Urbanized is the final documentary in independent filmmaker Gary Hustwit’s design trilogy after Helvetica (2007) and Objectified (2009). For this film Hustwit turns his attention to architectural design projects from cities all over the world

From the slums of Mumbai, via the successes and failures of South American cities, to the environmental challenges of New York and Stuttgart, this compelling documentary illustrates the paradoxical relationship between the slow medium of architecture and the necessary futurism of the city planner; the landscape designer as hero, and villain.

In looking at Mumbai, the film examines not the monumental architectural achievement of the Bandra–Worli Sea Link, but the slum developments of the city, now familiar to many from Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and the introduction of much smaller-scale raised pedestrian walkways. This selection typifies the focus of the film on the direct interaction of people with the infrastructure and flow of the city rather than on the isolation of the commuter. The Mumbai walkways show the good intentions of urban design with its objective of providing a safe, attractive – and speedy – alternative to the car. It also exemplifies the potential for failure in urban design, the walkways having proved divisive by literally raising the middle-class above the slums and the city’s large poor population, making invisible both the problem of poverty and the need for a solution. This contrasts with the new raised walkways of New York City where, instead of preserving or erasing the derelict structure of the High Line, creative design has been deployed to transform it into something lovable. Starting at a very local, community level, the Friends of the High Line have reclaimed the disused tracks and created a space of relaxed, tranquil routes, and gardens that is used by all sections of city society.

A similar contrast between the successes and failures of modern urban design is shown by the film’s comparison of Brasilia and Bogota. For all Brasilia’s signature examples of the best of concrete brutalism the film argues that – as a city – Lucio Costa’s vision is a failure. As architect Jan Gehl observes, Brasilia looks fantastic from the air but is a disaster for people on the ground, with endless miles to walk between Oscar Niemeyer’s monuments. It is a city that necessitates the isolating use of vehicles and thwarts human interaction. Bogota, on the other hand, is depicted as a city that, with severely limited resources, has managed to balance the often conflicting needs of its many parts. This has been primarily due to the vision and drive of Major Enrique Penalosa and the decision to concentrate not on expensive and time consuming metro systems but on the use of an extensive guided bus system as the means of making the city into a whole, functioning, environment. The bus system was given a name, Transmilenio, as part of the efforts to raise its status. It functions like a typical underground train system, but above ground and on wheels – because 400km of Transmilenio can be constructed for the same cost as 25km of subway – and it is used by everyone, not just the city’s poor. Alongside the bus network, Bogota has introduced safe and comprehensive cycle routes, very visibly spending money on improving the quality and status of these routes, while cars are left in the mud.

The film’s talking heads and specific design illustrations are interspersed with superb wide-screen visuals. The cityscapes have the monumental scale and symmetry of a Gursky photograph and invite the viewer to pause and simply admire. This is in contrast with the disappointing and rather lacklustre score, which is generic and functional at best; even the Battles contribution is bland. Re-scoring by some someone with a better feel for the interplay between sound and vision, Mogwai for example, would better complement the high standard of all the other elements.

The structure of the film, providing multiple case studies and comparisons – both direct and implied – hangs together as a coherent narrative whilst viewing, and rewards further consideration by yielding many more useful connections and comparisons.

In Santiago, Chile architect, Alejandro Aravena explains that although the city needs to clear slums where there is no water or power supply, its ambitions for replacement housing outstrip available funds. The radical solution is ‘participatory design’. The city has built cheap housing on expensive land. The costs have been controlled not by building cramped, shoddy houses, but by building houses that are only partly finished. The relocated families are able to move into something habitable, which can be completed as they desire, and when they can afford it. Not only that, but they have been consulted throughout the process, making a choice, for example, between a bath and a water heater that would always have been wrong had it been left to the professionals.

If that fails to make it clear that the idea of a city cannot be separated from its people, the example of New Orleans emphasises the point. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has been the site of some extra-ordinary new buildings (for celebrities, such as Brad Pitt), but these buildings have nothing to do with the residents and do not contribute to the process of (re)making the city. In other parts of New Orleans, where the residents wait for rebuilding, activist Candy Chan has taken to putting up stickers with the legend ‘I wish this was’ and providing a Sharpie for people’s answers. The responses provide a powerful insight.

These connections loop around, cross, interact, in a dynamic process that echoes the developing sense of what ‘city’ means. The accumulated glimpses of different cites from different perspectives add up to something surprisingly substantial, ‘Thirty-six Views of A City’, if you will.

Editorially there were very difficult decisions to make. The subject is huge – global – and all the information provided leaves the viewer wanting to learn more. The film, nevertheless, manages to provide both a global perspective and a coherent narrative position, and the desire to learn more is an inspiration, not a frustration.