Urbanized

I just finished a great documentary on urban design by Gary Hustwit. He’s pretty well known in design circles for his other design documentaries on typography and industrial design. In Urbanized, he covers the design of cities. Anyone who knows me well, knows I have a strong interest in architecture. So, the subject is a natural interest of mine. The film didn’t dwell too much on the failure of cities, but rather their challenges for the future. One interesting point, that with the huge growth of China and India, that much of the most interesting innovation will likely be coming from those countries in this century. That’s pretty exciting and a big shift from the US dominated 20th century. A couple of parts of the movie that were meaningful to me:

  • Modernism – Jan Gehl, an architect from Copenhagen talked in the DVD extras about the modernists who came out of WWI (think Mies van der RoheLe Corbusier and later Louis Kahn, Marcel Breuer) who thought you should separate workplace, living and communication. You want to make free standing buildings, but not necessarily in cities, so you could have open space and pack in lots of people. The city works like a machine. But what the movement ignored, according to what people later told him, was a focus on individuals. Certainly seeing big housing projects, that some aspects of the movement inspired, in places like Chicago and New York are depressing. But I do think great architecture can inspire. Some of the buildings created from the modernist movement do inspire me. But I can’t say the modernists ideas around urban design are necessarily right, as the documentary seems to suggest.
  • Public Transportation – Probably the most charismatic character in the film was Enrique Penaslosa, the former mayor of Bogota. He said the only way to restrict traffic jams is to restrict car use. The most obvious way to do that is by restricting parking. He said people seem to think parking is a right–but what constitution has the right to park as a main tenet? Parking isn’t a government problem, but people are. They created a bus based public transportation system.  Buses operate in exclusive lanes so they don’t have to deal with traffic. And commuters enter/exit them from elevated stations just like subways. Here’s the key, for the same price of a 25km light rail system, they can put in 400km of bus way. With all the nonsense that we’ve dealt with in Seattle over the years with our various public transportation proposals, this seemed like a real pragmatic way of looking at moving lots of people in a cost effective way. He ended with public good prevailing over private interests. A bus with a 100 people has a free lane and gets people to places faster than a car with a single person. Great stuff.
  • Cycling – OK, a little biased here as I’m a bike commuter, but seeing cycling design in Copenhagen was inspiring.  They have bike lanes next to side walks. Side walks are for slow traffic, bike lanes allow a bit faster flow, and then you have car-ways. But in-between the bike lane and roadway, you have parked cars. This way parked cars act as a natural barrier for protecting cyclists. I feel like riding in that sort of environment would be heaven. 37% of everyone in Copenhagen commutes to work by bike. The percentage in Seattle is around 3% and we’re one of the biggest cycling cities in the US. Pretty phenomenal.

There’s tons more examples like those throughout the film. What was missing from the film was more thinking from those opposed to many of the ideas presented. For example, there was just one person I recall, a real-estate developer from Phoenix in a section on suburban sprawl, who offered some thoughts on why suburbanization wasn’t a bad thing . I would have liked to see more counter arguments to what seemed like a more liberal view point on urbanism. But the film was still excellent and inspiring for what your own city could be. On IMDb, I rated it 8 out of 10 stars.

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