Gary Hustwit, Director Of “Urbanized,” On Solving America’s Big-City Problems

Hustwit categorizes U.S. cities as “bad, really bad.” His proposed solution: a mix of good design, apolitical vision, and civic engagement.

Gary Hustwit, Director Of “Urbanized,” On Solving America’s Big-City Problems

Unless you cycle to work, perhaps your thoughts upon leaving the house each day don’t immediately turn to the design of your urban environment and how it affects your life in the smallest and largest possible ways. You may also not be aware of how your daily choices end up, in effect, designing your city.


Filmmaker Gary Hustwit examines the design of cities and its impact on societies in his latest feature documentary, Urbanized. The film is the final installment of Hustwit’s design trilogy, which also includes Helvetica and Objectified. Like its predecessors, Urbanized features some of design’s leading voices, in this case architects like Sir Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Jan Gehl, and Oscar Niemeyer, along with planners, policymakers, and activists. By visiting 40 cities over the course of the film, Hustwit nimbly paints a solution-oriented portrait of urban design’s universal issues: housing, mobility, public space, civic engagement, economic development, and environmental policy. But unlike his previous look at specific areas of design–and despite the vastness of the topic–Urbanized brings with it a sense that individuals are able to affect the way their cities are shaped.

The New York- and London-based director says the seeds for a film devoted to urbanism were sown while on a 100-city tour for Helvetica. “I was having a lot of conversations about how the design of cities was just one more way that design affects our lives, and the idea came to me to make three films with cities as the last piece,” he says.

As a film about the future of cities, the stakes are raised mere moments after the opening credits with the statistic that 75% of the world’s population will live in urban centers by 2050, with the majority of growth coming from developing countries. A parade of best-in-class examples of urban innovation follows.

[Enrique Peñalosa on his bike, riding through Bogotá]

In Bogotá, Colombia, Hustwit visits with former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, whose decree “Access to parking is not a human right” serves as a rallying cry for the film and illustrates how political will can transform a city. Along with well-known bike havens like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Bogotá has created a vast system of well-designed, paved bike paths, and in the process, has relegated the car to second-class, mud-road status.

Hustwit points to mobility as one of the greatest challenges facing cities. “There just have to be better solutions to getting people around the city. And those are some really unpopular changes,” he says, pointing to driver ire over New York City’s new bike lanes, which cause more traffic in the short term while being underutilized as cyclists become aware of the dedicated lanes. “But it’s the concept of invitation; the city has to invite the type of behavior it wants.”

Meanwhile, the Elemental social housing project in Santiago, Chile, serves as an example of the value of citizen input in the outcome of urban design. When the project’s strict budget only allowed for either a bathtub or a hot water heater in each expandable unit, residents were consulted and 100% chose a bathtub, upending conventional wisdom. The residents, who were previously homeless, opted for the privacy and multifunctionality of a tub over prohibitively expensive hot water.


By contrast, Hustwit visits both the modernist Brazilian capital Brasília and New Orleans’ hurricane ravaged Ninth Ward. Both exemplify development without a view to how people actually live within the spaces; the former plagued by vast, disconnected distances between central areas, the latter a series of isolated new homes without a plan for community building.

[House models from the Elemental project in Santiago, Chile]

When considering issues as large as housing or mobility, it’s easy to feel powerless, but Hustwit emphasizes the importance of individual action. “We all make those choices every day about how we get around the city, where we live, if we recycle, and that’s what ends up really designing the city,” he says. “Professionals and governments set up parameters and build infrastructure projects, but if people in the city don’t use them or don’t want them, they don’t work; no one is pulling the puppet strings and forcing us to live a certain way.”

The looming problem, of course, is that economics and political self-interest usually trump decisions based on public good. “There are a lot of unpopular decisions that can be made that don’t have a short-term economic payoff that most politicians are not willing to make. And that’s part of the problem,” says Hustwit. “That’s why citizens need to be involved. If the urban design direction of a city changes every time the political direction of a city changes, nothing will ever be accomplished.”

[Gary Hustwit. Photo: Jessica Edwards]

And perhaps as a result, American cities are not beacons of progress. While exceptional projects like New York’s High Line revitalization and Detroit’s Georgia Street Community Garden are lauded in the film, Hustwit rates U.S. cities as “bad, really bad.” “We’re certainly not leading the world in the vision category,” he says. And vision is exactly what’s required to usher in the coming era of mega-megacities. As the film’s experts see it, the world’s greatest leap in urbanization will come in developing countries such as China, Africa, and India. Says Hustwit: “That’s where we’re going to see the biggest problem, but also hopefully the biggest breakthroughs in dealing with cities of 50 million people,” suggesting that sustainable energy, flexible infrastructure, and waste management will yield a new wave of innovation.

“We’re on the cusp of this really incredible moment in cities where technological advances and the mass migration to cities are happening at the same time,” he says, noting there’s really no choice but to find ways to live in more sustainable ways. His intention with this film is to stimulate a global conversation about what he refers to as “the urban question”–to make people aware of how the form of their city affects their decisions, and how their actions can in turn shape their city.

Says Hustwit: “Collective thinking is what’s going to help solve the challenges that cities are facing.”


About the author

Rae Ann Fera is a writer with Co.Create whose specialty is covering the media, marketing, creative advertising, digital technology and design fields. She was formerly the editor of ad industry publication Boards and has written for Huffington Post and Marketing Magazine.