Documentary Site started as an outlet for my interests in documentary 15 years ago. Since then, my presence has expanded to writing, managing Twitter fans, and connecting with makers, promoters, and fans of documentary. Probably three of the coolest things to come from this endeavor are being invited to write for POV, visiting Kartemquin studios, and leading a discussion after a screening of The Trials of Muhammad Ali. My current project involves watching and writing about 365 documentaries in 2014. Feel free to send along your suggestions via Twitter @documentarysite!

#365Docs: Urbanized (31/365)

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I’m watching 365 documentaries and writing about each one in 2014. Tweet your suggestions to @documentarysite, or send an e-mail to hmcintosh@documentarysite.com. Read more.

Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Urbanized is the third part in a trilogy directed by Gary Hustwit about the roles of design in contemporary society.

This 2011 documentary focuses on the roles of design within city planning. Cities represent a confluence of people and interests, and citing planning reflects the complexity of those intersections.

The range of interviews represents that complexity as well. While both Helvetica and Objectified featured primarily designers in those fields, Urbanized brings in a range of voices, from city planners and mayors to community organizers and residents. The result is a different feel for this documentary than the previous two, one that is lighter and more humored. At the same time, though, the subjects informing this piece tend toward more serious, centering on advocacy, but design offers potential solutions to these urban problems so long as it focuses on people and their needs.

These solutions appear in different ways in countries around the world. Improving people’s lives within the cities is the underlying theme for most of them. In Santiago, Chile, Alejandro Aravena describes a housing project that centered on participatory design, wherein the future occupants of the home offered input into the home’s construction and finished the second half of the home’s construction themselves.

The Khayelitsha area of Cape Town, South Africa, becomes another area where design has improved conditions for people walking, children playing, and everyone feeling safer.

People’s movement throughout the city becomes a consideration. Traffic generated from numerous single-occupant vehicles frequently becomes an issue, and former Bogotá, Colombia, mayor Enrique Peñalosa describes his approach for democratizing the issue through the uses of bus systems and bicycle paths.

Public spaces to stay and relax in become another theme. One segment explores The High Line in New York City, an abandoned railway that was turned into a park area through the efforts of local groups.

As much as Urbanized focuses on the positives of cities, it also mentions some of the issues. Sprawl is one, with its monotonous design, its far reach, and its car requirements. Urban flight becomes another. Detroit’s population has declined significantly from its 1.8 million high, and one result is abandoned properties throughout the city. Mark Covington describes his program for cleaning up the areas and creating a community garden in the now-vacant lots to help those struggling to make ends meet.

The best design begins with people in mind, but not all applications of design remember that. The Stuttgart 21 plan sought to bring a high-speed rail through the city, but it required substantial changes, including killing 200-year-old trees, removing parks, and losing an historic building. Both the city officials and the protestors had their views, but ultimately the city officials were voted out and the plans’ future remained uncertain.

Urbanized uses case studies from cities all around the world, but I wonder, what about Australia?

Watching Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized together made for an interesting experience. The trilogy reminded of one of the reasons I adore documentary: I really learned a lot from these films. They encourage new ways of seeing old things. They balance both the positive and negative implications of the possibilities of design. They demonstrate the complex thinking about design without oversimplifying and without overintellectualizing. And, in the end, they remind us what every documentary is fundamentally about: people and possibilities.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.