Originally published Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 3:02 PM

Movie review

'Urbanized': sprawling views on urban planning

A movie review of "Urbanized," Gary Hustwit's provocative documentary about the design of modern cities.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Urbanized,' a documentary by Gary Hustwit. 82 minutes. Not rated; contains minor profanity. In German, Portuguese and Spanish with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.

Note: "Urbanized" replaces "Goodbye First Love," which is not available at this time.

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"Urbanized," a documentary about urban planning, is a showcase for many conflicting viewpoints.

It begins with a commentary on overpopulation, including one expert proclaiming that the fate of the Earth is so dire that we might as well slit our wrists.

A little later, another talking head proclaims that NPR exaggerates the unfortunate consequences of urban sprawl. There's also an ex-mayor who tries to demonstrate that biking may be the solution to the traffic problems of Bogotá. ("This is democracy at work," he claims.)

The director, Gary Hustwit, says he didn't set out with a thesis or agenda, but he also doesn't seem to have found one that he can endorse.

Brasília is either a triumph or a disaster, depending on which architect or city planner is doing the talking. Greenwich Village was nearly destroyed by a freeway project, one expert insists, before it led the way to a green approach.

It's all in the way you look at the results, whether they're accidental or designed.

Best-known for making a documentary about a type face, "Helvetica" (2007), and a follow-up, "Objectified" (2009), about manufactured objects and industrial design, Hustwit does try for a truly international approach.

South Africa's townships are brought into the debate. So are the Green Party's breakthrough in Germany, the impact of celebrities on New Orleans ("We saw Brad Pitt this morning," claims a local citizen), and the controversy-stirring planners Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.

"I filmed conversations with people who I thought were doing compelling work, and tried to document their creative processes," says Hustwit in a director's statement.

For all its uncertainties, "Urbanized" may open your eyes to the deliberate way some cities are designed — and the accidental ways in which others become distorted. In the words of architect Jan Gehl, quoted in the film: "First we shape our cities, then we shape ourselves."

John Hartl:

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