Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Movie Review: “Urbanized”

In previous posts, I summarized a recent program by the Sacramento District of the Urban Land Institute on the future of redevelopment in California.

By chance, the Sacramento folks had scheduled a second event for the same day. Together with the Sacramento chapter of the American Planning Association (APA), they offered an evening screening of “Urbanized” at the historic Crest Theatre. “Urbanized” is a 2011 film by director Gary Hustwit on urban design. It was the third of a trilogy by Hustwit on items with which we interact regularly. The first film, “Helvetica”, was about a font. The second, “Objectified”, was about everyday objects. And now “Urbanized” is about urban planning.

In his seminal work “How to Read a Book”, Mortimer Adler argued that readers have two primary tasks while reading a non-fiction book. The first is to determine what premise the author is setting forth. The second is to determine whether he proves the premise.

The same tests should be applied to a documentary. Accordingly, I spent the first half of “Urbanized” trying to determine the premise. I hypothesized several alternatives, only to discard each as the film moved along. Eventually, I concluded that the only possible premise that Hustwit could be arguing was “Urban planning is a multi-faceted subject that resists obvious or simplistic solutions.” It was a premise for which he provided strong evidence.

The movie consisted of short segments, typically five to ten minutes, on a wide range of urban issues, focusing on a single city to illustrate each. Rapid bus transit in Bogota (where the mayor is a coming media star), community gardens in Detroit, hyper-urbanization in Beijing, public safety in a South African slum, energy conservation in Brighton, England, and more issues were quickly presented. Although the New York City Planning Director came off as an over-dressed, role-playing drone, none of the segments were poorly done. All were informative and interesting, even if they didn’t lead to a grand conclusion except that cities are complex.

An online review of the film says that “’Urbanized’ frames a global discussion on the future of cities.” The key word is “frames”. “Urbanized” doesn’t offer solutions, but does a credible job of posing the questions.

After the film, the APA had planned a short panel discussion. Facing a long drive home on a rainy evening, I slipped away before the discussion began. But more than the weather, I departed because the film didn’t lend itself to a panel discussion. The audience had been presented with a diverse package of vignettes with little commonality other than they dealt with how cities work. Another twenty minutes of being talked at seemed unlikely to result in an appropriate emotional response to the film.

Instead, it was a film that called for convening in a nearby pub with a small group, ordering a round of beer, and talking until midnight. Any lesser followup risked trivializing the film.

Which leads to my concluding thought. “Urbanized” is available on DVD. My wife and I don’t have a great setting for a group to watch television. But if someone can offer a good television watching place and someone else is willing to provide the beer, I’m willing to secure the DVD. We can convene to give the film the proper dissection and emotional resolution that it deserves. If you’re interested, you know where to reach me.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

1 comment:

  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

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    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann