Urbanized, a film by Gary Hustwit

Rhythm Circus magazine

Last year the world's seven billionth baby was born in the Philippines, the fourth densest country in the world and one of the fastest growing, and in 2007 the world in which she will grow up in changed for good as for the first time over 50% of the global population lived in cities. Gary Hustwit's latest documentary film, Urbanized, has this as it's background as it looks into what makes a city, how they work and how people fit into them. Now, before your mind glazes over, your memory is taken back into GCSE Geography coursework and you click onto the next Rhythm Circus review in the hope of action, sex and blockbuster, read a bit further, because it's actually a rather important and prescient film.

While there are a few moments outlining the history of how cities developed, it doesn't delve too far back in history looking mainly at the modernist approach of design and architecture from the Garden City approach of Ebeneezer Howard onwards, through Brasilia and into what the cities of the future may be. But, instead of becoming wowed by architectural renderings showing monorails and skyscrapers, Hustwit is far more interested in using his lens to pick up on the potential social and political approaches to how future cities won't just implode under the weight of mass-migration, dwindling resources and an ever-increasing wealth gap between the haves and have-not's. In the western world we are constantly being warned about how future oil and water shortages will cause us to change the way we live, and the affects of mass-migrations around the world due to potential climate change is also well discussed, but only on the last point, of the division of wealth, are we now starting to see real tensions in our modernised cities.

I was recently walking around London when I emerged into Paternoster Square, the Prince Charles approved kitsch and controlled urban space for bankers. The entirety of the space had been filled with a tight grid of safety barriers forcing pedestrians to the perimeter and tight up against the mock-classical façades. I was spat out from the unwelcoming square in front of St. Pauls which had become the 'tent city' of the Occupy London protesters. There was an information tent, an unofficial newspaper (http://theoccupiedtimes.co.uk/), not far to the north the Bank of Ideas offered courses and education, people were approachable and happy to talk. In all honesty, it was one of the most vibrant, healthy and alive spaces in London I had experienced in years - the political debate, the aesthetic of temporality and fluidity, the shaking notion of action over inaction.

I was reminded of this walk and encounter when watching Urbanizedwhen Hustwit was in Detroit, the fading, downsizing ghost of what was once the creator of the foremost modernist icon, the motor car. Plots in empty urban sprawls were being turned into small plots of land for people to grow food in urban farms which was then sold in popular food markets in the city's empty social spaces. A “self organised urbanism” was discussed, a DIY aesthetic of individual initiatives, and it struck me that these people in Detroit who felt the government had given up on them so they had to start their own fightback were not too far, ideologically, from the Occupy protesters in their various cities.

This fight for a say on the development of a share of the world in which everyone has to live cheek-by-jowl is evident in all the film's case studies from Santiago to Stuttgart. In fact, by using this global array of cities Hustwit manages to make a view of urbanity which is less about the individual examples and more about a truth which seems to thread between them all and inevitable must-do responses required if we wish to continue sculpting a better place for the most fundamental needs of life. His film manages to show us protesters in Stuttgart battling authorities over how the station and adjoining parkland is developed to accommodate the European high speed trains alongside Mumbai slums where there is just one toilet for every 600 people without suggesting that us pampered westerners really have nothing to get angry about, but that all of us, from all corners, have valid arguments, fights and ideas and that we must be vocal about them because this is the time we set out the agenda for our future lives.

Though beautifully shot throughout there is never any escaping that this is a documentary so you have to be prepared to sit, listen and think, but Hustwit flows between themes as seamlessly as Walter Benjamin did through the Parisian arcades so there are no clunky or awkward edits, and the progression from past to future is. And, just as Benjamin used his own feet to navigate, this film highlights the importance of the individual act, of political localism and a sense of neighbourly place as important ingredients into how we navigate change in our urban societies.

Despite showing us so much destitution, so many challenges people face to just live in safety and health, the overall feeling Urbanized gives us is rather optimistic. Just as London gave the world a new type of city as it expanded beyond anyone's imagination during the industrial revolution, and it had to develop responses such as Bazalgette's sewers, emancipation and improved medicines. Now, in this “century of the city”, new responses of politics, design, demography and response is required. This film doesn't claim to have answers, but it does put the subject out there for the masses to consider before the few who own the wealth and the diggers set the agenda for us.