Thoughts from documentary “Urbanized”

I was watching the documentary Urbanized (trailer) directed by Gary Hustwitt. The central theme of the documentary, as I see it, is how to reconcile the sustainability and the efficiency of the city.

The informal settlement is as important as the living conditions of the original cities of the city. In Mumbai’s slum area, 600 people share 1 toilet seat. The sanitation conditions are astonishingly poor for the disadvantaged. In Beijing, China, migrant workers sleep on the street or beneath the bridge because they cannot afford any housing. Similar situations are present in other big cities, although the degree of inequality varies.

It is important to incorporate the needs of local residents in the designing process of new urban infrastructures. The “participatory design” in Satiago, Chile, is a step towards involving citizens in the decision process. They provided funding of $10,000 per family, and left half of the house for their own design. Involving residents in the designing process ensures that the final product caters to their individual needs. When they are asked to choose between a bath tub and a water heater, many of them choose the former, which is probably the opposite preference with the richer population in the city. But since the tub represents privacy and better sanitation at a reasonable cost, while the water heater increases gas expenses and adds to the household’s financial burden, their decision is understandable. But I have some doubts on this practice. Where does the money come from? Is this practice generalizable? Personalized design takes time and labor, and I doubt if this can be generalized to more households than the very few mentioned in the movie.

Cities often evolve from trade centers. In the late 19th century, the garden city movement suggests to “separate everything apart”. While this makes the city look more spacious, things become unconnected and traffic jams become more often. To resolve the problem of traffic jams, cities adopt different measures ranging from parking restrictions to promotion of public transport. In Copenhagen, Denmark, bicycle lanes are built throughout the city and inside the parked cars, which provides security to bicycle users. Having the bicycle lane in place, 73% of the people cycle to work.

Another important question in urban planning is how to reconcile the physical space and social fabric of the city. Cities are invariably designed for economic activities, but often downplay the importance of livability. The word “neighborhood” should not be only about buildings and streets, but also be about parks which allow children to play, and movable chairs which let strangers talk to each other and become friends.

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