“I don’t see anywhere in our constitution the right to parking,” shrugs Enrique Peñalosa, a former mayor of Bogotá, in Urbanized, the third of Gary Hustwit’s feature documentaries probing issues of design in the modern world. Having led a shift in the Colombian capital’s infrastructure toward prioritizing bus- and bicycle-lane users over individual motorists, Peñalosa is one of the bracingly plainspoken professionals (or in a couple of cases, rank-and-file citizens) who lend a practical optimism to this globetrotting overview of urban planning as a primary means of improving the quality of human life by the mid-21st century, when 75% of Earth’s population is expected to live in cities. From activists laboring to bring sanitation and hygiene to the grotesquely congested slums of Mumbai, to critics of the less dire but environmentally damaging, car-only-navigable layout of Brasilia, and officials and architects who create innovative public space through developments such as Manhattan’s converted-railway park the High Line, the doc’s cast of dozens critique past errors in urban and exurban planning by their advocacy and constructive ambition. (Even defenders of dubious concepts such as the ever-growing sprawl of metropolitan Phoenix are given voice without being framed as villains, but the film’s concerns are decidedly with people who will never have a pool or a backyard—and in Mumbai or Santiago, whose lives are transformed by access to private toilets and bathtubs.)
Hustwit’s films relate the basics of efficient design and its implementation through political institutions and profit-driven entities in a digestible, smooth, and fast-moving style, but their swiftness and continent-hopping inclusiveness produce some shortfalls here. Specific crises such as the shrinking population of Detroit get one feel-good, focused revival story (the efforts of community garden workers to cultivate produce for local markets, in this case), but Urbanized presents a divisive, incendiary “civil war” over a Stuttgart transport project far too sketchily: trees are cut down, protesters and police clash, but the objections and interests of the two camps are never clarified, and as with Mumbai’s slums the topic seems to demand lengthier treatment. More frequently adept at presenting hands-on crusaders for saner, greener city life, and energetic images of urbanites navigating their evolving streetscapes en masse, the doc is a sufficiently thoughtful primer on the uncertain future of cities that it can be forgiven for ending with a glamour shot of Brooklyn’s infamous G train, which to New Yorkers threatens a future of delayed or absent gratification.