Gary Hustwit is the director of the documentaries Helvetica (2007) and Objectified (2009). His latest film, Urbanized, looks at the issues and strategies behind urban design. This interview took place on October 17, 2011, in New York. It has been condensed and edited.
Adam Harrison Levy: If we were doing this interview in the 1950s would your film be titled “suburbanized”?
Gary Hustwit: Definitely! It would be all about the bright new future, overcrowded cities and a car for everyone.
AHL: Now the trend is in the other direction: older suburbs are urbanizing, and people are moving to cities for access to jobs. The statistics in your film are jaw-dropping: in just 40 years 75 percent of the world population will live in cities.
GH: A lot of that growth is going to take place in the global south. We’re not going to see that rate of change in the United States. These are changes that people in the profession have been talking about for decades, but people outside of architecture or urban planning or policymaking circles don’t really talk about this stuff. That is one of the underlying purposes of the film: to bring these ideas to a wider audience. The design of cities is the one area of design that has the biggest impact on most people’s daily lives but is also the one that people are the least knowledgeable about.
AHL: There are lots of people with competing agendas when it comes to the design of cities: architects, legislators, citizens, to name a few. Was it difficult for you to encompass all those perspectives when setting out to make the film?
GH: I think I went in expecting that. I knew it was going to be daunting, and three years later we still are barely scratching the surface in the film. What is interesting is to see how commercial development in this country sets so much of the agenda for how cities are shaped. There was a period in the 1970s and 1980s when the city planning offices were gutted and the really smart people got sucked off into private development. It turned into private developers setting the agenda for city planning, even becoming de facto planners, especially in smaller towns.
AHL: One of the themes in Urbanized is that top-down modernist planning failed. The most successful examples of development in the film are the ones that take the user’s experience into account, that are cooperative.
GH: Or participatory.
AHL: That’s a better word.
GH: It’s the top mining the bottom for ideas, and really using those ideas to drive development, as opposed to a top-down planning model, where planners get feedback from the people who are actually going to be living in the city, but only after the ideas are already formed.
AHL: So is this a new model for urban design? Ideas like urban farms trickling up from citizen activists and do-it-yourself interventionists?
GH: I don’t think DIY interventions are enough to change our cities. I think they are a great compass for governments and professionals to look at to see the types of interventions that people are coming up with on their own when government isn’t doing anything. You have citizens stepping in to try to change their cities on their own. The next step is for governments to use those projects as a model but then formalize them.
AHL: Is there an example for this in terms of the city planning model?
GH: The Khayelitsha project in the film. That was a situation where the government went in and spent two years surveying people in the community, a township outside Cape Town. They trained locals to go out and do in-depth surveys. What were their concerns? What were the big issues? They surveyed 60,000 people before they even determined if an intervention should be made. Only after learning what the community really needed — their main objective was to reduce crime — did they bring in the design professionals. And then they spent another two years with the design professionals working with the community to determine what the intervention should be. So that’s a significant amount of research and involvement — professionals and the city using the citizens as a compass for what the intervention should be, or if there should even be an intervention. And only then did they propose a pedestrian path, a safe path through the township with shelters open 24 hours a day. They worked with the community developing and running those initiatives, and that’s why it’s been successful.
AHL: There is a heartwarming sequence in the film about a small-scale urban garden in Detroit. But isn’t this just aesthetic window dressing that masks larger economic changes from an industrial to a post-industrial city?
GH: What I take out of that story is that it’s an idea. It’s not about how much food he is growing in the community garden — although I’d say for the people he feeds it’s very significant — it’s the idea of a guy trying to save his neighborhood, making a stand and getting other people to join him. That idea to me is the most powerful thing. That’s what a city like Detroit needs — a mental shift, creative inspiration, commitment to do something on all levels of the population. Not just a bunch of hipster artist kids who want to paint houses crazy colors — that’s great and I think it’s needed — but Detroit also needs a much broader base of citizen involvement. The manufacturing jobs are not going to come back. No one is going to invest in those neighborhoods. It’s like a battle zone: crumbling building after crumbling building after crumbling building. There is not going to be recovery in those places, not for a long time.
AHL: So do we write these neighbors off?
GH: Mark Covington, the guy who is doing the community garden project, is trying to clear seven other lots and turn them into a big green space. But the city wants him to buy the lots for something like $20,000 for back taxes. So he can’t do it. There is a lot of resistance from the city to people like him. That’s a challenge. Mayor Dave Bing of Detroit is the only person in two and a half years of filming who didn’t want to be in the film.
AHL: Do designers now have to design people’s perceptions as much as the physical city? I’m thinking about the sequence set in Bogotá, Colombia, where the mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, had to shift people’s perceptions about the use of bicycles and buses.
GH: The infrastructure and city services in Bogotá, as in most cities, were designed for people who were middle income or higher. And Enrique Peñalosa’s big initiative was to get rid of all the parking spaces where there was a ton of traffic because people were just parking wherever they felt like it. And when he outlawed parking — only 10 percent of people in Bogotá own cars, and they are of course the richest 10 percent — there was a huge backlash and they tried to impeach him. But I think Peñalosa’s success was to treat the citizen on the 30 dollar bicycle just like the citizen in the 30 thousand dollar car. He looked at the city’s infrastructure through the eyes of somebody who was very poor. How do they get around? What would be the best government response to that segment of the population? And he prioritized that over everything else.
AHL: What is the role of architects and designers in these scenarios — the space between public policy and physical change?
GH: Peñalosa put a lot of effort into really well-designed public libraries. He brought well-known architects from Colombia and abroad to design schools and libraries and museums and put a lot of effort into the built environment for public use. Some of the schools are amazing. He took a garbage processing plant and had architects come in and re-vitalize it. Now it’s this space-age library, but it’s in the poorest area of the city. That’s the other thing he did: he concentrated those new buildings and new initiatives in the poorer areas.
AHL: What can we learn from that?
GH: That there has to be as much design attention to a very modest elementary school building as there is to a fancy art museum building. I think it shows respect for people of modest and lower income. It’s not a cheap building that is slapped up, that’s not designed, that just has this feeling of, Well, you should be lucky we are putting a library here. You have world-class designers come in and put care and thought and their best efforts into average citizens’ use.
AHL: What about a different kind of design initiative that is in your film — the High Line in New York? James Corner, its landscape architect, says that successful urban design doesn’t have to mean either preservation or erasure but that it can mean transformation. That worked beautifully in New York, but does it play in Mumbai?
GH: The High Line is a great project, and it has transformed that side of Manhattan. But we are talking about Manhattan. I don’t think that model would work in Mumbai. They have built a series of skywalks there that are these elevated walkways — in some ways similar to the High Line — that extend from the train stations to the business districts. They are made so people can get off the train and basically walk over the slums. So in a sense they have spent millions of dollars to avoid dealing with the real problems on the ground level. It lets people literally walk above the problem. We filmed a lot there, but we ended up not being able to talk about it in the film.
AHL: Which brings up an important point. Did you have any criteria for choosing stories to include?
GH: I was looking for projects that were making a difference and where the design thinking was both evident and effective. We were also looking for ideas that can be spread from city to city. The High Line is very specific to New York, but there are versions of that re-purposing of post-industrial structures for new uses in different cities. We need more city-to-city sharing of ideas and projects. I’m surprised by how little of that happens now. Going into the film I thought these mayors must know everything happening in Copenhagen or Stuttgart, but I think most of the time city governments and planners are just really focused on their immediate area and not looking to Santiago for cues about how to do things better in their city. I think there is a lot more potential to share ideas.
AHL: The film is constructed as a kaleidoscope of urban design examples from around the globe. It’s not a traditional documentary. There is no one overall coherent narrative.
GH: No, it’s very incoherent! And I like the incoherence. All three films I’ve made don’t have a narrative structure imposed on them. You have to piece it together yourself as the viewer. There are people that jump in from time to time who give you chronological information or link different ideas, but for the most part I like people to figure out the connections themselves. You’re not sure why we just went from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, but by the end of the film you’ve gotten all the pieces together and maybe your ideas about the subject matter have changed a little bit.
AHL: Do you think of Helvetica, Objectified and Urbanized as a triptych?
GH: Oh god, totally! Stylistically, they are linked, and I think the approach is the same. Helvetica was a good structure for looking at the field of graphic design. And I thought: can we use this structure to look at another field of design? And that was the impetus to do the second film and now the third film.
AHL: Has making the film helped you to see the city in a new way?
GH: Definitely. I don’t really make the films to teach people things. It’s not about learning something. It’s always about starting conversations, about getting people to re-assess their relationship to the subject matter. And to just think a little bit differently about whatever it is that we are covering.
AHL: Since the film was completed there has been an explosion of activity in public spaces — movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Has this activity surprised you? Does it herald a change in the use of urban space?
GH: Well, I think there is a changing relationship with regard to what is public and what is private. For too long cities have been prioritized for private space. Attitudes about what the priorities of a city should be and whom city space should benefit are changing. And it had to come as a result of people literally taking the space back. All the public-private plazas in New York City are a perfect example of space being sold off to the highest bidder, when really the city should step in and preserve more of this space for public use.
So I think there is a movement toward greater citizen involvement. From these very small-scale DIY interventions to massive demonstrations and massive occupations of public space. There is a changing awareness of the rights of citizens to the city.
AHL: It seems you caught the zeitgeist in that sense.
GH: We started the project three years ago, and now the urban question is much more in the public realm. And that can only be a good thing — more awareness, more knowledge and more inclusion of ordinary citizens in the process. It’s something I don’t think cities can ignore anymore. Because then you end up with citizens doing it themselves and taking the space back.
AHL: We started this interview by saying that in the 1950s the film would been called “Suburbanized.” Fifty years from now would it be called “Ruralized?”
GH: When I went to interview Rem Koolhaas — and it took months and months for us to get him scheduled — we finally sat down, and we talked a little before the interview started. And I said we are going to talk about cities. And the first thing Rem says is: You know I’m not really thinking about cities anymore. Now that 51 percent of people live in cities, what I’m really interested in is all these spaces that we are leaving behind in the countryside.