Movie Monday: “Urbanized”

Directed by:
Gary Hustwit
Format: Big screen
Viewed: Friday 1/13/2012 with my wife and our friend Gosia at the Tower Theatre in Fresno

It’s pretty rare that I walk away from a documentary film feeling genuinely uplifted. But the first Fresno Filmworks screening of 2012, the Gary Hustwit documentary “Urbanized,” was truly inspiring. I enjoyed watching the first movie in Hustwit’s design trilogy, “Helvetica,” a few weeks ago as a primer. But the beautiful cinematography and moving stories of “Urbanized” turned urban planning into real art for me, and I came away from the film quite moved at human ingenuity and people’s passion for the public spaces they love.

Three segments in the movie stuck with me the most. The first was the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who was credited with being a pioneer in building a public light rail system and public bike trails in the early 2000s. He said that there was no universal human right to parking, and he insisted that if you take away parking spaces in a city center that you will then take away cars and pollution. “Parking is not a government problem,” the former mayor said, inciting many giggles from the car-happy Fresno audience.

The second part I loved was the revitalization of The High Line in New York City, a massive transformation of a historic elevated rail line in the heart of the city from weed-pocked and abandoned eyesore into a glorious urban park. The dedication of the Friends of The High Line to preserve a piece of history by transforming it instead of demolishing it made me think of all the little places in Fresno that might benefit from a similar innovative commitment.

The third part I loved was the story of the bike paths in Copenhagen, Denmark, where the city boasts that nearly 40 percent of its daily commuter traffic is done by bicycle. The city spent years taking away lanes from cars and one-by-one converting them to safe bike lines. Most notably, they put the bike lanes to the right of the lane for parked cars, to add a buffer between cyclists and automobile traffic. Such a simple safety move drew great cheers and laughter from the Fresno crowd, which has watched for decades as our city’s bumbling planners and politicians fumble to add a bike lane here or there, but then nobody wants to ride in them for fear of constantly being run over by an SUV. Hustwit’s documentary should be required viewing for all Central Valley mayors, city council members, and planning commissioners.

2 thoughts on “Movie Monday: “Urbanized”

  1. Jefferson, thanks for this post! I agree, this was an excellent movie that inspired even those who know little about architecture and planning (like myself). I, too was greatly impressed by the mayor of Bogota. He said, “A city needs to show as much respect for a person riding a $30 bicycle as it does for someone driving a $30,000 car.” Wow. Other parts that I loved:
    One was the low housing projects being built in Santiago, Chile for residents who had lived in horrible slums. There was only limited financial resources, so the architects and builders actually made what apparently is a revolutionary step: they went out to ask the community what they wanted in their houses. The majority of families chose to have a bathtub instead of a water heater (whereas in most instances the designers would just put in a heater assuming families wanted that instead of the bathtub). The other cool part is that these townhouses were only partially finished, with the basic amenities, but families could eventually add other amenities on their own.
    The other great segment was on the slums of Mumbai, India, where there is one toilet seat for 600 people. It’s a city of 12 million where 60 percent live in slums! — the poor people and the corrupt builders are the city’s architects. The city apparently doesn’t want to build more toilets, because officials are afraid that would attract more migrants to move to Mumbai. “As if people come to shit,” retorts an Indian activist.
    And did you know Detroit has shrunk incredibly, with many neighborhoods abandoned, empty of people?! Recent census figures show the city, once the nation’s fourth largest, lost a quarter of its population in the last decade!
    I could go on, but I’ll wrap it up. A brilliant movie. –Gosia

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