This, as the internet cats say, is relevant to my interests. Urbanized, a documentary about how world cities have changed in the 21st century, comes as part three of Gary Hustwit’s “design trilogy.” I still use Helvetica, the first part, as a kind of litmus test: if someone turns it off partway through or doesn’t even start it in the first place because “come on, it’s just about a font,” I consider phasing them out of my social circle. The second part, Objectified, took on industrial design, a bite perhaps too large to chew in 75 minutes. This third draws from our moment’s resurgence of urbanism, which provides both the film’s subject and its motivating force. What with the intellectual charge I’ve gotten from watching (and sometimes experiencing) that resurgence, Urbanized could hardly fit more squarely into my wheelhouse, and I get the sense that thousands of other oldish young people and youngish old people can say the same.
If I can speak for the middle-younger cluster of these oldish young people, I pin our enthusiasm for cities on having grown up in suburban bedroom communities with single-digit WalkScores. My dad explained the Baby Boomers’ dispersal throughout such dead zones as an attempt to get their kids into halfway decent school districts. That makes sense, although as I grew up I couldn’t help but notice that many of my urban-raised peers had an ability and willingness to meet life’s challenges where I felt only a nebulous fear. Granted, ragging on the ‘burbs is and has always been a highly fashionable pursuit among teens, twentysomethings, and (especially) childless thirtysomethings, but I really do get the sense that the developed world has started to accept the fundamental failure of the Cold War picket-fence dream. Environmentalists decry suburbia’s sustainability issues and artists decry its hollow moral and intellectual core, but neither of those problems bother me as much as its lack of randomness.
While none of the interviewed architects, planners, designers, advocates, and politicians ever say the word, I do find that the city’s strength lies in its capacity to deliver randomness, and I think Urbanized agrees. The film doesn’t come off like an advocacy documentary, exactly, but you can’t mistake which way its wind is blowing. When Phoenix comes in for particular scorn, its lone defender can only muster the explanation that it exemplifies not “sprawl,” per se, but an “automobile-oriented postwar urban fabric” that, unlike “cute” condo life, at least affords its residents private backyards and pools. Brasília, the first foreign city that ever intrigued me, appears as the apotheosis of wrongheaded modernist ideals about large-scale organization of urban functions. Though I still find that city striking, in its way, I can see what Robert Hughes meant when he wrote, “This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place; and single rather than multiple meanings. [ ... ] You get miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens.” Cathedral of Brasília architect Oscar Niemeyer shows up to defend this distinctive urban plan, but he is, not to put too fine a point on it, 103 years old.
A few simple dos and don’ts emerge from these case studies. Don’t separate commerce, industry, and residence. (And especially don’t put the poor people into their own towers.) Do encourage the mixed-use buildings and neighborhoods so beloved of urban-planning writer Jane Jacobs. Don’t cut the city’s fabric apart with the freeways beloved of New York “master builder” Robert Moses. Do encourage non-car forms of transportation. Don’t bother rebuilding damaged freeways, like San Francisco didn’t with the Embarcadero. I’ve now started to suspect that the best thing for Los Angeles would be for the Big One to finally come and take out a few of our freeways, at least in the sections that run through the city itself. (As Adam Lisagor tweeted on the eve of “Carmageddon,” “What if it turns out we never really needed the 405 anyway?”) Los Angeles never appears in Urbanized, except maybe in one of the freeway shots near the beginning, and those aim from too low an angle to tell. We could probably chalk this up, in part, to the inertia of unchallenged prejudice — “Los Angeles? No, I mean a real city” — but semi-sound objections remain. Los Angeles’ peculiar development history once strongly incentivized living in cheap, far-flung, nearly anonymous municipalities, then commuting by car to everywhere else. When you drive from exact points to other exact points, according to a specific plan, encountering only vast tracts of asphalt in between, urban randomness fast plummets toward zero.
The many kinds of city-builders featured in Urbanized face the same implicit question: “How to optimize our city’s randomness?” If you just want to maximize raw randomness, any absurd, bloody third-world warzone capital will do; fostering beneficial randomness — even defining beneficial randomness — proves a much more delicate task. I see examples of Los Angeles’ improvements in randomness by the month, emblematized by events like CicLAvia, which closes downtown to drivers and opens it to cyclists. Urbanized includes an entertaining chunk of face time with former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, on whose watch that city began the weekly Ciclovía that inspired CicLAvia. In Copenhagen, we see bike lanes running not beside but between parked cars and the sidewalk. An inspiringly simple idea, sure, but, just like Bogotá’s dedicated-lane TransMileno buses, for some reason I can’t imagine Los Angeles catching up to it before the year 10000000000.
Hustwit crafts his documentaries with a certain slick rigor, making heavy use of crisp, high-definition montages; commissioning smooth scores with a slight “eclectic” edge; rounding up a robust selection of talking heads with thin spectacle frames, colorful accents, and often panethnic features; and never, ever exceeding 90 minutes per film. He thus leaves himself open to his critics’ accusations: of breeziness at best, and of a casual supercilious triumphalism at worst. Despite my fascination with how cities work, I don’t quite see it through the lens of “design;” that way, it seems to me, lies the mindset of those kids who play too much SimCity and grow up into stubborn technocrats who, staring through their narrow frames, insist that they know what’s best for poor people. While I desire few things more than randomness-conducive urban environments, I feel queasily suspect, perhaps unreasonably so, of anyone who tries to generate it from the top down. Not that this arrives as a new internal conflict: 2500 years of political philosophy, all I know is that I want more train lines now, yet I fear and loathe any government powerful enough to build them quickly.