[Update] I wrote this post a few weeks ago, at that time Oscar Niemeyer was still living. As the358 points out in the comments, Oscar Niemeyer has since died.

Recently, I watched Gary Hustwit’s Design Trilogy on Netflix, and I thought the last the last film, 2011’s Urbanized, would be something this blog’s readers would be interested in. The film interviews city planners, architects, politicians, and activists – among others – on the topics of urban design and cities against the back drop of cities around the globe. I’ve been extremely interested in this topic for almost a decade, and still a lot in the documentary was new to me.

The topics are pretty varied: sanitation in Mumbai, safety in South African townships, sprawl in Phoenix, and socially just transportation in Bogota to name just a few – but all are interesting, and the cast is pretty impressive. Who could be better than Oscar Niemeyer himself comes out to make a case for Brasilia’s design (by the way, here’s a list of things younger than Oscar Niemeyer)? Bogota’s Mayor, Enrique has some of the best quotes in the piece. My favourite:

People seem to imagine parking is a … fundamental right… So if you ask me where you should park, the mayor can tell them it’s almost as if you ask[ed] me where you should put your food, or your clothes. This is not a governmental problem.

The movie seems to be trying to take a balanced approach, but the advocates for “New Urbanism” are more numerous and more effective than the advocates for other approaches to the subject. Jane Jacobs also gets covered in favorable way. I’m okay with that, but if you want something that celebrates sprawl as much as it celebrates density, you won’t get it from Urbanized.

Also, the film leaves a lot of history out, which is unfortunate. It also has a lot of discussion on aesthetics and function, but not much on regulation or zoning. Of course this doesn’t make the film less worth watching, but it does leave me with my major complaint: this is pretty awesome 90 minute documentary, but I think it would be even better as a Ken Burns-style PBS documentary.

30 Replies to “Film Review: Urbanized”

  1. Why I Moved Back to the Suburbs

    Let’s look a little closer at some of this myth’s central tenets. One is the assumption that interesting, creative people will always live near a city’s heart. This simply isn’t true, at least not anymore. If you look closely at an inner city loft development or street of refurbished Victorian row houses in a London neighborhood like (expensive) Shoreditch or (slightly cheaper) Dalston, you’ll find it generally isn’t packed with starving artists, wannabe writers, thinkers, eccentrics, aesthetes and all the other people our society has decided are hot, if not worth paying for.

    It’s more likely to be full of people who work in finance, marketing and in corporate middle management. I’m not suggesting there’s anything inherently wrong with jobs like these – I’m happy these people get to live near their workplaces – but I can’t see they make for a markedly more exciting bunch of neighbours than those you’ll find in the average suburb.


    1. The suburb he moved into is in Lewisham, an area of 276,900 people in 13.57 sq mi. That’s a density of over 20,400 people per square mile. So nearly three times as dense as Seattle, and almost six times as dense as Bellevue.

      For comparison, San Francisco’s density is about 17,000 people per square mile. So I guess you might call a city more dense than San Francisco an awesome suburb… but I’m not sure that’s the thought you want to leave us with?

      1. Yeah, if I had trains every 15 minutes to London Bridge, trains every 30 minutes to London Victoria, and trains every 3.5 minutes on the London Overground, I’d like my ‘suburb’ too.

    2. Creative people live and work near other creative people. So for NYC there are focused areas of creative firms in Manhattan, and the people that work in those firms are concentrated in “affordable” neighborhoods such as Brooklyn.

      The “starving artists, wannabe writers, thinkers, eccentrics, aesthetes” often colonize a cheap neighborhood, turn it into a place to be by their presence, and then are priced out and head to a new cheaper location.

      1. Except with gates and eye-level solid fences lining the sidewalk. A walk in Queen Anne or Capitol Hill would be much more pleasant.

      2. Lewisham is no suburb, not by American standards. If you like this kind of density (or undensity, whatever you want), then that’s not far from we advocate for. There’s a very diverse typology here– multistory flats and single-family rowhomes. Families, couples, and singles alike can all find a place here. Unlike the classical American post-war subdivision, which is very hostile to the latter two.

      3. @jb: “They” can’t because…

        (a) … of requirements (from various places) that roads be wider and have more curb-cuts, or that existing roads are wider and it’s hard to get them narrowed, or that curb-cuts exist and it’s hard to get them removed. It’s really striking how much smaller even the main roads on that map are compared to US ones, and what that means for the pedestrian environment.

        (b) … relative costs of various construction materials and methods have changed. Unfortunately, the human-scaled detail that we all love when walking through a neighborhood is hard to come by. The plentiful skilled labor that built up those districts is no longer there. This is really sad — we have requirements about including art in public projects, but often visually attractive neighborhoods are marked by great craftsmanship, and there’s no requirement for that anywhere.

        (c) … one of the things that makes areas like this attractive is small lots and high “door density”. In Seattle we build large-footprint buildings and break up the facades to make them look like a bunch of smaller buildings, but of course we’re not as dumb as the architects think we are. If there’s one door it’s one building. On the the major streets in this area there are plenty of long stretches of connected shops and rowhouses, but the door frequency is high. Maybe instead of screwing with facade colors we should be building more doors.

      4. A walk in Queen Anne or Capitol Hill would be much more pleasant.

        Bungalows with yards, Matt. Bungalows with yards. Still the defining form in both places.

        If bungalows with yards remain the popular definition of “pleasant”, there will never be a city here.

        Please check your familiarity bias with some math.

    3. The first nine pages of comments pretty much got it right. (After that it degenerates into how many miles of asphalt and pipes different neighborhoods require) The author is moving from the equivalent of Manhattan to Brooklyn, not to Kent or Covington or Lacey.

      Even I find the amount of concrete downtown and in Belltown a bit much sometimes, and prefer a leafier midrise neighborhood like Capitol Hill or Ballard.

      “you’ll find it generally isn’t packed with starving artists, wannabe writers, thinkers, eccentrics [but] who work in finance, marketing and in corporate middle management [and dotcoms].”

      Yes but why is that? Because it’s too expensive for the artists! Not because they don’t want to live there. Why are people in finance living there? Because they like it, and they have the means to bid up the price.

      “Looks pretty nice to me: [picture of row houses]. I could live in density like this, esp with all day high speed transit.”

      Get back to us when Kent’s zoning allows row houses, and when a developer has proposed such buildings near East Hill.

      Unfortunately the pent-up demand for urban housing in walkable neighborhoods with good transit is so big that these houses would shoot up into the $300K+ range. They’d be less in Kent than Seattle, but still anything within walking distance of where the 164/168/169 overlap would have a price premium. That’s why developers in Seattle are replacing houses with townhouses, and why they’re being filled, and why their price is so high. This is where the advantages of multistory apartments/condos come in: you can accomodate more of the demand within a walkshed, and each unit is less expensive than it would be if it were a townhouse/row house. Ultimately, we can’t build enough row houses in Seattle and suburbs to meet the demand for convenient non-automobile living, so multistory apartments/condos will have to be part of the picture.

      1. You got townhouses, which are a baby step.

        Wake me up when you (or we, for that matter…) have rowhouses or small, street-scale condo blocks. (I’m currently selling my unit in a 3-unit condo building in DC that fit into the street like a big rowhouse… it was a fantastic way to live.)

      2. Then how do explain that the Rainier Valley is still considerably cheaper than other Seattle areas?

      3. 1) Nebulous perception of crime, which is accurate in a few isolated places (Rainier between Graham and Henderson, Rainier & Orcas, certain spots on MLK).
        2) Certain parts of it really are pretty ugly — rundown buildings, haphazard development.
        3) Legacy of redlining.

        Values in the Valley are headed up. Columbia City is not that much cheaper than Ballard anymore. Hillman City is getting more expensive even though the intersection of Rainier and Orcas is not a nice place.

  2. While I liked the film and thought it did a decent job of surveying arange of topics and challenges, its downfall was found in the biases of its makers and presumed target audience: those who believe “design” executed cleanly, formally, and a macroscopic level can “trickle down” to “fix” the messy humanity that permeates our lives and habitations.

    Le Corbusier was a consummate germiphobe. Niemeyer hated clashing uses. Their work — and that of any sterility-driven “New Urbanist” since — has pointedly undermined everything we know about great urban placemaking.

    Humans are messy. Life is messy. Cities should be messy. Navigating them and interacting with their other occupants should be a dance, not a steamroll. “Designers” and other two-dimensional thinkers have no business trying to remake the world in their easel image.

  3. Here’s an interesting question from our row house debate above. What if Seattle were to change its zoning to allow row houses and 4-story apartments/condos anywhere in the city, including current single-family neighborhoods, with no parking minimums. How would it change the city? How many houses would be converted and where, and how houses many would remain? How would it affect home prices, demography, affordability, etc?

    I think it would allow a sizeable area like Chicago’s north side to emerge. There would still be lots of single-family houses, but adjacent neighborhoods would grow into districts (Ballard-Fremont-Wallingford) rather than being islands in a sea of houses. Turning in this direction would also coincide with relaxed zoning around Link stations; e.g., a blanket 10 stories within 1/4 mile. The zoning would be higher than the market can saturate, meaning developers wouldn’t always build up to the limit. This would allow a true balance of supply and demand to emerge. Home prices would be modestly higher because it’s new buildings, but there would be so many choices along with improved transit, that everybody including the working poor would be able to find something somewhere among it, a place that may be fancy or plain but would have good walkability and frequent transit.

    1. What if Seattle were to change its zoning to allow row houses and 4-story apartments/condos anywhere in the city

      Seattle can’t figure out if it should sell or refurbish it’s existing public schools. Meanwhile Metro is trying to cut unproductive routes. What if all attempts at creating urban villages were just thrown out? And just how thin can density be spread before it turns into sprawl. I’m sure those 4 story waterfront condos with no parking in Lake City would sell. I’m not so sure the roads, sewers etc. are up to the job. But I’m pretty damn sure the people across the street that go from a view of Lake Washington to staring into a blank stucco wall are going to howl like stuck pigs.

      Developers see Seattle’s building boom moving to Bellevue:

      Developers say the apartment-development boom bypassed downtown Bellevue until recently in part because the city’s high-rise zoning made land too expensive for the shorter, wood-frame projects that are most economical to build.

      1. Development is spreading, not “moving”. It’s not slowing down and stopping in Seattle. There will always be people who prefer a smaller city, and that’s what this development in downtown Bellevue is catering to. Also, “Just 222 apartments are under construction in downtown Bellevue now — a fraction of the nearly 4,000 under way in downtown Seattle”. So the growth in Bellevue may be a tempest in a teapot compared to the growth in Seattle.

    2. I’m assuming that developers would prefer units near commercial districts for the same reason that urbanists don’t want to live in isolated residential-only areas. If that’s not a safe assumption we can shrink the upzone area, say inside N 85th, 15th NE, 23rd, Rainier, Henderson, the Duwamish River, 15th W, and 32nd NW. (Actually, two blocks outside that to allow a two-sided walkshed around the border arterials.)

      The reason isolated apartment blocks away from commercial districts exist, like in Sand Point and NE 55th, is that zoning prevented the commercial districts from forming. In the older parts of Seattle like Fremont, there are even former mixed-use blocks that were converted to houses. Allow mixed-use everywhere, and some of those corner businesses would come back.

      As for people losing views, they have no guaranteed right to a view over property they don’t own. I’m not saying my proposal is likely to happen given that people like this would have to consent to it, but it’s still worth looking at would would Seattle be like in an ideal situation, how far are we from it, and what’s preventing it from happening.

      1. I’m assuming that developers would prefer units near commercial districts

        Terrible assumption. If such a thing were true we’d have no need for the GMA. The reason developed isolated apartment blocks exist is because zoning allowed cheaper development away from the commercial districts. There’s never been a lack of land to build higher density in Seattle. The issue is lack of demand to make those areas profitable given the increased value the zoning has created. That is part of the reason DT Bellevue has taken a breather.

        As for people losing views, they have no guaranteed right to a view over property they don’t own.

        Not true in many places. Sommerset and Medina come to mind in Bellevue.

  4. Re starving artists, the “artist gentrification” effect has been observed for a few generations now, so even artists have come to expect it. Unfortunately the ideal, “cheap housing near the city center”, was due to unique circumstances in the 1950s-60s that probably won’t be repeated. Large manufacturing districts in Manhattan, San Francisco, Vancouver, etc, became obsolete and abandoned, opening up tons of buildings and real estate, that just happened to be near the most frequent subways and buses and corner shops. Then, white flight and the FHA preferring mortgages in the suburbs opened up even more urban neighborhoods near the center. The artists moved in to where prices were lowest (and many of them preferred the urban atmosphere that others shunned), and got the benefits of all this infrastructure. But inevitably, middle-class people (or their children) realized that the city wasn’t so bad after all and moved back, bidding up prices. So now we’re returned to the historic norm, where home prices are highest at the center and go down further out. Artists have compensated by moving further out or setting up artist-cooperative buildings (sometimes helped by the city). And smaller cities wishing to revitalize/gentrify are recruiting artists and offering incentives, and helping build a denser quarter they’ll like.

    The most interesting case I’ve seen is Bremerton. Bremerton is often known as a blue-collar, down on its luck, navy town (but with a ferry to downtown!), that was explicitly recruiting artists in the 2000s. I saw flyers essentially saying, “Come to Bremerton, it’s a great community to be an artist in.” I don’t know how well it succeeded, how many artists moved there.

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