Filmmaker Gary Hustwit on Urban Development and City Design


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.

It's funny, when I watch Helvetica, it looks like Urbanized. It's cities. Even in Helvetica it's not just about showing a logo, it's about something going on around it. It's people, it's buses going by ... all those elements in daily life are in both of the other films too.

What makes you want to inform people about the design behind everyday life?

I think the content of the films is very much linked to my realization of these things and to noticing things in my environment more -- the work and the creativity and the decisions. I'm always noticing the decisions, and trying to figure out why somebody chose this way over that way.

Did you learn to do that in publishing?

I don't think so. Where it really came out of is probably punk rock, which at its core is really a philosophy of being questioning. Questioning authority, questioning the status quo, and creating the world that you want to be in. Not waiting for someone else's permission, or for someone else to do it for you. I think even the films themselves are totally punk rock. I didn't go to a producer, I didn't go to a television network and try to get funding for them, I didn't go in front of a bunch of investors and try to convince them that making a documentary about a font was a bankable idea. It was just a film I wanted to see. That's what it's always been for me, and it's a great experience. I enjoy learning processes for doing things, whether it's how to release a record, or how to tour the country with a band. It's fun to attack those projects.

As an outsider to the design industry, what do you think you bring to the direction of the documentaries?

I think I'm bringing a type of objectivity. Who doesn't like who in the architecture world, those are things I don't really care about. I get a lot of different opinions and see a lot of different projects and try to make sense of this question myself -- who shapes our cities, and how does that affect our lives, and what's our role? There's a limit to my knowledge, and I think that's a good thing. I'm really curious. Hopefully I can hold a conversation with all these people about what they do, and how what they do affects me as a citizen ... and the result is the film.

If you already know all the answers and you're just telling them in a film, that seems like the most boring thing to me. I like not knowing, and bringing an audience along on that discovery with me.

You're about to become a father, and your child will grow up in a world that's changing rapidly through urbanization. Did making the film change your thinking about how you're going to raise your child?

Children are the basis of so many of our decisions about where to live. People want better schools, and an environment where kids can play. But that's all a state of mind. You can have that in any environment as long as you make it a priority. The one thing that has come out of making the film is that I think now about how often people just kind of accept that that's the way it is -- suburbs have better schools and more room, so we need to go there.

You know, you make your own environment. You don't have to accept the way things are in your neighborhood or in a city; you can change things. And you can have a large impact. Don't just let the conditions dictate your response. If you think the schools in another district are better, or there's no place for your kid to play ... make the schools in your neighborhood better. Get a park made. This ideal neighborhood that people think they can find by moving somewhere else, you can make yourself. You can make those things happen where you are now. It just takes work, and it takes organizing. If you don't do that, if you don't get involved, other people will make the decisions for you -- wherever you are. In the suburbs, in the city, it doesn't matter.

Image: Gary Hustwit/Jessica Edwards.