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‘Urbanized’ a thought provoking documentary for an urban age

After bringing us illuminating takes on graphic design and industrial design wit Helvetica and Objectified, director Gary Hustwit turns his eye toward larger things with Urbanized. In a way, this is the first in the series to feel “important”. By looking at the very real ways urban planning and design affect the lives of people of all stripes, Urbanized takes on greater meaning.

Where Urbanized finds most success is in the presentation of workable solutions. Sure, there is some education on just what urban planning involves, but it’s much more a film about philosophies and practical problem solving. For example, there’s an interview with the mayor of Bogota, who explains how the city reduced a good deal of its traffic congestion by restricting parking spaces in the city. Less parking, less driving. It’s a simple solution that then allowed the city to implement a wide range of transit solutions that helped raise the status of those below the poverty line and completely changed how the city operates.

The documentary also takes a look at cities on the decline. One section featuring Detroit contains a shot that might be the best shot in a film in ages. It’s a view from the front of a moving monorail train as it moves over the city. It’s shocking. The city looks dead. It’s like something out of 28 Days Later. Completely heartbreaking.

Urbanized really shines a light on the importance of good urban planning in an age when more and more of the human population is moving from agricultural life to urban life. How do cities manage millions of people and different classes of people? How do cities help raise up the poor? How can cities be more livable for everyone? These are big questions, and they become more important by the day. Urbanized doesn’t really have all the answers, but it does highlight the importance of trying to find workable solutions. It also highlights the immense difficulty in solving these problems. The second you’ve figured one thing out, about twenty more problems crop up. Such is the nature of sticking millions of people together in one small space.

There is only one problem with Urbanized, and that is it’s too short. Sure, it’s great for what it is, but every time the film puts its magnifying glass on one city, it’s almost sad when it pulls away five minutes later. This is a documentary that easily could have been made into a five or six part TV series, with a much more in depth look at each city, giving all the problems and solutions much closer attention. It’s not a huge fault, and in fact it’s practically a compliment to say that the film leaves you wanting more. Still, it leaves you wanting so much more that it becomes almost a shame when it doesn’t fully deliver.

All that said, Urbanized is a great documentary, and a great look at an area of life and design that doesn’t get enough attention. The importance of cities and urban planning in our daily lives is often invisible to us, but no doubt it’s there, constantly shaping the way we live and interact with our communities. It’s the kind of documentary that can be recommended to anybody with even a passing social consciousness, and the time spent watching it is nothing if not worthwhile.