The Dharavi slum in Mumbai, Indiawhich may house more than 1 million people in an area of just 0.7 square milesis one of the largest slums in the world, but only the fifth-largest slum in Mumbai.

The Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India—which may house more than 1 million people in an area of just 0.7 square miles—is one of the largest slums in the world, but only the fifth-largest slum in Mumbai.

Credit: Courtesy Swiss Dots Ltd.

Urbanized, the third documentary in a series by director Gary Hustwit, plays out like the first day of an ambitious, sprawling survey course on urban history and design. It follows the template of the previous entries in the trilogy, Helvetica and Objectified: interviews with a cast of opinionated practitioners and theorists interspersed through a global tour of urban projects. While Hustwit’s trilogy presents a consistent visual brand, his approach here suffers from a lack of detail—and a reliance on well-worn narratives about urbanization and its discontents.

Helvetica, the 2007 introduction to the series, examines the history of how one font came to represent a certain corporate, modernist perfection, and thereby conquered graphic design. Hustwit’s first documentary foray can be faulted for being too precious, but with its finite focus, it cannot be criticized for a lack of detail. Objectified, his 2009 follow-up, is more of a social mixer in movie form, introducing consumers to leading industrial designers and exploring how people connect with manufactured objects. The subjects are given license to wax philosophically on the importance of design (and by extension, their own importance) to every aspect of human life. Hustwit’s latest film lacks the quirky intimacy of Helvetica, but fortunately, it avoids the pomposity that crops up in Objectified.

Because its subject is so vast, Urbanized does not pretend to be exhaustive or definitive. It aggregates trends from the kaleidoscopic field of urban design, with flashes of economics, transportation, architecture, engineering, demographics, politics, and philosophy. It does so while managing to maintain a high degree of interest for over 85 minutes, and it may convince some viewers—particularly younger viewers—to consider a professional interest in these issues. That’s the case despite the film’s missed opportunities, elisions, and unfinished stories.

Global urbanization is placing unprecedented stress on governments and economic systems. Currently, just over half of the world’s population lives in cities. That figure is projected to climb to 70 percent by 2050, according to the latest State of the World Cities report from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). Overall, the movement of people to cities generates wealth, but the economic benefits of urbanization are not shared out in a way that benefits whole populations. Impoverished new arrivals gravitate to unplanned, informal settlements that lack clean water and sanitation and become magnets for crime and economic exploitation.

In Urbanized, Hustwit’s academic subjects are to varying extents awed, dismayed, and bewildered by the challenges facing the world’s cities. But Hustwit’s project is at heart a work of optimism. Innovators, including architects, artists, activists, and designers, show how new ways of thinking can offer solutions to what appear to be intractable problems. So in Santiago, Chile, we see a scheme that builds homes for former slum dwellers and makes them affordable by compromising on certain amenities and leaving some elements of the house unfinished. In Khayelitsha Township, a blighted settlement on the edge of Cape Town, South Africa, residents were plagued by gangsters as they walked to and from the train station that took people to jobs in the city. A government initiative to provide paved walking paths, streetlights, and manned lookouts for law enforcement contributed to a 40 percent reduction in murders.

In each case, projects were advanced by the concepts of “participatory design” and “negotiated development”—essentially do-gooder jargon for treating poor people like clients. There is a conceit at work here. By juxtaposing endemic social problems with charming design solutions, a viewer might get the idea that this approach is scalable, and applicable to slums worldwide. But a social housing project such as the one Urbanized depicts in Chile, which has one of the lowest proportions of its urban dwellers living in slums of any country in South America, might not have much relevance to Mumbai, India, or Lagos, Nigeria. The underlying problems of land acquisition and property rights that bedevil efforts to create sustainable housing for poor populations are never addressed.

Urbanized follows the lead of its predecessors by engaging with the legacy of Modernism. In Objectified, this legacy is characterized by the minimalist designs of Braun’s Dieter Rams and Apple’s Jonathan Ive. Georgia Insitute of Technology professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, AIA, presumably under her own steam, frames the connection nicely in Urbanized. “Modern urban planning is very similar to modern graphic design or modern industrial design,” she says. “It’s minimalist; very ordered, very rational.”

With urban planning, any discussion of Modernism invariably leads to aerial shots of Brasilia, Brazil. Oscar Niemeyer, the 103-year-old Brazilian architect who designed much of the city along with Lúcio Costa, eloquently defends the plan of the city on artistic grounds; in the next sequence, Danish architect Jan Gehl, Hon. FAIA, demolishes the plan as unlivable and inhumane. Hustwit does not dwell on evaluating Modernist urban design beyond this exchange—instead using the separation of traffic and roads from people and buildings that characterizes Brasilia to introduce a discussion of transportation. This tension comes up again as Amanda Burden, New York City’s director of planning, discusses her efforts to humanize her city in the wake of the transformational changes wrought by master builder Robert Moses.

The decline of Detroit is told through the efforts of community-garden activist Mark Covington. In addition, historian Noah Chasin offers a vague paean to the “DIY aesthetic” of local empowerment movements, while urbanist Bruce Katz advises “thinking as entrepreneurs”—but no one will go quite so far as to suggest that a city of 700,000 can retrofit its way into being a self-sustaining agricultural hub. Instead, Urbanized is interested with Detroit largely as a visual phenomenon. The segment begins with one of the film’s longest uninterrupted shots: a minute-long spin on Detroit’s elevated light-rail through the unoccupied urban center. Glimpses of demolished neighborhoods and ruined houses follow.

  • Adam Mazmanian is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He is the editor of the daily international development news publication UN Wire and reviews movies for The Washington Times.
    Adam Mazmanian is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He is the editor of the daily international development news publication UN Wire and reviews movies for The Washington Times.
No UN-Habitat statistical annex can evoke the ghostly, rusted-out beauty of postindustrial decay—but run a finger down a table titled “City Population of Urban Agglomerations City Population Growth Rate of Urban Agglomerations,” and you’ll find declining populations in industrial cities throughout Russia and the former Eastern Bloc. Detroits everywhere are losing population. Is this a global urban phenomenon in which the fates of mono-industry cities are linked? It would have been instructive for Hustwit to unclench his grip on some of the more familiar visual tropes to explore their underlying complexities.

If the goal of Urbanized is to stimulate the imagination into thoughtful consideration of how the human species builds, inhabits, and then dispossesses its urban environments, then it is an unqualified success. However, there is something about Hustwit’s crisp, spare visual style that serves to paper over some of the darker aspects of his topic. There is no faulting his composition and balance of the cinematography. A shot of a favela in Rio de Janeiro lingers lovingly on the snug fit of the dilapidated houses against the steep hillside. A row of ramshackle corrugated aluminum dwellings, framed in a certain way, assumes a raw and vivid kind of beauty. But such a romantic approach nevertheless tends to obscure the suffering of the lives that are lived therein. The visual language that served Helvetica and Objectified so well disappoints here. The passion and knowledge of the talking heads in Urbanized are not in doubt. But the film would benefit from a few more charts and graphs—and a harder look at the people that these data represent.