Film Review: Urbanized

Urban Crossroads #125

This article is also available in Arabic
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I finally got the chance to see the documentary film Urbanized by filmmaker Gary Hustwit. The film is about contemporary cities around the world, rich and poor; big and small. It eloquently explains what cities – where over half the world’s population lives – are about, and it examines the challenges and opportunities people face in trying to make cities safer, more sanitary, more accessible to pedestrians and public transportation users, and generally more livable.

This is a film that anyone who in any way is interested in cities should see. It sheds light on various innovative and forward-looking developments currently affecting cities in a clear, concise, and engaging manner. It also interviews a number of remarkable people from all walks of life who have contributed to improving urban life.

One of the first cities that the movie presents is the megapolis of Mumbai. This city faces the crushing challenges of accommodating the millions of migrants from the countryside who live in its slums, where even the most basic of services such as running water and sewage collection and disposal are not available. The ubiquity of slums of course is not unique to Mumbai considering that a third of urban dwellers in the world live in them. The film interviews Indian urban advocate Sheela Patel, who eloquently articulates the difficulties and suffering of slum life. She points out, for example, that current Mumbai city standards shockingly consider an area to be adequately served by sanitation services if 50 inhabitants (or 10 families) are served by a single toilet seat. She adds that even this standard is not met since every 600 people in the city currently are served by a single toilet seat.

One of the more memorable parts of the film deals with the Columbian capital Bogota. The film interviews its impressive former mayor, Enrique Penalosa. He states that one of the main reasons behind congestion in cities is that car owners consider parking an inalienable right. They therefore believe that they have the right to drive everywhere and park everywhere. He sarcastically points out that the constitutions of many countries may refer to people’s right to work, education, or health care, but never to parking. In contrast, he considers the ability of all the city’s residents to move around it a basic right, and also an example of democracy at work. Based on this thinking, he led the development of Bogota’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, the TransMilenio, and also built extensive cycling and pedestrian paths that serve much of the city, both its rich and poor sections.

Penalosa emphasizes that a bus carrying 100 people should have 100 times as much right to the city’s streets as a car carrying one person. Bogota’s TransMilenio bus system puts this concept into action, as it uses dedicated bus lanes on which other vehicles are not allowed. It has emerged as a world-renowned model for public transportation. Also, the cycling paths that Penalosa created throughout the city are an expression of his belief that a person who owns a $30 bike should have as much access to the city as one who owns a $30,000 car. A memorable part of the film shows Penalosa riding his bike along one of the city’s bike lanes and pointing to an unpaved mud-covered street next to the lane. He states that his priority was to build lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, but not for cars. Paving streets that serve cars can wait.

The film also shows us one of the world’s richest and most successful cities: the Danish capital Copenhagen. It interviews the famed Danish urbanist Jan Gehl. Gehl has played an important role over the past half a century in making Copenhagen the impressive city it is today (Gehl also carried out some work in Amman, and carried out the conceptual design for the pedestrianization of the city’s Wakalat Street). Listening to Gehl talk about cities is a delight. He mentions that we can best assess a city not by observing how people move in it, but how people stop in it, whether to sit down and relax, to listen to a street musician, or to watch a street show. It is in such cities that people feel at home.

Gehl adds that we are able to comfortably perceive details about people and objects up to a distance of 100 meters, but not beyond that. That is why many of the world’s most successful historical pubic urban spaces are 100 by 100 meters in area or less. He also proudly mentions that more people use their bikes to move around Copenhagen than any other city in the world. About 40% of the city’s commutes to and from work are made using bicycles.

This is just a small sample of the cities that the film visits and explains. It also presents stories of challenges and accomplishments in cities as diverse as New York, Detroit, New Orleans, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Stuttgart, Cape Town, and Beijing. It presents city officials, architects, urban planners, and activists who have come together to improve their cities. In doing so, they have bravely and imaginatively faced a wide set of serious urban problems including poverty, inadequate infrastructure, corruption, crime, as well as socially and economically insensitive real-estate development projects.

As I viewed the film, I of course couldn’t but think of how the film relates to Amman. Amman unfortunately seems disconnected from the rich discussions, activities, and efforts taking place all over the world to improve the quality of urban life. While Amman may not suffer from the crushing challenges affecting a megapolis such as Mumbai, it is falling behind in terms of the quality of life it offers its inhabitants. In Amman, garbage collection services have been deteriorating; traffic congestion and the rude and aggressive driving that come with it continue to increase year after year; urban sprawl remains unchecked; pedestrians are completely marginalized; and the city still does not have a public transportation system that minimally meets the needs of its residents.

The few efforts at urban improvement carried out in Amman over the past few years have had limited or no success. Jan Gehl’s work in the city only produced one pedestrian street of a few hundred meters. Worse yet, a number of the store owners along it have been viciously fighting its pedestrianization since its completion over six years ago, and have been pressuring the municipality to convert it back into a street for cars. Their priority is for their customers to be able to park immediately in front of their stores. Pedestrians have no place in their thinking. Also, Amman’s Bus Rapid Transit project was put on hold for over a year ago. The short stretches of dedicated bus lanes that have been completed for this project remain unused, a sad reminder of what could have been accomplished. This project would have positively revolutionized transportation in the city, and would have finally provided the people of Amman with the public transportation system they need and deserve. The full story as to why this important project has been halted has yet to be told. Those responsible for stopping it will not be remembered kindly.

Considering where Amman is today, every person in the city should see Urbanized. It gives insightful ideas about what should be done and what has been done to make cities better places for all. It also demonstrates that urban problems are solvable and that all cities can be improved.

 

Mohammad al-Asad
July 7, 2012

 

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