So I finally watched Urbanized. I often mock people who haven’t seen movies I think are seminal, so this was partially a self-protective move on my part. I’m pretty sure this documentary is the most famous planning documentary out there.
I have to say I came away a tiny bit disappointed. Not that the movie isn’t full of interesting information: it’s practically overflowing with it. And in terms of gorgeous images, it delivers.
I was hoping to add this movie to a course, or to replace another movie I show, but I won’t be doing either. Again, not because the movie isn’t good, but rather because it’s not really good for the particular breadth and depth of knowledge I ask students to master in my courses.
Urbanized goes all over the world and interviews some of the great luminaries of planning, like Jan Gehl and Oscar Niemeyer. It also addresses a varied grab-bag of issues: population growth, data-driven planning, pedestrian/bicycle focus, electricity consumption, slum improvements, etc. My issue, then, is that from an educational perspective, the movie doesn’t quite bring everything together.
First, geographically, Urbanized takes a look at developing cities as well as well-known cities like Paris and New York. This is great to broaden horizons, but the worldly perspective comes at a cost: there isn’t enough to understand planning or urbanism in any given place, just particular issues in varied places. For instance, the doc starts with an extensive discussion of overpopulation and uncontrolled slum growth. Certainly, this is an issue in some places, but for planners who will likely work in the U.S., the opposite problems – population loss, gentrification – are much more likely.
Second, thematically, little time can be devoted to any given issue. Some sections are fascinating, such as the Tidy Street project in the UK, the improvements in the South African township of Khayelitsha, and the guerrilla art in New Orleans. However, all the varied case studies end up oversimplified as a result. Yes, the BRT is fantastic in Colombia, but does it work in other locales? The High Line has deserved all its accolades but it does have some negative side effects. The examples end up being vignettes without any connective tissue.
If someone knows nothing about urban planning, Urbanized is a great introduction. You may not be interested in every case, but at least some will connect with you. If, on the other hand, you already know a little, the doc skims the surface too much and jumps around without bringing everything together.
So: great doc for newbies. It’s fun and pretty and moves quickly. Planning professionals/enthusiasts will enjoy the pretty pictures.
Other notable documentaries:
– Radiant City. I have students watch this in class, so clearly I think it has value. It has issues, too, but I can’t discuss them without spoiling the movie. Sorry.
– My Architect. Not technically planning but interesting nonetheless. The discussion of Louis Khan’s work is fascinating. Though, for my tastes, the pathos of the second family thing is distracting and largely irrelevant.
– The Pruitt-Igoe Myth. It’s not exactly a feel-good movie, but it really does add a great deal of nuance and depth to any discussion of housing projects in the U.S.
– This Space Available. Like Pruitt-Igoe Myth, it focuses on a single issue, though in this case it’s billboards. The examples come from all over the world, but the theme is consistent.
– Ghostbusters. Ok, not a doc, but one of the best discussions of NYC in the 80s and pro-preservation points of view ever. Plus, ghosts.
Side note: I think students sometimes think that showing a movie in class is the professor being lazy. I won’t say that’s never the case, but if it’s done right, choosing a movie, shaping discussion around it, and integrating it into the content of a course is anything but simple. It does, however, mean less voice strain.