Filmmaker Gary Hustwit on Urban Development and City Design

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The number of streetlamps lighting a neighborhood; the placement of a bike lane; the creation -- or razing -- of a park: Each element of the physical environment can be traced to a decision made somewhere, by someone. In a trilogy of documentaries over the past six years, Gary Hustwit turns the lens on the design industry, translating insider wonkiness into delightfully digestible media by examining the people who dream up and produce the settings for everyday life. He did it first with typography (Helvetica, 2007), and then with industrial design (Objectified, 2009). His final installment, Urbanized, takes on city design -- an ambitious topic with global implications in a rapidly urbanizing world. In line with its predecessors, the film stylishly intertwines stories of human interest with a basic 101 in urban planning at a pace that's accessible, enjoyable, and provocative.

Hustwit is an independent media trailblazer. Through the late '80s and '90s he employed his largely self-taught skills in the music and publishing industries, focusing on artists and writers who flew under the mainstream radar. In 2001 he founded indie DVD label Plexifilm, which produces and distributes films and digital media -- mainly music-related -- from offices in New York and London. He made his directorial debut with Helvetica, which won knowledgeable and novice fans alike with witty candid interviews, compelling imagery, and a soundtrack worthy of standalone purchase. Urbanized follows suit, communicating so effectively that urbanism luminaries have described the film as a much-needed tool for taking their message to the masses.

Urbanized, which will be available on iTunes in mid-December, involves the spaces we live in; perhaps the most democratic medium the trilogy addresses. Talking with me in London following the film's U.K. debut, Hustwit described the series as "totally punk rock," and disclosed how his grassroots sensibility informs both his filmmaking and his politics.

Do audiences in different cities react to Urbanized in different ways?

People tend to have the same reactions when they're watching the film; they laugh at the same things. But in North American cities, mobility seemed to be much more of a focus in the Q&A sessions. People complained about how poor the bike infrastructure was; how, in the case of Toronto, for example, the current mayor is even taking out bike lanes that the previous mayor had installed because he claims they're causing more traffic. I think audiences sort of get angry that their local city planners aren't adopting ideas from other parts of the world that might work in their cities.

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Have you ever had a viewer argue with the generally positive presentation of cities in the film?

Nobody likes being told that the way they're living is not the most efficient way. I think people do have freedom of choice in where they want to live and how they want to live. But when those decisions are impacting the rest of us, that's when something has got to change. That can mean the government getting involved -- I noticed recently that the Supreme Court upheld the sprawl tax that California had put on new developers -- and I think that's the kind of direction that we're going to go. A lot of times, there's no reason for these suburban developments other than that a developer just wants to make money. The city doesn't exist for real estate developers to make money off of it ... that's not its primary function. So it really has to fall to government to rein development in, and make sure that the shaping of the city benefits all citizens equally.

Did you meet any good real estate developers while you were making this movie?

Yeah, I did. Richard Baron in St. Louis is one; he does a lot of work trying to redevelop blighted urban neighborhoods in truly mixed-use, mixed-income format. All real estate developers are not evil. I think there are developers who are doing great residential and commercial development, but they're in the minority. I think most real estate developers are in it strictly to make a profit. That's where you see the issues, just endless strip malls and isolated residential communities.

What kind of an urban environment did you grow up in?

I grew up in the suburbs in Southern California. Very conservative, upper middle class. It was something for me to rebel against, basically. When I was in high school, we were in a gated community, Newport Beach in San Diego. Just the most ridiculous kind of urban form you can imagine.

Did you know you were embarking on a film trilogy when you made Helvetica?

No, absolutely not. People also often ask me about the scaling of the films -- about starting out small with fonts, then scaling up to objects, and finally up to cities. I don't see it that way. I see three areas of design that equally affect our lives. We look at so many words every day, thousands of words and corporate logos and all these advertisements, everything. Typography surrounds us, and we can't help but take in these messages. There are so many ways that design affects our lives that we don't even think about, that I don't want to categorize it as the bigger one and the smaller one.

Presented by

Julia Levitt writes and consults on sustainability, policy, innovation, and strategy in the built environment. She is currently studying management at the London School of Economics.

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