The Human Scale

Reviewed by: Julie Bélanger
Categories: Planning

The Human Scale \ Andreas Dalsgaard (director)

Since the 1950s, the number of megacities (areas with a metropolitan population over 10 million) has doubled to 33. Eight of these cities are in developing countries. Monster cities like Dhaka are juggling growth pressures that shape the immediate quality of life of its residents and their future prosperity. As city planners manage the day-to-day challenges of unrelenting growth, they’re also faced with the decision whether to follow the Western approach to urbanization (read: seas of cars stuck in congestion and crops of glass towers), or look for more human ways of living. In The Human Scale, Danish architect Jan Gehl makes the case for human-oriented planning and gives the viewer a glimpse of what that might look like and how it gets done in pockets around the world.

While Gehl may not be a starchitect, he has been celebrated throughout his career for work on promoting pedestrianism and cycling, as well as for his study of public spaces. This beautifully shot documentary features many of Gehl Architects’ international projects, which are used as examples of urban planning’s best practices. Footage of these pedestrian heavens are contrasted with “cold, distant, urban landscapes” that “look a lot like the vison of science fiction films of the 20th century,” as put by Gehl. The Human Scale also provides an overview of the recent history of urban planning theory, with appropriate nods to Le Corbusier and Robert Moses, whose modernist visions gave us the cities we know today.

The urban thinkers, planners and architects interviewed for this film are largely critical of top-down planning, and are intent on shaping cities based on people’s wants and needs – perhaps the conversation would have benefited from alternative voices. Other contemporary contentions in urban planning are aptly embodied by the footage of the Christchurch, New Zealand rebuild being undertaken by Gehl’s firm. After a devastating earthquake in 2010, the city is in need of rebuilding and is at a crossroads between becoming LA or Copenhagen. As the city struggles to move forward, conflicts and politics have stalled the rebuilding. Luckily, creative urban regeneration initiatives, like Gap Filler, have picked up the slack by reclaiming and programming public spaces.

The pace of the film can seem slow at times, as much of the footage is decelerated. Perhaps it was the intention of budding director Andreas Dalsgaard to transform viewers into flâneurs – urban explorers – strolling the streets of New York City and Chongqing. Most importantly, Human Scale can serve as a source of inspiration for those familiar and new to urban planning issues to reclaim human habitat from cars, and create meaningful places.

The Human Scale, Andreas Dalsgaard (director), Denmark: Final Cut for Real, 2013, 83 minutes.

Reviewer Information

Julie is an urban planning graduate student at the University of Waterloo, focusing on sustainable transportation.

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