As it turns out, this is Gary Hustwit's third and final chapter in his design trilogy, with parts one and two being Helvetica (2007) and Objectified (2009). Little did I know, but Hustwit is also an Executive Producer of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a documentary that follows Wilco during the recording of their 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It's definitely worth a watch if you dig the band.
The goal of Urbanized is to give the viewer a glimpse of the innovation necessary for effective urban design and the direction we're headed as a civilization.
It's very easy to get incredibly pessimistic and dark about the prospects looking forward, because if you just look at the numbers and trend lines, it is profoundly depressing. You just want to slit your wrists. You really need a small group of innovators that can demonstrate how to do things differently. Once that gets mainstreamed, change happens really quickly." -- Edgar Pieterse, Director, African Center for Cities
Pieterse's morbidity really helps drive home the point that we are a civilization in transition. Population control is a major issue that isn't really being dealt with, and the advances in modern medicine that are extending the human lifespan will stretch our planet to its limits in the coming decades. Therefore, there has been an emphasis placed on effective development of our urban areas as the metropolitan landscape continues to grow further away from the post-World War II suburban explosion.
One really interesting glimpse of unusual urban design is Brasilia, the federal capital of Brazil. The layout is heaven for those who crave wide open spaces amidst a sea of concrete, steel, and glass. However, the wide expanses of land lead to an undeniable need for motorized transportation, as pedestrians and cyclists just aren't able to navigate the city effectively. As a result, traffic cripples and pollutes the city, in turn destroying the layout's appeal.
One city that took a different approach to overcrowding and transportation is Copenhagen, where an estimated 37% of the workforce now commutes to and from work via bicycle. Compare this to my home city of Philadelphia, where a 2009 study found that just 2.2% of workers commuted via bicycle. Keep in mind that Philadelphia is the most heavily biked city in the nation, even ahead of more population-rich cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. By comparison, Copenhagen's numbers are absolutely astronomical.
So how has this Dutch city of 1.2 million managed to become so bike-friendly? Urban designers have found a way to make cyclists feel safe on the road. In Philadelphia, I see delivery trucks and lazy drivers constantly parked in the designated bike lanes, forcing cyclists to either ride on the sidewalk or in the busy street -- certainly not a comfortable position for someone so unprotected. In Copenhagen, the bike lane is protected from moving vehicles by a lane of parked cars. Instead of parking against a curb, motorist's only option is to park alongside the painted outside line of the bike lane, providing a shield for the cyclists which helps promote a feeling of safety and protection. It also doesn't hurt that this leads to a decrease in both traffic and pollution. If people feel safe, they'll give it a shot. If they don't feel safe, they'll do things like this to prove their point.
A major element of effective urban design is systematically involving people on the ground level to help uncover solutions that affect their everyday lives as city residents. By working together to boil down problems to the very core, strategies can be developed to solve, or at least improve upon the urban issues that hinder our commutes, endanger our safety, and disrupt the environment. One perfect example of this initiative is the High Line in Manhattan.
Running 18 blocks (and growing!) from Chelsea down to the Meatpacking District on the West Side, the High Line was originally an elevated railway for freight trains that hauled their last shipment of frozen turkeys in 1980. After two decades of neglect had eroded the railway into an eyesore bound for demolition, the High Line is now a massive public park that offeres an unparalleled tour of an incredible city. This is ingenuity at its finest -- taking a stretch of rusted steel and transforming it into a peaceful getaway that can host community events and promotes development in the area.
If these issues grab your attention, Urbanized is well worth 85 minutes of your time. It's great to see so much innovation across the world, but it leaves me wondering about the future of residential suburban development. The overcrowding of cities and the growth of the upper class were two of the many factors that led to the suburban revolution of the mid-twentieth century, which we are now getting away from by moving back into our cities. Is this going to be a back-and-forth movement that sees the population migrating back into the suburbs in 50 years, or are we really investing in a solid future for our urban landscapes?