FILM: Urbanized


Urbanized, the third and most recent feature-length documentary in Gary Hustwit’s design trilogy film series, has been on my radar for quite some time since its debut in 2011. Last week, I had the opportunity to watch the DVD format of Urbanized. With a running time of 85 minutes, the film managed to explore an array of divergent as well as overlapping urban issues—from sensational architecture and urban design principles to DIY urbanism and civic democracy—while also incorporating interview footage with an impressive cast of Who’s Who in the world of architecture, planning, and local government.

The film is decorated with memorable and provocative quotes, which left me deeply inspired and compelled to respond with further thoughts on these urban issues…

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“…do not look at how many people are walking in the city, but look at how many people have stopped walking to stay and enjoy what is there.” (Jan Gehl)

A dynamic city thrives on transient flows of people, goods, services, and ideas. One could argue that the rhythms underpinning these flows give the city its electrifying ‘beat’. Not surprisingly then, a city that bustles is a city often perceived as vibrant, fun, and innovative. But such a city also needs places that enable the pulses of urban life to rest, even if momentarily. Like a grand pause, or fermata in a musical score, the public spaces of a city have the potential, if designed well, to vary the tempo of urban life by providing opportunities for people to stop, linger, and take in the surrounds. In other words, urban vibrancy is as much a measure of quietude as it is a measure of rapidity on the streets of the city.    

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“We are really talking about the urban habitat of Homo sapiens. It’s the same Homo sapiens all over the world. Cultural circumstances differ, economic circumstances differ, climatic circumstances differ; but, basically, we are the same little walking animal.” (Jan Gehl)

Our shared existence as human beings point to the fundamental basic needs of our species that are common across the spectrum. For the most part, our species-specific traits influence how cities are planned and buildings designed for our comfort, safety, enjoyment, and day-to-day functions. Indeed, culture, economics, and climate shape our practices and behaviours in urban space, creating variations of urban forms (aesthetically and operationally). While sensitivity to these differences, in relation to understanding the core human needs of a liveable habitat, is an important facet of the design process, equally important is the knowledge of how technological innovations are enabling us to circumvent the physiological limitations of our species and physical limitations of our built environment.

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“…even though the needs are obvious, it then becomes even more important to systematically involve people who live these realities in trying to figure out what’s the most strategic way to respond.” (Edgar Pieterse)

The essence of architecture and urban planning is to create habitats for people and their human activities. Everyone is, in one way or another, an invested user of architectural and planned spaces. We have an innate understanding, though coloured by individual preferences, of how design solutions could be derived to work for us and our communities. Often times such commonplace knowledge of our lived worlds are taken-for-granted, resulting in cookie-cutter design solutions repeated from one project to another with little regard to the specificities of their impact on individuals and local places. The moment when planning situations become all-too-familiar is the moment when we need to break down prior assumptions through deeper design conversations between practitioners and communities.

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“Cities and their form will always be the terrain of struggle as different interests contest for power, for position and for influence in the shaping of the city.” (Michael Sorkin)

“Democracy itself is always showing the strains and stresses from time to time. And in a way the city is an expression of that, in many ways, in microcosm. Some of those societies—which are now being torn by inner strife, and tensions, and ambitions, and repressions—it is the public spaces which become the symbols.” (Norman Foster)

From sidewalks to street corners. From parks to plazas. From the ordinary to the sensational. All forms of urban public space operate at their most basic level as shared common resources and, thus, the grounds for socio-political expressions. If we accept that contestations and negotiations will naturally occur in public space, then what seems to be of greater importance is not that we sanction such places with prescriptive rules of conduct but, rather, that we move towards a better understanding of where and how innovative design can help transform tensions into acceptance over time. Undeniably, such terms of acceptance may be shaped and imposed by the more dominant groups of users, thus implying an imbalance of powers. Nevertheless, the general social health of a city is closely linked to the observed ‘publicness’ of the city’s public spaces. Public spaces which are inclusive and tolerant, where sameness and difference coexist with a mutual desire for harmony, are often a good indication of an open city at-large.

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“In the past 30 years, cities were conceived and designed to be part of the economical development, which is okay, but I think livability has really been ignored until very recently….Those mistakes, they didn’t have to happen even if you build a city fast.” (Yung Ho Chang)

The idea that a city ought to be, first and foremost, liveable has largely escaped us in today’s era of rapid urbanization. The surge of interest in the last decade on the topic of urban liveability is a startling revelation of how humanity has lost touch with our primeval understanding and desire for basic rights to liveability in the face of economic global competition to be a ‘world class’, ’24-hour’, ‘creative’ city—among other lofty titles. In recent years, liveability has (positively or negatively) made its own title in annual city rankings published by lifestyle magazines, research institutes, and consulting agencies. Whether or not such attempts to popularize liveability has, in effect, turned the tide towards greater thinking on liveability, in general, and liveability planning, in particular, needs to be examined more critically in these times of rapidly-made cities.  

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“As a landscape architect, a question I always ask is what will design actually mess up here. What through design will you anaesthetize? Will you destroy?” (James Corner)

Planning and design are disciplines with a shared tradition of being shaped by systematic processes inculcating a positivist stance which favours the rational (and authoritarian) approach towards land and space utilization. Lacking in planning and design is the practice of self-reflection and self-reflexivity, which would not only impose questions about the very processes by which these disciplines have come into being but also the roles of planners and designers in today’s world of experimental collaborations, participatory partnerships, and hackathons. Self-reflection and self-reflexivity can be a learning opportunity that produces new insights into the ever shifting boundaries (and, in turn, limitations) of planning/planners and design/designers.

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