This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Within the first few minutes of Urbanized, the new movie from Helvetica director Gary Hustwit, a voiceover lists the various forces that shape urban design, including architects, planners, zoning laws, and citizens.  That last one is accompanied by a visual of an elderly woman ostensibly making a public comment at some sort of community input session. I saw the film earlier tonight at a screening in Seattle, in a theater full of designers and architects, and there was an audible snicker when the woman came on stage.  Anyone who’s been in those input sessions can relate, but the snicker was interesting because in the end, Hustwit ends up more-or-less on that woman’s side, in favor of maximum community involvement in any urban project.

Urbanized, like Objectified before it, tells the story of the city through a series of vignettes in various cities.  There’s a project to reduce violence in a Cape Town slum through urban design, new architecture in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, New York’s High Line, and several more. Some of these will be familiar.

The project that comes in for the most unsympathetic treatment is Stuttgart 21, an effort to build a new high-speed rail line through Stuttgart.  It’s bracing to watch protesters getting beat up and sprayed with water cannons for opposing the project.  Alex Steffen, who moderated a Q&A with the director afterward, compared the Stuttgart project to Seattle’s deep-bore tunnel project.

How could a new high-speed rail project be so hated in a film that’s otherwise a paean to all things urban and non-automobile? The answer, I think, is that the Stuttgart project is presented as an example of elite-driven, top-down approach to planning, which Hustwit seems to eschew in favor of an organic, bottom-up approach that draws on the wisdom and distinct natures of the communities in which they are involved. The protesters are the bottom-up story, fighting to preserve the 100-year-old train station and the 200-year-old trees around it.

The top-down vs. bottom-up argument surfaces repeatedly. The High Line story, for example, focuses on how the two men who spearheaded the project were just two guys living nearby who wanted to do something, and rallied the community around it. Brad Pitt’s efforts to build houses in New Orleans, by contrast, are treated skeptically as the work of an outsider.

This is something that many of us in the transit community should take to heart: listen to your community.  Work with them.  Approach grand projects with humility.  Build grassroots support.  Don’t rely on planners in ivory towers to create a perfect, rational design and expect it to get implemented. That concerned citizen in the community input session is a potential ally, or at least a rich source of information and local knowledge.

That said, there’s something simplistic about the way Hustwit approaches the top-down vs. bottom-up dichotomy.  I wish he’d honed his film here a bit more.  The bottom-up stories don’t seem to involve serious trade-offs.  They’re either about providing new infrastructure to communities that have no money and no political power (in the slums of Santiago and Cape Town) or preserving things that already exist in wealthy communities (the High Line, the old Stuttgart train station).   What we didn’t see was an example of a bottom-up, grassroots effort to take something away from a relatively powerful or wealthy* community.  I have no doubt that such examples are few and far between.  But that in a nutshell is the dilemma for the modern new urbanist: they always seem to be taking things away from first world people and communities: parking spots, highway lanes, cars.

Is it possible to engineer a bottom-up, grassroots effort to re-prioritize the urban fabric of a developed nation away from cars?  That’s the question I’d love to see answered.

* when I say “wealthy” I simply mean “lives in a house with running water and electricity in a country with where they have the right to vote and organize.”  In other words, a citizen of a developed nation.

4 Replies to “Urbanized”

  1. The problem with Stuttgart was a top-down process run amok. Literally a handful of top politicians decided to combine two separate ideas into one megaproject. As is often the case, the intentions were better than the result – they didn’t know what they were doing and the result is visible today: an extremely expensive project in the wrong place that is functionally bad. An idea is turned into a pet project and to save face no one can let go. The DBT is insofar comparable because a small group decided at the last minute that a tunnel woulld be best.

    Switzerland has managed to approach those kinds of projects from the right end. First there is an overall functional plan (Bahn2000 or AlpTransit), then individual projects are derived from the plan, then citizens and planners decide the details. Along the way there are popular votes on the initial plan and on the financing measures. The initiative still has to come from politics but there is a smaller chance of politicians messing up the plans.

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