If you live in the Fresno area, it's hard not to watch "Urbanized," Gary Hustwit's interesting documentary about urban planning, without thinking about the largest city in the Valley. (The Fresno Filmworks presentation plays tonight only at the Tower Theatre.)
Many of the relevant moments are obvious: Here's where you get to wince, almost on cue, when a smug apologist for Phoenix's unrelenting sprawl fesses up to just how much he loves his swimming pool and three-quarter-acre lot. Oh, look, here's where your eyes might sting in sympathy when viewing the soup-thick smog of Beijing.
And, yes, here's where you wiggle nervously at the shots of bumper-to-bumper traffic in Bogotá, Colombia, where it can take two hours to drive across the city. How much longer before Fresno's own sprawl creates similar scenes?
But even though it's probably only natural to watch a film such as "Urbanized" through a parochial lens, there is much in Hustwit's crisp and provocative outing to expand your outlook to a broader world view. Moving quickly and insightfully from one metropolis to the next, the film ticks off a fascinating blend of dos and don'ts for a century that will see even greater numbers of people packing into urban centers.
Hustwit sees this film as the third entry in a trilogy of documentaries about design in the modern world. (The first, "Helvetica," was about the printed word, and the second, "Objectified," was about modern packaging.) As to be expected, the film itself has a crisp, clean design, with lots of gorgeously composed wide-angle shots of urban centers. (The aerial views, which make some cities look like giant anthills, are expectedly dramatic, but it's the street-level composition of images that really shine.) Even the talking-heads sequences common to all documentaries seem somehow more pristine here.
What you don't see much of, however, are sterile models and renderings, which can make urban design seem detached from everyday life. Hustwit is more interested in real-world applications than grand theory, with a little history thrown in. His subject matter is a mix of the inspiring (the "High Line" in Manhattan) to the cautionary (the meticulously planned Brasilia might look impressive from afar, but the vast distances between buildings make it hard to actually live in.)
And he acknowledges the often messy human factor when it comes to urban planning, focusing on the rage of citizens in Stuttgart, Germany, against a new urban rail plan.
One conclusion from the film seems glaringly obvious: The car culture, of which American society continues to be enamored, isn't sustainable as city populations soar.
But there's hope. In Bogotá, a sophisticated bus system with its own dedicated traffic lanes has revamped the city. As the mayor notes dryly, "A bus with 100 passengers has a right to 100 times as much space as one car."
Could we get away with that kind of reasoning in Fresno? Perhaps not now. But in a century in which the design of ever-growing cities will affect everyone's quality of life, changes are going to come sooner than later.
The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (559) 441-7373. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.