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Gary Hustwit's Urbanized and the Pitfalls of Participatory Design

Gary Hustwit clearly wanted his new documentary, Urbanized, to get more people talking or writing about cities. But he might not have expected the very literal way that admirers at Field Notes, a stationery company, would help facilitate that goal — by supplying notepads branded with the film’s logo to audiences attending early theatrical runs.

According to info printed inside, the notebooks, which are like disposable Moleskines, were inspired by “the vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books”, boasting “innards printed on a Miller TP104 28″ x 40″ 2-color printing press,” and were inevitably produced in Portland, Oregon — capital of all that’s preciously artisanal. It’s not exactly surprising that any tribute to Hustwit would come in the form of such obsessively crafted items; his first two films, Helvetica and Objectified, have attained a certain cult status among font geeks and industrial design nerds, respectively.

Urbanized, the third in Hustwit’s so-called “design trilogy,” has a slightly different valence. There’s a definite utilitarian logic in the decision to value Helvetica over another font, or in thinking about how to craft a tool or household object. But urban design impacts many more lives on a scale orders of magnitude larger than either.

As the film chronicles, that realization has forced a once-distant discipline to consult, increasingly, those whose lives it affects. Many of the ideas the documentary presents underscore Hustwit’s enthusiasm for such engagement — whether initiated by planners and architects or their erstwhile subjects. “You have book clubs,” he implored, after a recent screening in Manhattan, “start city clubs!” Urbanized could be seen as a simple, layered presentation of world cities’ design choices — but to the extent that the documentary moves in any one direction, it’s as a meditation on how and why urban design should be democratized.

One of the first projects featured the film features is a public housing estate under development in Santiago, Chile. Its architect has insisted that he only play a role in sketching out the shells of new units — future residents will help make other decisions. He dubs this “participatory design.” A similar respect for urbanites’ personal preferences is a thread that connects a number of other projects showcased by the film. Residents’ natural movements through Khayletisha, an impoverished, apartheid-era township outside of Cape Town, are used as guides to forge lighted and secured pathways. Two ordinary New Yorkers first saw potential in the High Line. Jane Jacobs is cited, glowingly.

The former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, fleshes out the idea further, speaking passionately about how improving cycling and transit infrastructure fulfills the constitutional imperative to make every citizen equal before the law — the majority of his city’s people should enjoy the benefits of infrastructure investment prior, he avers, to those who are fortunate enough to own cars. Hustwit chronicles similar efforts in Rio, and time devoted to China is spent on testimonials lamenting the country’s out-of-touch urban decision-making process rather than gazing on its wildly growing cities with wide-eyed awe.

Politicians and urban planners may certainly be doing their best to ensure the dignity and well-being of the downtrodden, but it’s worth noting that the benefits of bold design in many of the developing world examples the film offers up, from Bogotá to Khayletisha, seem to result more from observation than the participation that Hustwit chronicles in Santiago or around the struggle to build the High Line.

Such plans may have been inspired by the needs and actions of those who live their lives at ground level, but they were still proposed and implemented by powerful figures working “from above”. And often, the consent of the governed has been invoked to implement widely discredited ideas. After making less than convincing efforts to defend suburban sprawl, one Phoenix official admits to Hustwit that he simply prefers his quarter-acre lot. Many who have chosen to settle in the endless subdivisions outside the Arizona city feel the same way.

The collective action problem that results — people often prefer individual choices which, if made by many, result in undesirable environments for all — is just one of the pitfalls of participatory design. Another is local opposition to projects — often for self-interested reasons — that might stand to benefit many more residents in other parts of the city (the reason some large developments, like Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards project, often become so controversial).

There are other problems: minority groups who have the time and patience for development review meetings may have disproportionate influence. Critical pieces of infrastructure may go unbuilt for years as design charettes are held to address recalcitrant neighbors’ concerns again and again. Bold architectural concepts and potentially lively new public spaces are subject to revisionary “design by committee,” resulting in compromises that dissatisfy everyone.

Some of these tensions emerge in a segment near the end of Urbanized which focuses on Stuttgart’s attempt to rebuild and reshape its central train station — a proposal that, for the small and relatively conservative south German city, has become inordinately contentious. Hustwit interviews the spokesperson for the project, Stuttgart 21, who’s hardly a detractor of participatory design. The city, he noted, had engaged in a long, citizen review of the redevelopment many years earlier — one reason, he believes, Stuttgarters may now be upset, as the process wound up taking so long that many protesting may not remember the initial stages of the project’s approval process.

Unsurprisingly, the protesters, who have endured being maced and sprayed with water cannons while physically preventing demolition work for the project, don’t quite feel that way. They’ve claimed the long delays and start-stop nature of the project have deliberately obscured their ability to gain information about the project or intervene in its direction.

Their tactics do seem to have struck a cord for many Stuttgarters: two-thirds supported the project when proposed; two-thirds are now against it. Discord over Stuttgart 21 resulted in its state’s conservative government being thrown out of office for the first time in 53 years — replaced by the first German state government led by Greens. And yet it remains unclear with whom blame should rest: the government that allegedly misled Stuttgarters, or Stuttgarters themselves, for failing to pay enough attention to what they now claim to hate before bringing their discontent out into the streets.

That much could be said for many extraparliamentary protest movements — recent examples include the Spanish indignados or Occupy Wall Street — whose participants often express exasperation with or contempt for existing democratic systems in which full engagement and participation had, nonetheless, been shockingly low.

Hustwit seems to want to side with the protesters — he’s included graphic footage of their macing, and intercut images of their efforts with scenes from the Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square. In so doing, Urbanized also celebrates the city as a stage on which to exercise political consciousness. But anyone taking his message about participation to heart — envisioning, in other words, the fruits of close collaboration with designers — would probably avoid too much discordant and unconstructive cynicism about “the system”. Participatory design is far from a wholly ideal methodology, but but it can achieve balances of power that would avoid repeats of Stuttgart 21.

That’s especially important given that Hustwit’s film will give audiences — especially those unfamiliar with recent urban planning trends — more than a few ideas to bring to the table. A surprising number of cities and ideas — from Brasilia to Beijing, from garden cities to smart cities — are sandwiched into Urbanized's relatively short run time, and the film raises an extraordinary number of other, unstated arguments by quick word-image association alone. By the time I’d left the theatre where I’d seen it, several pages of my notepad were already full.

From Urban Photo. Follow Szabla on Twitter.

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