Gary Hustwit’s documentary on cities and urban planners too often turns into a love fest for urban planners. Self-love fest really since almost no one likes to talk about how awesome they are more than urban planners and architects. For the most part the film is what you’d expect. You have lots of very hip and fashionable planners and architects talking about their projects. You have beautiful shots of cities around the world. Even the slums are very nicely shot. You have a lot of self-congratulation about ideas and projects. Bike lanes in Copenhagen. Disaster in Detroit. Too rapid growth in Beijing. Brasilia is the anti-city (although to be fair, Hustwit did interview Oscar Niemeyer before his death and gave him room to defend it). Phoenix might be even worse. Robert Moses is bad, Jane Jacobs is good. All of this is fine enough and somewhat enjoyable if you are a city person, but relatively uninteresting.
Still, a few things raise this film up from a pretty mediocrity. First, the stuff with the mayor of Bogota was pretty interesting, if not contextualized very well. He led a campaign to create bike lanes in a city that often doesn’t even have paved roads. He put in a great bus system and it seems like a very efficient plan. More unexpected stories would be useful, although again, there is zero context or information provided. All the speakers just speak for themselves. So it’s hard to get a fuller picture. Second, and much to Hustwit’s credit, he shifted the town of the film in the last 10 minutes away from the self-congratulation and to two ways that urban planners are failing. The first is New Orleans, where architects can go into the Lower Ninth Ward and experiment but as a whole, it’s a failure in part because urban planners don’t really have a plan as to how all of this fits second. Second is a train line project in Stuttgart that has been shoved down the population’s throat without any kind of democratic representation and included cutting down trees so old and beloved that even in the bombing of the city during World War II, the locals did not touch those trees for firewood. So at least we see that for all the good urban planners say they are doing, the story in at least some places is more complicated.
This seems like a film that will gain in value over time. Because it is such a statement of urban planning today, people could watch this film 30 years from now quite instructively. Wherever we are then, it won’t be what it is today. Urbanized would be an excellent entryway into early 21st century planning sometime around 2040 or so.