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Gary Hustwit on His Film Urbanized, Suburb-Hating, and NYC's Social Housing Problem

Gary Hustwit's design documentary trilogy comes to a close this week with the release of Urbanized, an ambitious look at cities and urban planning practices across the globe. Trekking from Stuttgart to Santiago, Hustwit interviews a host of architects, urban planners, city officials, and academics to highlight the hits and misses of city design throughout the ages. Like we said, it's ambitious. Hustwit resides part-time in New York, so we called him up to chat about the center of the universe.

Curbed: You live in New York when you're not traveling to make and promote documentaries and you work in Greenpoint. What neighborhoods in the city are most interesting to you in terms of urban planning and renewal?
Gary Hustwit: Manhattan has always felt to me like a city that is very hard to feel like you're making a difference, considering the money that's involved in terms of real estate and development. It rules out experimental use of urban space like you might have in Detroit. So it's about the outer boroughs where there's more room for that sort of experimentation.

Curbed: What you get instead is designers from affluent cities engineering solutions for poorer areas across the globe, not necessarily locally.
Hustwit: Yes, though on one level, you could look at Liberty Plaza [and Zuccotti Park]. It's one of the most expensive areas of town and there's this urban DIY design thing happening.

Curbed: Where did you grow up?
Hustwit: I grew up in the suburbs near Orange County in Southern California... which is why I hate the suburbs. [Laughs.]

Curbed: Let's talk about Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses. Amanda Burden put it best when she talked about how prolific Moses was, yet because of his insensitivity and automobile-heavy agenda, he's been vilified in later generations. Yet the Jane Jacobs effect is heavy on gentrification, preserving old neighborhoods to the point where they are too expensive for most people to live and work in.
Hustwit: When we were filming the Jane Jacobs segment in the film, at first we were like, Greenwich Village today isn't a good example of what she was talking about. It's changed so much that there's little resemblance to the Village of the '60s. Where could we film in the city that captures the spirit of the Village in the '60s? Probably some place like Greenpoint where there's a traditional (here, Polish) community evenly mixed in with artists and newer types. And maybe Bed-Stuy? We couldn't figure out a place to shoot so we tried to find the few places [in the Village] that had been there since that time.

Did you notice Jesse Eisenberg? He's in the Jane Jacobs segment. It's the "Where's Waldo" moment of Urbanized; he's even wearing a red hat. An Oscar-nominated actor on the street instead of an Italian grocer.

Curbed: Speaking of Amanda Burden, she got a lot of face time in the film, talking about zoning and planning streets. Did you also speak to Janette Sadik-Khan? People consider her the new Robert Moses, for better or worse.
Hustwit: She was totally on our radar, and personally I think she's doing great things for our city, but for us we felt the film was getting New York-heavy. The High Line was a big focus and Amanda was heavily involved so we went with her. There's an overload of people in the movie already!

Curbed: I have to ask, what's your bike lane stance?
Hustwit: I'm a bicycle rider in Manhattan. And as someone who's just toured the country, we in New York have the best biking infrastructure of any I've seen in the US. Portland has a bigger percentage of riders but we have better bike lanes for sure. I totally believe in the concept of invitation, that the city has to build lanes to get people to use them. But it's not something that happens overnight - it took 30 years to build that kind of ridership in Copenhagen. It's about giving people options, especially people who don't have the money to even pay for public transportation. Also, why have we subsidized the automobile industry for so long?

Curbed: Is there any one city you think really gets it right in terms of urban planning?
Hustwit: No, I don't think there is and that's the most interesting part. Most cities are good in one or two areas but I think all cities are struggling. What we tried to do is show (select) ideas from around the world and spread that knowledge from city to city. One thing works in Bogota but not in Capetown. People always think they can solve the equation of the city and I think it's impossible because of what makes cities vital, that conflict of different agenda and backgrounds and economic strata all clashing together. There's no clean, easy way to contain what happens when you put millions of human beings in one place.

Curbed: What would you like to improve about New York, based on some of the positive planning maneuvers undertaken by other global cities?
Hustwit: I think the way New York handles social housing is pretty flawed. There are lessons to be taken from the Elemental project in Santiago, and how Chile addresses housing for lower income communities. They're not building those houses and renting them to people; they own them. If they are well-designed and well-located, which is the focus of that Elemental project, it's a leg up in society versus building cheap housing towers and cramming people in them. Over time, the cost of that project is less per person than the ones here. And suddenly, people who had been living in a slum are an asset by generating income and taxes and all the things we say that we as a society want.
· Urbanized: A Documentary by Gary Hustwit [urbanizedfilm.com]