Learn from Bogota, Santiago, Cape Town, … and the Seattle Way

The film Urbanized tackles the complexities of cities, with just a few of the rough edges and little of the persnickety organic flow of how cities do, should and will evolve.

Sometimes, a movie “review” is a catharsis, or just both barrels aimed at the aimless prognostication of filmmakers co-opted by the growth paradigm and enamored by the so-called “creative class.”

I’ll tackle both hernia-inducing topics in several more stories to come, but first some observations while going to and leaving the film, Urbanized.

Irony: Going to see the film Urbanized, at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle and witnessing in just a few miles of driving from Beacon Hill during the Snow-ageddon of 2012  tow trucks lifting hybrid autos onto flatbeds; Seattle PD patrol vehicles slipping and sliding; a few ice falls by pedestrians; the dull roar of Interstate 5 muted significantly because Seattle shuts down after three-quarters of an inch of snow.

Reality: City life, with pho venders literally raking the sidewalks with garden tools, kids using sled discs to get airtime on unplowed streets normally clogged with Amazon.com employees, and lots of people out and about taking snapshots of their snow-covered automobiles (only three inches of the white stuff!) in this rare winter wonderland.

Observation: Cool, hip Capitol Hill, with all the trendy coats, boots and Dr. Zeuss hats on a growing legion of lifestylism experts who yak it up about their love of Obama, how that civet defecated coffee is “so decadent” at $600 a pound, and how Thomas Friedman is really a smart guy. The only thing missing this night at the movies? The lower half of the 99 percent huddling in drafty apartments trying to keep down the obscene Puget Sound Electric bills; the homeless guys with pretty pun-filled “will wash your SUV for a fee” cardboard signs pissing off metro-sexual guys on their way to pedicures; the feral cats and dogs looking for out-of-date sushi dumped out back. Even the rats were smart enough to hunker down.

As a journalist who’s seen Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, New Mexico and much of Southern California turn into  metastasized suburban sprawl nightmares;  someone who’s tried to crack the code of  less than creative bureaucratic, careerist city planners and engineers as a beat reporter; and a planning practitioner who ended up with a graduate degree in urban and regional planning emphasizing sustainability –  going to an 80-minute film about our urban world ( more than 50 percent of global population is living in cities as of 2011) is going to be wrought with skepticism.

The 2011 Gary Hustwit film, titled Urbanized,  has a few strengths and many gaps, not so much attributed to which cities were featured and not highlighted, but hobbled by how the filmmaker sheds light on the urban reality of city planners, architects, the Mayor Bloombergs or Dalys of the world, and all those developers and their sycophants in the Chamber of Commerce who are beholding to Wall Street and “the” banks.

That collective build-pave-raze elan is under-girdered in an undying faith in unsustainable growth (economic and population) paradigms in Hustwit’s  documentary. The confidence in the minds and motives of the vaunted few making decisions for several billion citizens’ well beings (or our increasingly impoverished lives) not just pertaining to the here and now or the immediate future, but seven generations out, is grotesque.

The film could have been oh so much more at this bizarre time of the vanguard still blathering on about incrementalism when it comes to planning cities around the inevitable – peak oil, food shortages, Diasporas, climate instability and resource hoarding.

It’s difficult for me to sit still in a film like Urbanized, or when viewing the PBS series, , what was touted as “a critically acclaimed, multipart PBS series about the innovators and pioneers who envision a better quality of life on earth: socially, culturally, economically and ecologically.”

It’s because I started out as a 16-year-old (1973) in Tucson working against the rampant scouring of the Sonora desert, all the way into the magnificent Santa Catalina Mountains, where I hiked alongside black bear, puma, mule deer, dozens of reptile and avian species in what has to be the most diverse and abundant desert in the world. We’re talking about canyons and season springs and caves and immense verdant miles and miles of ocotillo and palos verdes.

I began seeing the light when informed, well-spoken community groups hit stonewall after stonewall going to politicians and land use departments demanding an end to the bulldozing and fracturing of vital, abundant ecosystems (Center for Biological Diversity started in Tucson).

I’ve been on tasks forces looking at sustainability, peak oil, food security and climate change up in the Pacific Northwest.  I’ve had some killer guests on my radio show which ran on a community radio FM radio station, the last and largest population-wise license approved by “There is Yellow Cake” Colin Powell’s son the old FCC chairman, Michael Powell.

Folk like Richard Heinberg (Peak Everything) and Post-Carbon Institute’s David Lerch talked about sustainability and sustainability-lite. James Howard Kunstler (Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency) and Bill McKibben (The End of Nature) talked about the political realities of a one-party America never forcing the issue of true economic and urban development. David Suzuki (renowned Canadian author, environmentalist, and documentarian) and Tim Flannery (The Weather Makers) talked about how far away the average Westerner was to understanding the truly monumental problems cities will face because of climate change.

I’m seeing more and more limited sight and broken thinking tied to so-called renewable energy and climate change and sustainability initiatives by corporations and municipalities. But documentary-makers?

How can people with film-making credentials and the backing miss so much in a film? Those were the underlying questions I had throughout the 80 minutes of Urbanized. I could not stop thinking about what all the greenwashing cities and proponents of smart growth have done over the past thirty years, skewing even more the conversation about cities’ survival.

Hell, I was wondering where the dystopia of The Road could fit into Urbanized.

All these emotions flooded me in my frustration while watching the film, especially since I had just spent a week in Vancouver, Canada, attending what is called The UBC Summer Institute on Sustainability Leadership. It was there where I ran into the same kind of thinking – technology and the hyper-developers and architects will get us all out of climate change’s way.  That’s another essay in DV, soon to come.

The stuff I’d been working on tied to this idea of “the new black is green” that eco-pornographers and the corporate-modeled environmental groups like the Sierra Club are shilling I couldn’t shake while sitting through the film.

The film Urbanized is really looking at cities from the One percent/Twenty-nine percent perspective (I’ve come to come up with the Thirty Percenters as the dividing line in my frame for this Occupy movement). The fact is so much could have been learned by Urbanized’s director from the great trilogy by Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger.

Glawogger looked at the the underclass in Mexico City, Bombay, Moscow and New York in Megacities (1998); and then manual labor at the beginning of  this century through the blood, sweat and tears of coal miners in the Ukraine, ship dismantlers in Pakistan, slaughterers in a Nigerian stockyard and sulfur harvesters on an Indonesian mountain in Working Man’s Death  (2005); and then in Glawogger’s  latest feature, Whores’ Glory, he explored the streets of New York, Mumbai, Moscow, and Mexico City — the “megacities” in his three-punch uppercut to view the new realities of the 21st Century.

We’re turning into urban dwellers, human rats, farther and farther away from farming and what could have been intentional communities far and wide, sustainable, compact, supported by agrarian ingenuity and smaller and smaller human footprints with dynamic, active cultural structures.

Instead, we are in a rush to get wired-in, carting our families and belongings into the centers of employment, and some of the outfall is more anxiety  about being out in rural-scapes. The Thirty Percent has facilitated this uneven takeover of our lives. Small towns are drying up all over North America, and what were small towns near cities have turned into gated communities and suburban ghettos about to be annexed into bigger and bigger concentrations of people moving endlessly in cars to cobble together a living working two or three part-time jobs.

This is the 70 percent I consider the real defining group that the Occupy movement alludes to by invoking the 99 Percent jingo.

As an out of work planner in  Seattle – a city not very dynamic when it comes to outside the box thinking in terms of “urban and regional planning” – I understand one back story: throughout the 1970s and 1980s many city planning offices were gutted and the smart practitioners and innovators ended up in private development. So, it’s not so surprising to see how  developers have been setting the agenda for city planning,  especially in smaller towns or Sun Belt cities.

The film Urbanized is a broad brush stroke canvas expression of the design and development of urban centers, touching briefly on the hot button issues Seattlites know so very well – transportation, crime, public spaces, city planning, architecture, energy consumption. Hustwit adds to that the bastard child created from the union of  “free trade,” unbridled capitalism,  consumer-driven development, and corporatocracy – slums, both inner-city  and on the outskirts of the world’s most highly populated and growing cities.

Here’s the missing debate in films like Urbanized: while a total of 227 million people rose out of slum conditions from 2000 to 2010, thanks largely to policies in China and India, according to the UN Human Settlements Programme, also called UN-Habitat, slums are the biggest “impediment” for urban developers.

For some, this is a rare success in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As such, MDG 7, Target 11, UN members pledged to “achieve significant improvement” in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.

These incremental steps, or the one step forward, two steps back, looks pretty tough on the poorest of city dwellers:  from 2000-2010, the absolute numbers of slum dwellers increased from 776.7 million to 827.6 million.

“Cities are growing faster than the slum improvement rate,” said Gora Mboup, a Senegalese who co-authored the report, State of the World Cities 2010/11: Bridging the Urban Divide, issued two years ago.

Half of the increase of 55 million extra slum dwellers came from population growth in existing slum homes; a quarter by rural flight to the cities; and a quarter by people living on the edge of cities whose homes became engulfed by urban expansion. It’s this urban ballooning that both creates slums and threatens those slum dwellers who at least in some cases have patched-together roofs over their heads in these communities that end up taking hold, like the parachuting seeds of dandelions.

Along the US-Mexico border, they are called colonias.

UN-Habitat warned in March 2010:

Short of drastic action, the world slum population will probably grow by six million each year, or another 61 million people, to hit a total of 889 million by 2020.

We’ve been talking about these basic urban topics for decades in the planning and community development fields:

  • in 40 years – 2050 – 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities;
  • infrastructure and city services in most cities were designed for people who were middle income or higher;
  • cities have been prioritized for private space and automobiles;
  • there is a movement toward greater citizen involvement – participatory planning;
  • resiliency is key in order for civilization to shift into new living arrangements precipitated by resource shortages, climate change and pollution;
  • progressive action and plans have to be contained in not only the planner’s toolbox, but in the politician’s and CEO’s as well; and,
  • cities account for 75 percent of energy used/burned and 75 percent of global greenhouse gasses.

For a general audience, Urbanized might be news or compelling, though too much in the documentary comes from the mouths of architects, engineers, politicians and planners, and not enough from community groups and citizen participants in their cities’ designs.

Gary Hustwit understands the limitations of working on a film dealing with the “morphology of cities” with so much of the back story left out:

There are so many cities we couldn’t go to that are not in the film. Our approach with ‘Urbanized’ was not to look at specific cities. It was to look at specific, universal issues and then look at specific projects around the world. Universal issues that face all cities: We all need a roof over our head, we need clean water and sanitation, we need mobility and ways to get around, we need some place to work and we need places to relax. Whatever you want to talk about in a city, it all pretty much boils down to one of those five issues. Then we look at how different cities are dealing with them. In a way, we are making a composite city. I couldn’t think of any other way to structure it.

The film doesn’t look at the price of depopulating rural villages and towns. The concept of permaculture and permanent cultures tied to agrarian work, marketing and food processing is never touched upon. What about the price of urbanization around the absolutely astounding farmer suicide rate in India –  where a quarter of a million farmers have committed suicide in the last 16 years? Think of one farmer committing suicide every 30 minutes. Why? City life, city thinking.

Agriculture in India is subject to global markets in this push for  economic liberalization. Emphasis has been placed on building and retrofitting cities in India, so removal of agricultural subsidies and the opening of Indian agriculture to the global market have increased costs – through bigger and bigger farmer loans — while also reducing yields and profits for many farmers. Some of that is tied to seed and biotech fascism around such companies as Monsanto, or the heavy price pumping water from historically significant aquifers for bottling companies like Nestle and CocaCola?

In the film, we do see Paris, New York, the slums of Mumbai, the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the bike lanes of Bogotá, Colombia, lighted walkways in Apartheid-cleaved townships on the outskirts of Cape Town, a new housing project in Santiago, Chile, the depopulating Detroit (once 1.4 million folk, down to 386,000) and the shame of New Orleans almost seven years after a category three hurricane hit..

It’s no criticism of the film that it was finished before the public power of the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement, but Hustwit in a recent interview ramified the impact of public participation in public spheres:

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.

It’s clear that Seattle should have tackled the issues Jim Diers brought to the fore as Seattle’s  first director of Department of Neighborhoods in 1988 and serving under three mayors for 14 years. His book, Neighborhood Power: Building Community the Seattle Way, is about community participation and organizing, Sal Alinsky-style. His book and philosophy has been scrutinized by other cities, including Austin, Texas.

Alas, community now is about defined locations of gentrification, gated communities, and the poor and lower middle class in the suburbs, making huge emotional, economic and sustainability sacrifices at the hands of sub-living wages, two or three jobs and a closed loop of driving from the hinterlands – those suburban ghettos – to places in the metropolitan areas for work.

Movies about the welfare of culture, mankind, our organizing tools to stave off war, injustice, environmental calamity and die off should be long, provocative and from the heart. Urbanized seems 20 years behind the times in many ways, sort of a peek into the minds of rarefied designers, architects and planners.

Those planners and designers and wonks are living in a Richard Florida fantasy land of this creative class of high tech gurus and support engineers who supposedly make cities work, and make them interesting, artistic, bohemian, and where all the “cool, hip, liberal Obama-supporting types” create the great cities of the present and future.

This is not a film that posits much from Jane Jacobs thinking, either from her work in 1961, Death and Life of Great American Cities or Dark Age Ahead (2004).

In this latter book, her main focus is on “the five pillars of our culture that we depend on to stand firm.” Those pillars can be applied to most Westernized or non-Western societies — the nuclear family (but also community); education; science; representational government and taxes; and corporate and professional accountability. While Dark Age Ahead is pessimistic in a good way, her conclusion is more buoyant than all of her critique up to that point:

At a given time it is hard to tell whether forces of cultural life or death are in the ascendancy. Is suburban sprawl, with its murders of communities and wastes of land, time, and energy, a sign of decay? Or is rising interest in means of overcoming sprawl a sign of vigor and adaptability in North American culture? Arguably, either could turn out to be true.

We live in a time when on one hand a mayor like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel may speak the new urbanism language of developers, architects, and strategic planners, but he is Occupy Chicago’s worst enemy, using mass arrests, suspension of the valued one phone call in prison and distaste for nurses and teachers to “plan his city.”

Emanuel is like many mayors in the US, tied to the machinations of developers, financiers, and  private planners: lots of talk about enterprise zones/urban cores, carbon footprints, sustainable jobs, green infrastructure, and smart growth, but also, as Emanuel is proposing, criminalizing the act of expressing dissent, minimizing the time and place where people can protest, giving police more authority to suppress protesters, and adding extensive rules and restrictions that bureaucratize the process of obtaining a permit and severely limits the “fluidity” of demonstrations.

Urbanized barely scratches the surface, and no matter how “cool” or technologically awe-inspiring some aspects of  mega cities of the world seem, a few billion people are protesting the toil, pollution, lack of wages, and unbelievably inhumane treatment galvanized by this  creative class Gary Hustwit highlights in his film who seem to think they have the final say in the plans for our world’s cities’ futures.

Hell, most places in the US are so broken more and more college graduates are lining up at food banks, a 100 million feral dogs and cats roaming the streets just might be subject to police shoot-to-kill policies as animal control units are gutted (see Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s plan for stray dogs), and grand schemes like a $4.2 billion deep bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle get approved to placate the waterfront-lusting developers.

The irony behind Urbanized’s implicit ending, as illustrated in an October 2011 interview of Hustwit in the journal  Design Observer, is a  case study in  his next documentary, a subject caught in the shadow in the towering skyscrapers of our urbanized world – rural life.

When I went to interview Rem Koolhaas [world-renowned Dutch Architect] — 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.

This maybe a fun projection of the next movie to come for Hustwit, but the absurdity of our times are underway when it comes to the ultimate city, as Will Doig of Salon.com writes in a piece, “Science Fiction No More: The Perfect City is Under Construction”:

And so it will be with cities like PlanIT Valley, currently being built from scratch in northern Portugal. Slated for completion in 2015, PlanIT Valley won’t be a mere “smart city” — it will be a sentient city, with 100 million sensors embedded throughout, running on the same technology that’s in the Formula One cars, each sensor sending a stream of data through the city’s trademarked Urban Operating System (UOS), which will run the city with minimal human intervention.

We saw an opportunity … to go create something that was starting with a blank sheet,” said PlanIT Valley creator Steve Lewis, “thinking from a systems-wide process in the same way we would think about computing technologies.

Oh no, that’s a whole other essay-article I’ve got to get my arms around and pen, and soon. The entire creative class and knowledge worker saving the world mentality of our time, at least in many of the megacities and smaller ones like Seattle or San Francisco, ties into this PlanIT Valley hyper-homeland security, nanny-sitting, dead-creativity world of the blasé.

This is the very thinking that Jacobs decried and James Howard Kunstler dissects. Is this really the world’s attitude toward modern technology and city-building and city-living, as Mark Shepard, an architect and the author of Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, states?

“From a tech perspective, we’re not really selling products and services anymore. We’re selling lifestyles,” he says.

See Urbanized  after you rent the movie, The Age of Stupid. After you watch, The End of Suburbia. It’s easy to end a movie review about planning with a thousand quotes, but I’ll put two down from creative folks, real ones, and not planners:

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

— Edward Abbey, writer, essayist, novelist (1927-1989)

A common mistake people make when trying to design something foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

— Douglas Adams, author, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1952-2001)

Paul Kirk has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington Read other articles by Paul.