The film “Urbanized” is a great watch for urban planners, design junkies, and anyone who is awed by cities. It takes the viewer on an international tour of the economic, social, environmental, and spatial issues that plague cities and the innovations designers have created to combat them. The stories are fascinating, and what adds extra interest is the cinematography, which provides a look into the heart of the cities it documents. It captures the interesting scenes of city life and design that you or I would probably point our cameras towards if we were in Mumbai or Paris. Finally, it is an educational film. Interviewers reflect on the history of design, and I recognized a lot of information that is covered in our class’s textbook, like the City Beautiful and Garden City movements.
Being as the film gives short portraits of a list of interesting places and issues, I thought I’d focus on one-participatory design in combatting slums. The film explores a bit of Mumbai’s slums and their seemingly hopeless state, and it then profiles a project in Chile that uses participatory design to construct a housing project to replace a city’s slums.
Mumbai, India: What immediately impressed me about this film was its use of experts from all over the world. I felt the information was conveyed more effectively when the person was intimately familiar with the situation they were describing. In the case of Mumbai, the planners sounded really frustrated and disgusted by the government’s handling of the city’s slums. The most disturbing assertion was that the government considers one toilet for 50 people to be adequate. However, the reality is that in the slums there are 600 people per toilet. What’s more, recently development has been aimed at attracting the top 10% wealthiest property-buyers, thus putting additional pressure on the housing deficit for the poor and middle-class.
Lo Barnechea, Chile: The design of housing projects in this cities is a sort-of response to the major issues in Mumbai. The idea was that location was the most important factor for the project. The developer chose to purchase property in an expensive area of Lo Barnechea that would allow families access to good schools, jobs, and businesses. However, features in the homes would have to be sacrificed for the prime location. I think the developer took a genius approach to this unavoidable problem. Rather than leaving the choice of amenities to officials or builders, he asked the future tenants what amenities were most important to them. The response to the choice between a water heater and a bathtub was surprising. While I would choose a water heater, the people chose the bathtub because it gave them the privacy to bathe that was impossible in the slums, and because they would not be able to afford to power the water heater.
This left about half of each house unfurnished and undesigned so that over time families could add the features they felt were important. This is called participatory design, and I think this is a great idea because it might give tenants a sense of pride for their home and a place in society. The developer summed up the benefit of this project nicely: “Think about the final stage, and how design can facilitate families’ lives to achieve that middle-income standard in the future. That’s how quality should be measured. And that was definitely not the way social housing was being measured, not the way it was being designed.”
Whether this type of housing would work in Mumbai is of course difficult for me to speculate on. The major difference in these two cities seems to be that the slums in Mumbai are much more established, whereas this project was meant to prevent the slums in Lo Barnechea from growing. Mumbai’s government would have to move some of the focus away from luxury housing, or a private developer would have to take a big risk.
Overall, the film “Urbanized” brings light to a lot of current, innovative, and interesting aspects of urban design. What I found wanting was the way the film only skims the surface in its coverage of each city. However, if its purpose was just to pique my interest, it succeeded, and I’d highly recommend it. (It’s on Netflix.)