Gary Hustwit’s Urbanized

Last night, Urban Design Week (profiled in last week’s Urban Omnibus feature) wrapped up with the US premiere of Urbanized, a documentary film by Gary Hustwit that introduces viewers to the key issues, projects and individuals affecting the design of cities around the world. Fresh from its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last week, the movie played to a packed house at Landmark Sunshine Cinema, followed by a Q&A with Hustwit and three of the urban thinkers featured in the film, Brookings’ Bruce Katz, NYC Department of City Planning Director Amanda Burden and architect, critic and educator Michael Sorkin. The panelists, who were seeing the final cut for the first time, responded to the film with enthusiasm. The discussion, which was kept short to make way for the night’s second screening of the film, touched on questions of confidence in US vs. world cities (Katz, distinguishing between leadership at the metropolitan level and the national, stated that he is “phenomenally confident that we can rebuild America from the bottom up, not from the top down.”); innovations in New York (Burden pointed to the City’s ongoing efforts to activate the waterways and waterfront, to “reclaim New York as a world class harbor city.”); and what initiatives they hope to see come next (Sorkin wished for a shift of 50% of urban street space currently dedicated to the car to be given to the pedestrian; and Katz called on cities to “take our nation back” by innovating locally, working regionally and advocating nationally. “Cities are engines of change,” he concluded, “but we don’t act like it.”)

As Omnibus readers know well, the full range of forces at play in urban form is enormous and diverse enough to seem impossible to reduce to a mere 88 minutes. But Hustwit achieves the impossible, criss-crossing the globe from Mumbai to Stuttgart, from New Orleans to New York, to talk to some of the architects, urban planners, historians, artists and citizens responsible for defining or advancing the design of cities. But much more than the individuals and projects featured, what makes Hustwit’s film so engrossing is the way he distills the complexity of urban design and planning without resorting to gross oversimplification of how much thought and action goes into making our cities what they are, from the improvised construction processes of informal settlements in the megacities of the developing world to architectural innovations in the public realm to the policy choices of municipal departments of city planning. We sat down with Hustwit to hear more about Urbanized and the processes, ideas and people that shape our cities.

House models by Elemental/Alejandro Aravena | Film still courtesy of Courtesy Swiss Dots Ltd.
Urban Omnibus (UO):

How did the film Urbanized come about?

Gary Hustwit (GH):

During the process of making and promoting my last two films, Objectified and HelveticaI traveled to over 100 cities and became immersed in their design communities. I became fascinated with the similarities and the differences between the cities, and in the ways some architectural or urban development project would inevitably come up in conversation in each place. I thought about that being the theme of a third film. I’ve always been interested in architecture and I hadn’t seen a film expressly about architecture in the context of the city, the design of our cities and people that shape them. At the end of the day, all three films are personal explorations into subjects that I don’t know that much about but am really curious about.


Each of the films explores a different kind of design — graphic design, industrial and product design, and now urban design and planning. What interests you about design as a subject matter in general?


It started with my interest in graphic design. Ever since I got my first Macintosh I’ve been interested in digital fonts and reading design magazines. Helvetica really came out of my being a huge fan of graphic design. I just wanted to see a film about these people whose work I love. I didn’t have any intention of making any other films, much less a trilogy of design-themed films. But the world we created with Helvetica was a world I liked and wanted to stay in a little bit longer. It was only after I started shooting Objectified that I realized how much it felt like an extension of the ideas, questions and visual style of Helvetica. That’s when I kind of saw it as a sequel and then ultimately as part of a three-film cycle.

Amanda Burden at the NYC Dept. of City Planning | Film still courtesy of Courtesy Swiss Dots Ltd.

In professional circles, there is no real consensus as to what urban design is. It’s a matter of incredibly contentious debate. Did you go into this process with a specific definition of what goes into the design of cities? How has your understanding changed over the process?


I didn’t have a specific opinion or idea or definition of urban design going into the project. I learned about all of this over the two and a half years I was making the film. I spent about six months before shooting going to conferences, talking to architects and other people in the field, asking them their opinions about the state of cities and what interesting people and projects they think define the essence of what urban design is. Each person we interviewed would suggest a few other names, and we kept going around, learning more at each subsequent step. After ten interviews I had a little better grasp, and after 30 interviews I got a much better grasp. The narrative of the film developed organically through all these conversations and what the interviewees thought was important. I didn’t start out with a thesis or agenda.

I knew right away that a film like this can’t be comprehensive. You could easily do a full documentary or more on any one of these cities. So we decided to reframe it by looking at specific issues that face all cities and then looking at projects that address those issues. But even when I watch it now I think about things we didn’t get to address — for example, we barely talked about natural disasters. We didn’t get into a project about disaster preparedness.

Protest in Stuttgart, Germany | Film still courtesy of Courtesy Swiss Dots Ltd.

I was amazed at the range of issues you were able to cover. The film moves from public art to public works to public protest. I particularly appreciated that the role of the public in the design of cities was addressed, from the building practices of slum dwellers in India or Chile to the protests of organized, politically active citizens in an advanced economy like Germany’s. Tell me more about how you see the role of the public in the design of cities in years to come.


I hope the film helps people to become more aware, more involved and more critical about the decisions that are made by both city government and private developers. I believe the public should have a huge role both informally and formally. But the idea of participatory design — of using the public as a design compass instead of just getting a reaction to projects that are already proposed — is not being employed as much as it might. It’s really inspiring when you see it happening and working, like the VPUU (which stands for Violence Prevention by Urban Upgrading) project in Khayelitsha in Cape Town.

The township of Khayelitsha, which is outside of Cape Town, was created during the Apartheid era to concentrate the black South African population at the periphery of the city. It was a dormitory settlement — workers just slept there and then commuted back into to the city for work — so there was no real economic base; it’s just houses. It’s one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the city. So the VPUU of Cape Town started 10 years ago to look at how that settlement had been designed — both the original, formal design from the ‘80s, and also how it had informally developed — and to try to make interventions that would improve safety and combat crime in the area.

Khayelitsha township | Film still courtesy of Courtesy Swiss Dots Ltd.

They spent two years talking to residents before they even started thinking about their first plan. They trained volunteers to go out into the community and talk to people about the problems they face. The biggest priority turned out to be pedestrian walkways, which were where most crime was happening. Khayelitsha has a series of stormwater overflow channels that run through the settlement that were just undeveloped, garbage-strewn land. They weren’t lit, and harbored gang activity and all kinds of criminal activity. But those stormwater floodways were also the informal pedestrian route between the train station and the township. So what VPUU did was formalize the informal pedestrian paths, or desire lines, by paving and lighting the barren channels and turning them into these amazing walkways and public spaces. People are now turning their homes to face these routes because they’re so well designed, and that increases passive surveillance, puts more eyes on the spaces. The murder rate has dropped by 40%. It has become a great pilot program, which they’re now expanding into other townships and to other areas in South Africa. Also, they have trained the people who live in the area to maintain and program it. The project is still evolving. They didn’t just say, “here you go, we built a path, see you later” and step away from it.

What drew me to VPUU’s work was the citizen involvement, even in determining what the project would be. They didn’t come in with an answer — they didn’t even know what the question was when they came in. But they spent years finding out what issue needed a response and then came up with plans that were developed step by step with the community. They spent years designing what the intervention should be and then getting design professionals involved to implement it. That’s the kind of idea that I think should get mainstreamed. It’s not about proposing a project and getting feedback from the public about whether they like it or not. It’s getting people involved in what a project should be, or if there should be a project.

Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá | Film still courtesy of Courtesy Swiss Dots Ltd.

That’s a lesson that applies whether the city is in a developed or a developing country. DId you see any patterns that cut across the divides of north and south, developed and developing?


Mobility seems to be one of the main issues that drags cities down. The amount of energy and time and resources that get wasted because of poor mobility solutions, especially in places like Mumbai, or São Paolo, or any of these big cities in the Global South. Think of those famous traffic snarls. It just seems like such a massive waste of energy, waste of resources and also just a total environmental nightmare.

There are so many challenges there, but also so much opportunity, because it’s so universal. Everybody needs to get around. If there are better mobility solutions that can be scaled and mainstreamed, there’s a lot of opportunity to change the way cities operate. I don’t have the answers to those questions, but the purpose of doing a film like this is to generate questions and discussion and awareness and debate about it. Not to tie it all up in a little bow, saying here’s what we should do, go do it.


What role do you see for designers — architects, urban designers and others — in determining the form of cities? The film brings up a lot of forces that shape cities that don’t necessarily rely on design proceeses, such as political processes, for example.


Those political processes are a design process too. It’s all design: any structure of information, built environment, or government process. I think it’s all about the workings of those really complex systems; that is design. And I think it’s the role of designers to improve, change or reframe it incrementally.

The idea of imagining something differently is the kernel is what I think of as design. What really drew me to Candy Chang’s “I Wish This Was” project (which invites city residents to voice what they want to see in their communities) is how that really simple little sticker just gets people who don’t normally think about how their city is shaped to think about it. To imagine what they would want in that vacant lot, or in that burnt out building. To imagine something different. It’s about thinking differently, or being provoked to think differently about the status quo. It seems so simple, but it is just getting people to do that, just getting people to think, “Oh, what could this be? God, I wish it was…” and then fill in the blank. Just that act is so, so powerful. That’s what I think is the future of getting the public involved. It is getting them to and encouraging them to make that step.

“I Wish This Was” by Candy Chang | Film still courtesy of Courtesy Swiss Dots Ltd.

What’s next for you?


Well, we finished the film literally last week. So we’ll spend the next three months touring, screening it in different cities. I’m actually more excited about this tour than that of either of the other two films because these issues resonate in different ways in different cities. I’m really excited to see what issues face each of these individual cities and how they relate to the film. The film had its premiere in Toronto, where there’s been a whole debate about bike lanes and a lake front development. The screening sort of capitalized on all those things happening in the city and made it much more of a public debate. So I’m excited to see how the audience reacts in other cities, in the North America and all over the world.

Gary Hustwit is an independent filmmaker based in New York and London. Hustwit worked with LA punk label SST Records in the late-1980s, ran the independent book publishing house Incommunicado Press during the 1990s, was Vice President of the media website in 2000, and started the indie DVD label Plexifilm in 2001. Hustwit has produced eight feature documentaries, including the award-winning I Am Trying To Break Your Heart about the band Wilco; Moog, about electronic music pioneer Robert Moog; and Oddsac, an experimental feature with the band Animal Collective.

In 2007 he made his directorial debut with Helvetica, a documentary about graphic design and typography. The film marked the beginning of a design film trilogy, with Objectified, about industrial design and product design following in 2009. Urbanized, about the design of cities, will have its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. A longtime advocate of self-distribution and directly engaging his audience, Hustwit will be self-releasing Urbanized with a global screening tour, theatrical runs, and DVD and digital releases.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.