Blowhard, Esq. writes:
I thought this documentary, an introduction to the theory and work of Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, was OK. Gehl’s thesis, which hardly seems remarkable but goes to show the state we’re in, is that public spaces are more pleasant and popular if they cater to the needs of pedestrians more than drivers. The movie, written and directed by Gehl’s fellow Dane Andreas Dalsgaard, follows planners from Gehl’s firm as they implement his humanist ideas in major cities around the globe.
How did we get to a place where rapidly urbanizing cities favor isolated apartment blocks, multilane expressways, and suburban sprawl? Gehl places the blame squarely on the Modernists, particularly Le Corbusier‘s “machines for living” which gained traction starting in 1960. Godard’s 2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER takes quite a few shots at those buildings. (And, lest we forget, this is what Corbu wanted to do with Paris.)
Gehl notes that when he began studying the urban environment more was known about how various wild animals interact with their ecosystems than how homo sapiens uses its cities. After spending hours with students studying behavior patterns in public spaces — how many people enter a space? how long do they stay? where do they spend their time? — Gehl determined that “if you have more roads, you will have more traffic; if you make more space for people, you will have more public life.” Amazing how the modern world has had to relearn the seemingly obvious, isn’t it?
The movie is divided into five chapters. Dalsgaard gives each section a thematic emphasis that he presents on an opening title card (e.g. “how cities shape us,” “doing more with less”) but I found this approach too vague. Thankfully, each section is largely devoted to a major city with minor digressions to other parts of the world. It’s disheartening to see how China and Pakistan, both in the midst of titanic population shifts from the country to the city, are making the same mistakes we made in the West. There’s a shot of a contemporary pop-up Chinese city that looks virtually indistinguishable from the 110 freeway in Los Angeles at rush hour. Recalling Jane Jacob’s central battle with Robert Moses, a Pakistani translator of Gehl’s work laments that the World Bank is spending $10 billion to build expressways through the old heart of Dhaka.
Things are better in the West, if only because we’ve learned the hard way. Copenhagen’s hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes, which have become a model for cities all over the world, are highlighted. Melbourne revived its decaying downtown by embracing its narrow yet cozy alleys. “The streets have become our living room,” the mayor says. After an earthquake that destroyed much of Christchurch’s downtown, New Zealand’s government grudgingly ignored developers who wanted new high rises developments in favor of overwhelming public support for more relatable 7-story low rises. New York has reclaimed space on Broadway’s squares from cars in favor of pedestrians.
The film is a nice tour and decent enough introduction to Gehl’s work, but like a lot of design docs, especially any that deal with the developing world, the tone is a bit serious and solemn. It wouldn’t surprise me if viewers not already interested in this topic find the movie a bit of a snooze at times. Furthermore, perhaps it’s beyond the scope of the doc, but this is the second one I’ve seen about urbanism that doesn’t directly address how the quality of the surrounding buildings impacts a user’s experience. Notice all the traditional buildings in the above picture of Madison Square. In the section on Melbourne one design expert is filmed in his chic Brutalist kitchen (complete with swoopy concrete staircase) while the mayor is photographed in an old world, decorative hardwood office. Maybe what a city block is made of is just as important as how it’s put together.
THE HUMAN SCALE is currently streaming for free on Amazon Prime Instant.
- The movie’s trailer. An interview with Dalsgaard.
- The website for Gehl architects. One of his books.
- A print interview with Gehl and one on YouTube, both courtesy Paleo Retiree.
- My observations from a recent trip to NYC.
- Even L.A. is reforming.
- I don’t know this guy, but he is my sworn enemy.
- Lloyd on Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place.
- Speaking of documentaries, PR recently wrote about Errol Morris’s THE FOG OF WAR while Fabrizio took a look at Morris’s THE UNKNOWN KNOWN.
The lack of reflection this far into the craze for New Urbanism is unsettling. Y’know, it’s not 1992 anymore, and the movement isn’t some underdog vanguard but the Next Big Thing that every SWPL enclave has been pushing through for at least the past 5, and more like 10 or 15 years.
That photo of the public square in New York sums up what’s gone wrong (or has revealed what had always been wrong from the start): New Urbanism has become (always was?) a brainstorming session / policy bandwagon for how to make the wealthiest neighborhoods in the wealthiest cities even more insanely epic playgrounds for the sponges who dwell nearby. That could either be loafer / hipster sponges, or finance / Big Law / PR / other bullshit sector sponges making a ton of money from parasitic professions.
There’s absolutely nothing civic, communal, cohesive, or enriching about these large playground oases in the urban jungle. Just a bunch of sponges sitting around indulging in some conspicuous consumption (where’s you coffee from? where’s your panini from?) and conspicuous leisure (1pm and I’m lounging in public, with designer clothes and perfect hair — jealous much?). There’s never any connection or awareness of the other people in these places. They’re all drones vibrating in their own little cell within the larger hive.
Don’t be fooled by the pairs of people who appear to be interacting with another person. The other person is just a social image prop, and gets no attention, which is instead directed at the hive in general.
You ever notice how loud and over-sharing their conversations are, and how their eyes are always darting around to see how many other drones are giving unpsoken “likes” to the speaker? When they aren’t talking, they are dead silent for hours at a stretch, never looking up toward the other, glued to their private glowing screen. No affection or closeness — they only “interact” when their speech and mannerism can suck in attention from the hive.
Apart from the psychological segregation, contra the intimacy the New Urbanist cheerleaders promised we’d have, there’s the naked leisure-class nature of all the surrounding “small shops,” invariably 90% quirky foodie joints, and 10% quirky yoga, quirky doggie spas, and quirky clothing. Somehow that’s not what my grandfather would have imagined when New Urbanists spoke of a return to Main Street. These preening useless faggots would have gotten food thrown at them from passing cars back in those days.
Where do they buy their household tools? From a mom & pop hardware store? No — by ordering some Chinese piece of shit from Home Depot’s *website*. Where do they buy their music and movies? From iTunes (if they’re old) or more likely from some online streaming service. Consumer electronics? Amazon, or once a year a trip to the Apple Store where they actually buy something. It’s pathetic how little variety there is in areas struck by the New Urbanist craze, and how much all of that stuff has migrated online due to airheaded consumer choice. I could have sampled a wider variety of stuff from a mall back in the ’80s — and they had professionals’ offices there too.
Defenders of New Urbanism will say that it wasn’t intended, that this is a hijacking or adulteration by wealthy interests, that the originators were more populist. Maybe — maybe not. The point is: this is what the mania has produced in reality, and it’s time to start taking stock of that, and coming up with ways to wipe out all of this airheaded elitist shit and return city and town life to more populist and enriching ways. Not by continuing to cheerlead for the craze like these designers and architects do.
It’ll be better if the new movement doesn’t have the words “new” or “urbanism,” to avoid confusion and tainting.
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It would greatly help matters to identify designers, architects, and policy makers by one of three types, so we know who we’re dealing with and how to treat them.
1) Kool-Aid drinkers. These people truly get an endorphin rush from turning entire neighborhoods into leisure-class playgrounds. Crazy, not worth trying to talk some common sense into.
2) Sell-outs. These individuals started off with the populist Main Street ideal as their ideal model, but quickly figured out that egalitarian small-town ecosystems are not exactly gonna fly off the shelves in a climate of such intense status-striving and inequality. A fella’s gotta eat and pay rent, so whaddayagonnado? Not worth trying to convert, since they only worship the almighty dollar, and they will not fall for the lie / clueless naive suggestion that somehow, someway the Main Street model *could* be made to be as profitable, or more, than the leisure-class playground model.
3) Frustrated idealists. Bitter, overlooked, unappreciated, disgusted by what the formerly idealistic movement has devolved into (or again, how the hidden variation among the originators has made itself manifest). They feel sick for being a part of a movement that has swept aside the variety of stores that used to be found in suburban strip centers as recently as 25 years ago, all in the name of converting the place into a “lifestyle center” with food, drink, food, drink, food, food, food, spa, salon, crappy cell phone outlet, food, and food. All chains, all oriented toward leisure-class strivers.
Naturally only the last group is worth the time for ordinary people to talk to. But if they won’t identify themselves, and their distaste for where the New Urbanist craze has gone, it will be hard to start cleaning house.
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The guy’s Danish, so I don’t expect him to be in touch with American trends. But New Urbanists have overlooked the most pedestrian-unfriendly car phenomenon of the 21st century — suburban streets that are narrowed into de facto one-lane paths because residents park their cars all along the curb, at every house.
This is not a design / planning problem, since just 25 years ago, roughly the same number of cars belonging to roughly the same number of residents on a suburban street, were parked in the driveway, carport, or garage. It was normal for two-car houses to have both parked one behind the other in the driveway, and for someone to have to get out and move the back one if someone wanted to take the front one out. I remember doing that in the ’90s, though it was also starting to become common to park one in the driveway and one on the street.
What changed were attitudes toward private vs. public welfare. Individual convenience is maximized by parking one in the driveway and one or more on the street. But when everyone feels and acts that way, suddenly the whole street is clogged with parked cars. The two-way street is now one-way, and pedestrians who could have walked along the side of the road (the way we all used to) have nowhere to walk, unless there’s a sidewalk.
(Sidewalks are not the most common thing in suburbs, sadly, and even if there is one — how drone-like to have to follow a sidewalk in a quiet suburban neighborhood, when you’re supposed to be walking through the streets because you own them, and only moving aside when you see a car approaching.)
This state of affairs points to the larger problem that is rarely discussed in New Urbanist forums — how easy does design change attitudes, and can a change in attitudes over-turn the utopian design plan? (Answer: yes.) Driveways, carports, and garages were a design solution to the problem of streets clogged with parked cars — provided that folks who lived in multi-car houses put the good of the community above their own stingy quest for maximum convenience. You don’t see cars parked in driveways in the city — it was supposed to be a way that suburbanites could lick one of the city’s worst problems.
In the end, though, attitudes trumped design plans.
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Looking at the photo of Siena, I’m struck by how generally pleasant medieval urban building is. These days we use “medieval” as an insult, but they actually built much nicer, more communal urban spaces than we do these days. I’ve lost track of the number of gorgeous medieval towns I’ve walked through in Germany, Italy, Bohemia and other places.
I’m sure agnostic would also be impressed by their attitude towards the community: citizens of towns were expected to have responsibilities to their town, as well as deriving benefits from it.
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I went to listen to Gehls when he came to speak here in Melbourne.
Gehls, by his own admission, started off as just another typical architect in love with modernism. What changed his thinking was his newly wedded wife who asked him, “Why do you design buildings if people don’t matter?” If I remember correctly, she was a psychologist someone outside the architectural profession.
Melbourne’s inner city revival has been despite the architects and town planners. To illustrate what I mean, simultaneously, whilst the cozy lanes were being revived, a brand new suburb next to the CBD was being built, Docklands, which has turned out to be a disaster. Gehls was bought to Melbourne to try and fix the problem up and hence, the opportune speaking engagement. It seems as if the profession has learned nothing but instead wants to blame developers and the government for all their problems.
The thing to point out about Gehls, and I could be wrong here, is that he has shown an ability to revitalise the “old bits of town” but I’m not so sure how his new developments are going. It appears to me that pre-1920’s urban planning and architecture lends itself to revitalisation, that built afterwards is un-revivable.
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>>Gehls, by his own admission, started off as just another typical architect in love with modernism. What changed his thinking was his newly wedded wife who asked him, “Why do you design buildings if people don’t matter?” If I remember correctly, she was a psychologist someone outside the architectural profession.
Great anecdote. Wonder why they didn’t include that in the doc.
>>The thing to point out about Gehls, and I could be wrong here, is that he has shown an ability to revitalise the “old bits of town” but I’m not so sure how his new developments are going.
I think a lot of municipalities are hamstrung by laws which virtually require suburban as opposed to urban development, e.g. set-back lines. I wonder how much Gehl’s planners take a locality’s statutes into consideration.
>>It appears to me that pre-1920’s urban planning and architecture lends itself to revitalisation, that built afterwards is un-revivable.
Excellent point. I have to think the aesthetic quality of the pre-1920s buildings has something to do with that.
The other thing that disturbs me, though, with Gehls and the New Urbanists, is that they still can’t escape from the mental model of the Architect as having total control over the Urban environment. Great cities permit a bit of “messiness”, the level of detail that some of some of the new Urbanists want to go to echoes with micromanagement and new type of design puritanism.
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Another great point. One of Gehl’s architects — the dude working in Christchurch, IIRC — acknowledges that problem by chafing at the phrase “master plan” and its implication that a deep visionary is required.
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