FilmFest: Urbanized., cities and themes

Welcome to the yowLAB Film Festival discussion for our third film, Urbanized., directed by Gary Hustwit. Our reviewer this month is yowLAB co-director Sarah Gelbard. Her review/synopsis is included below.


  • If you have not yet watched the film, the Ottawa Public Library has several copies, it is also available for online rental on cinemanow and distrify.
  • To contribute to the discussion, please feel free to use the comment section following the review.
  • You are also welcome to post links to your own reviews if you prefer to publish on your blog or website. Please make sure to link to this page on your end.
  • We also welcome guest contributions. Please contact us at if you would like to submit a review to be posted to the yowLAB blog.
  • Or tweet your comments @yow_LAB #yowLABFilmFest

We hope you enjoy the film and the discussion. Without further ado. . .


I often recommend this documentary to people as a great intro to contemporary urban issues. It is accessible and interesting to a broad audience with or without expertise in urbanism, planning, architecture, or design. As can be expected of any survey, Urbanized does not delve deeply into any of the issues it raises but still manages to not be overly superficial. Though critical at times, the overall tone is about being inspirational and hopeful.

I’m not normally one to yell at my tv, but the first time I saw Urbanized I found myself cheering for the mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa. Of course a citizen on a $30 bike is as important to a city as someone in a $30k car. Of course a bus with 100 passengers should be entitled to 100 times more space and resources as a single-passenger car. Or applauding when Jan Gehl who tells us “A good city is like a good party.” Or laughing when Ellen Dunham-Jones compares sprawl to pornography.

The closing speech of the film wraps up the very human message about cities:

We’re on the cusp of dramatic set of forces coming together. Fundamentally as a species, we need things that can power our imaginations, that can get our passions going, and give us a sense of meaning. And that is not a brick. It is not a pipe. It is an idea. That’s what drives cities forward.

– Edgar Pieterse, director African Centre for Cities

Instead of a comprehensive review and synopsis of this expansive documentary, I’ve created a bit of a guide and timeline through the cities and themes. I hope you, dear readers, will help fill in some details and the talking points you found of greatest interest. Join me in the comment section below and I will get the ball rolling with some of mine.

Mumbai, India [0:05:00]
Santiago, Chile [0:08:00]
social housing programs
“half a home”
Brasilia, Brazil [0:14:30]
the modern city
“a simple city, a rational city”
planned from above
planned for cars
Bogotá, Columbia [0:18:30]
“invest in people”
public transit
Copenhagen, Denmark [0:24:20]
public places
human scale
New York City, USA [0:30:00]
post-industrial sites
transformation not preservation or erasure
Jane Jacobs and urban community
Phoenix, USA [0:38:30]
suburbs and sprawl
“Poster for automobile-oriented, postwar urban fabric”
“I like the way I live.”
Detroit, USA [0:42:30]
boom/collapse of city evolution
community initiatives and self-organized DIY urbanism
Beijing, China [0:48:30]
rapid growth and development
“a city I don’t recognize”
economic development over liveability
how to design a 21st century city
Brighton, UK [0:54:00]
energy consumption
Rio de Janeiro [0:59:00]
technology and information
city management
Cape Town, South Africa [1:01:00]
Khayelitsha Township
security and crime
“empower the community, not through imposition but through engagement”
negotiated development, bottom-up
New Orleans [1:08:00]
disaster and recovery plan (or lack thereof)
architects having fun
reflect what’s important to the community
Stuttgart, Germany [1:12:00]
public consultation and protest
major public infrastructure projects

All images are screenshots captured from Urbanized.









  1. Sarah Gelbard said:

    Two specific quotes but also the overall downplaying of architecture in the film perhaps reflects my own shift from architecture to urban design. I love architecture, BUT understanding it as only part of what makes a city and that is only part of what makes a community is an important perspective to be reminded of.

    Just because the architects are so divinely wonderful, isn’t going to make the place wonderful.

    Architecture will not be the only spectacle.

  2. Location, location, location… As cliché as it may be, Alejandro Aravena from Santiago, Chile makes the case for his social housing project where less important is an extra square meter of house while more important is a better located square meter of land.

    Another poignant moment comes when Sheela Patel from a Mumbai slum dweller advocacy group commenting on politicians’ unwillingness to build more toilets in slums. Their reason: it’ll encourage more people to come. Sheela’s frustration: “As if people come to shit!” Perfect illustration for the disconnect between city planners and city users.

    It’s nice, inspiring and all to just learn about the urban planing solutions around the world so I’m particularly glad that the film maker closes the documentary with the public consultation experience in Germany just to bring us back to the reality where urban planning and development is a messy business.

    Speaking of mess, the “Cities We Love/Hate” extra on DVD is fantastic! Cities where everything works are boooring… At least according to the featured architects.

    • Sarah Gelbard said:

      I was also really taken with Aravena’s idea of “participatory housing”: a half-completed home instead of a completed half-sized home.

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