The century of the city – “Urbanized”

By Rachit Khaitan, IFMR Finance Foundation

“There’s an optimism about cities in this century. There’s a sense that we’re creating something that is truly global. And we’re creating networks of people, not experts, but people of all strata of society who are involved in the building of something special. This is the century for the city lover; this is where it happens.”

Gary Hustwit’s documentary film, Urbanized (2011), presents an optimistic overture about the future of cities, but is not unchecked with caution. It paints an interdisciplinary picture of the design and development of a variety of cities in both developed and developing economies. Central to its analysis is the premise that cities are ultimately the physical manifestation of big and multifarious forces at play – economic, social, and political – where the flows of people, money, and goods have coalesced since the inception of the concept itself.

Through conversations with the world’s foremost architects, urban planners, policymakers, developers, artists, activists, and thinkers, each with their own perspectives, agendas, and roles, the film thematically explores key issues in urbanisation while showcasing model solutions and success stories.

Addressing unchecked urban migration

A key issue that many, especially rapidly-growing developing countries face is the unsystematic migration of people from rural to urban areas. The film documents that in 2010, 50 per cent of the world’s population lived in cities. Based on historical trends, it forecasts that by 2050, 75 per cent of the world’s population will dwell in urban areas, putting an enormous strain on existing systems with limited resources. On one hand, the construction industry in the recent years has produced a housing boom for the top 10 per cent of the socio-economic strata, building swanky apartment complexes touting luxury living. On the other hand, it has increased the crisis for the bottom of the pyramid which is forced to resort to informal living arrangements with severe lack of basic amenities and inadequate conditions of health and hygiene. An important causal factor of this phenomenon is that the existing urban plan does not systematically take into account the existence or the incentives of the migrating poor. Informal settlements oftentimes get ignored by city officials and policymakers; with no space allocated for growth, slums consequentially get denser and conditions get worse.

As a model design-based solution, the film presents the case of the Lo Barnechea project, a low-cost social housing project produced by the organisation Elemental in Santiago, Chile. Prioritising location to enable access to schools, transportation, and jobs, the project leveraged elements of design to keep low costs of living in an expensive locality, while maintaining access to vital networks in the city. Using the $10,000 subsidy that each family received from the state, Elemental bought the land, provided the infrastructure, and built a set of houses. Instead of producing tiny units, the organisation produced “half houses” i.e. houses with bare necessities that families would have otherwise been unable to afford, and left the rest of the house for families to build at their own pace and according to their own needs. An interviewed resident revealed that she didn’t need to modify anything since she moved in because she got to choose everything that she wanted for the house. Over time, however, she plans on adding a “nice-to-have” tiled floor. What makes this architectural project unique is that it allowed families to afford housing in a prime location, while actively participating in the design of their houses from the ground level.

This also got me thinking about the need for development of rental housing markets and how they were critical, especially for poor households. In view of the fundamental income uncertainties that surround many low-income households – such as income volatility, asset allocation challenges and migration needs – rental housing is a much needed solution for the bottom of the pyramid. My colleagues have written more about this here.

Modern urban design and the issue of transportation

The film provides an expose of modern urban design which is built on the tenets of simplicity, order, rationality, and function over form. It was influenced by the Garden City movement, of the late 19th century, which espoused the idea of separating out the different functions of cities with concentric roadways and greenbelts. An archetype of this school of design is Brasilia, Brazil. While Brasilia as viewed from an airplane might look pretty and organized, Jan Gehl of Gehl Architects argues that on the ground it is a disaster. Every distance is too long, and going from place to place involves driving along many miles of straight roads. Principally, the design of Brasilia failed to take into consideration that having to make every single trip by car would not allow people to simply zip around the city. In fact, it would entail too many cars on the road ultimately causing people to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic jams.

Brasilia, Brazil. Image Source

The mayor of Bogota, Colombia presents a few model solutions to congested roads. He argues that the best way to avoid traffic jams is not to invest in bigger roads, more flyovers, or elevated highways, but to simply restrict parking in a city, in order to restrict car use. In terms of investing in an alternative form of public transportation, he showcases the bus rapid-transit system (BRT), dubbed the TransMilenio, which is as efficient as a metro system but built at a fraction of its cost. With dedicated lanes for such buses, the system enables thousands of people to get across the city every day, while a new name removes the stigma of riding in buses which in many developing countries is associated with poor people. Such a system is flexible and works especially well in younger cities whose centre is not well-defined and is shifting over time. The mayor also showcases Porvenir Promenade, a 24 km street built exclusively for pedestrians and bicyclists, connecting very low income neighbourhoods to the richest area of the city. He believes that such high quality infrastructure for cyclists not only increases their safety, but also their social status.

Challenges and opportunities for the future

The documentary presents many more interesting cases that characterise the complexity of developing cities and urban areas. It highlights the pattern of suburbanisation in Post WWII America which may have eased the pressure on cities at the time, but eventually created vast tracts of sprawl putting an enormous strain on non-renewable resources and environmental systems. It shows that where safety is a major concern in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, there is a large role that technology can play to facilitate coordination between the various departments of the city in order to ensure prevention and prompt action. On the flipside, it illustrates the case of Stuttgart, Germany which has ambitious plans and commensurate resources to make itself ready for the future, but faces immense opposition from a large population whose interests lie in preserving historical landmarks that are vital to the city’s heritage. With numerous vested interests and diverse forces at play, Rahul Mehrotra, architect and professor at Harvard GSD, predicts that the physical plan of cities will hardly determine their successes. Rather, the critical challenge will lie in managing demography and the intersections of architecture, mobility, and creating a humane environment through design and technology.