's a look at the world's urban potential, painted with a broad stroke but with all of the elements carefully applied. It's thoroughly absorbing.

One of many examples of carefully planned public urban space featured in the documentary URBANIZED.

Overall: A-

Seattle release date not yet available.
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