Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design

9/07/2012

The Makings of An Ideal City

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Ever since I can remember, I was part of a bustling, heaving, rollicking city. By 2050, over 75 percent of the world will have shared my experience of heaving, bustling, rollicking city, which means that we all have to start assessing our relationship to our surroundings.


Guy Hustwit's Urbanized just came out on Netflix, completing his design triad of documentaries (Helvetica first, Objectified second). I suppose I'm quite late to the party, but that doesn't make Hustwit's documentary any less educational, insightful and intriguing. In fact, I found myself more riveted than I was in his previous documentaries, probably because I often find myself pondering about the future of cities while writing as well.

Hustwit's documentary combines a multitude of credible voices, all with a distinct point of view of what makes a good city. Testimonies include those of Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Jan Gehl and many other bright lights in architecture and urban planning. As viewers eventually realize, the thinking about building cities have morphed (and continue to do so) over the years. It is a question that eludes one, simple answer--and Hustwit and team were brave enough to try and round up many of the thoughts around such a large undertaking.

Urbanized travels around the world. It treats viewers to the gorgeous vistas of Brasilia, the seat of all Brazilian government. Majestic public buildings with fluid lines fall sensuously over a planned city. To the untrained eye, it was paradise. Only after we are treated to such beauty are we informed, this modernist masterplan filled with curvy, organic allure was a beautiful bungle, too large to be comfortably walked by pedestrians. (Brasilia's hubris somehow reminded me of the striking city plans now being realized in China, but that fodder for another story.)

Oscar Niemeyer’s 1996 Niterói Contemporary Art Museum
Sir Norman Foster, Oscar Niemeyer (then 103 years old), and Guy Hustwit.
It then moves to Bogota, inspiration for Los Angeles' own CicLAvia. Bogota reminded me so much of Manila, which made hearing Enrique Penalosa talk about alternative transportation reforms edifying. In one particularly striking scene, he situated access to public space as part of basic human rights. In Bogota, dedicated bus lanes carry hundreds of commuters on unimpeded roadways, while the rest of the city chugs along in traffic-clogged roads. There are about a hundred people in a bus, he says, they should have a hundred times more road than cars carrying single passengers. Prioritizing bike lanes versus roadways, at least for Penalosa, meant putting interests of the many who couldn't afford cars over the ones that were born to privilege.

But apart from all the sweeping city planning presented in the documentary (including New York City's High Line), my favorite has to be the story of Tidy Street in Brighton. Tidy Street is a perfect example of small, even low-tech tactics can make a big difference. In a classic application of the adage, "you can't manage what you can't measure," households along the street volunteered to have their daily power usage measured. The results were then painted right on the street against the Brighton average, for everyone to see. Once the neighborhood recognized its consumption patterns, they very consciously started finding ways to contribute to energy savings. That's putting information and power right at the hands of those who matter. More of that is eventually going to be needed when building a city suited to common ideals.

What for you makes a good city? It is the everything-in-its place kind? Or the more organic, meandering, man-made version? Perhaps it's somewhere in the middle. Urbanized does provoke many questions and the only answers lie in getting involved in our community to help make a city we do wish to see.

Rent or download via iTunes or Distrify. Stream on Netflix. Photos on this post via Urbanized blog.

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