Taking as its model the work of Danish architect Jan Gehl, “The Human Scale” makes an excellent case for designing cities around people instead of automobiles, traffic flow having dominated city planning since the 1960s. Andreas M. Dalsgaard’s documentary examines cities, from New York to Chongqing, which demonstrate various problems, solutions and possibilities for urban development, each example illustrated by distinctive, well-composed cityscapes and discussed by local talking-head officials, planners and architects. If Dalsgaard’s advocacy of Gehl’s utopian vision largely ignores the socioeconomic forces arrayed against it, the film should nevertheless enthuse pedestrians, bike riders and public-space proponents everywhere.
Dalsgaard’s (and Gehl’s) argument is simple: 50% of the world’s population now resides in cities, and an estimated 80% will be urbanized by 2050. Since big cities lack time and money to expand their infrastructures to meet increased demands, prioritization becomes imperative, and livability within urban structures of tantamount importance. All Gehl’s concepts involve decreasing space given over to cars and increasing space inhabited by pedestrians, thereby encouraging human interaction across class lines and reducing the debilitating effects of high-rise isolation.
Copenhagen already embodies many of Gehl’s concepts, with its no-traffic zones and predominance of bicycles over cars, and it’s treated here as some sort of fait accompli that Dalsgaard explores briefly before proceeding to works-in-progress. Melbourne, thrice voted the world’s most livable city, offers a perfect before-and-after scenario: Faced with a dying metropolis in the 1980s, planners were challenged with attracting suburbanites back to the center. The solution here appears as visually striking as it was successful; “laneways,” or the connected alleyways behind buildings, formerly grungy havens for garbage and dumpsters, were converted into lively pedestrian pathways lined with intimate cafes and shops.
Other examples register as more problematic. In the Chinese megalopolis of Chongqing, planners designed a pedestrian network that would crisscross the city, perpendicular to traffic patterns. But when the camera follows the small path implemented as a pilot program, we find that the redesigned, supposedly pedestrian-friendly crossing has been reconverted back to favor car traffic wherever the route intersects a major artery.
In Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, the world’s fastest-growing city, Gehl-influenced planners run up against the opposing interests of international capital. The World Bank grants the lion’s share of its transportation lending to highways, although only 5% of the entire population, which will have to reimburse the huge loan, uses cars. But in placing the problem of conflicting class interests within a purely Third World context, Dalsgaard sidelines the widening gap between haves and have-nots that impacts cities worldwide.
Dalsgaard manifests this occasional social blindness in his praise of New York City, with its transformations of Times Square and surrounding stretches of Broadway. These strategically situated pedestrian zones may encourage spontaneous neighborhood snowball fights (one is shown here), but they mainly service sightseeing tourists. Meanwhile, throughout the city, huge sections of small-scale, affordable residential areas are razed to erect high-rise enclaves for the rich.
But Dalsgaard’s upbeat approach also heralds genuinely positive results. After Christchurch, New Zealand, is almost completely destroyed by an earthquake, ordinary citizens are given a dominant voice in its reconstruction and opt for the human-scale Gehl model. Even when the federal government commandeers the project, many people-supported provisos remain.
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