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.