This sleek documentary from Danish director Andreas M. Dalsgaard presents a set of well-established views in contemporary urban planning and design: 1) that cities have been planned around motor vehicles, to the detriment of people; 2) that a lack of planning for people impacts on quality of life and disables community; 3) that the current and anticipated future growth of cities worldwide is exacerbating these issues. While based on the work of the influential humanistic architect and urban planner Jan Gehl and the firm he founded, Gehl Architects, the film is not a biography of Gehl. Rather it picks up a series of Gehl’s ideas and methodological innovations, and applies them to the idea of the city today. The film asks: what is the nature of the contemporary city? What ways of living does it promote? What is the city’s potential; what is its future? The film is visually beautiful and slickly edited, but despite my interest in Gehl (and in particular, his development of methods for observing human activity in urban spaces), I did not find it convincing.
Besides Copenhagen, the film’s preferred cities are those with which Gehl Architects has previously engaged; including Siena, Manhattan (but not the East Coast megacity corridor), and Melbourne (but not its extensive suburbs). Christchurch in the post-earthquake reconstruction period is presented as a potential member of this somewhat Eurocentric club, but also as a potential “victim” of powerful business and commercial interests. The film’s dystopia is Dhaka, Bangladesh; which with its massively expanding population, environmental pollution, meteorological catastrophes and extreme poverty is seen to represent the modern city gone viral. This list should offer a few hints as to the film’s perspective on urban development, and its presentation of the desirability or otherwise of particular ways of living.
In highlighting the ways in which the development of modern cities has involved the destruction of traditional urban building patterns and their associated lifestyles and forms of community, such as the hutong lanes in China, the film is surprisingly nostalgic. Here The Human Scale appears to align with a privileged, liberal, left-leaning Western viewpoint that values the historic, aesthetic, and social qualities of the hutongs (and their various counterparts) over the highrise apartment buildings and office towers that replaced them. There is considerable emphasis placed on the alleged alienation and isolation of tower block living—a tenet of belief so well-established, and so likely to be well-received by much of the film’s audience, that it presumably was seen to require little nuance (although changing aspirations of young urban dwellers are briefly proposed at one point). One recalls the laments of sociologists at the destruction of East End row houses in London—while the former slum residents moved en bloc into their new council housing complete with adequate sanitation. The film takes it as read that many of the promises of urban modernity were, at best, never realised; or at worst, were outright lies. That assertion may be true, or partly true, but it is still discomforting to watch a series of “shock” facts about cities presented in such a way as to imply to the viewer that the mass of humanity should be somehow excluded from modernity and its comforts. Population growth in the developing world, combined with the prospect of significant climate change, represents a serious challenge to Western aspirations to a particular standard of living (high-quality, “human scale”), and this is an unacknowledged source of tension in the film.
The idea of the human scale as a guide to development in cities is presented in the film as an implicitly transcendental and universal premise, with culturally-specific examples represented as instances of the Platonic form. For example, in one section of the film, we see footage of Gehl Architects staff on walkabout in Chonqing, a huge municipality of some 30 million people. We are told that the firm has been engaged by the Chinese city authorities in an advisory capacity, yet in following the staff on their walking tour, we discover that the implementation of their suggestions has been actively resisted by some officials. The nature of this filmic “reveal” and its presumed truth—that a progressive intervention has been blocked—works to displace attention from the interesting and important questions of why and how this resistance occurred. Political interests; commercial pressures; cross-cultural tensions; sincere differences of opinion about the validity of the proposed changes—the no doubt complex reality of this scene is unfortunately never explored.
Issues of cultural bias become most pressing in the sequences set in Dhaka. A series of excerpted interviews shows Bangladeshi urban planners and activists openly critiquing the imposition of previous Western urban models as a form of cultural and economic imperialism. Their critique is presented as though it resonates straightforwardly with the film’s key message about the failures of modern urban planning and the need for “human scale” solutions. Yet the total unsuitability of the small-scale, European urban model as a “solution” to the problems of South-East Asian megacities is obvious. We see technology represented for the most part as a source of problems; but what about its potential to offer solutions? When I see images of a city like Dhaka, I want to think about how Gehl’s research on the human scale could be reimagined, to enable different kinds of social engagement independent of economic status. I want to listen to new approaches to reinventing traditional urban forms, as a way to help to promote resilience against natural disasters. I would like to hear proposals for how high-density living, rather than offering a nightmare of social isolation, could actually help to support a low-carbon, sustainable future.