Film Review: The Human ScaleGood-looking doc doesn't do justice to New Urbanism.
Handsome and weighty-feeling but less substantial than it seems, Andreas M. Dalsgaard's The Human Scale travels the world to convince us of an idea that has been widely held for decades: Cities are better off when they put more thought into how pedestrians move throughout them. A wider-reaching doc with similar production values would be welcome at art houses, but this oddly blindered film has limited commercial prospects.
Though it isn't a portrait of Danish architect and professor Jan Gehl (we learn nothing about his career or personal history, and don't see him all that much), the film behaves as if he is the world's sole, or at least preeminent, proponent of pedestrian-friendly design. Dalsgaard interviews numerous academics and city planners, but wherever he goes, from Copenhagen to New Zealand to Chongqing, China, there's an employee of Gehl Architects to explain things to us.
Sometimes that Gehl evangelist has a useful perspective: In Christchurch, New Zealand, the firm offers a window into ambitious plans to rebuild a central city that was devastated by a 2011 earthquake. But too often we're simply observing plans to close roads to auto traffic and open them to pedestrians instead. Though much is made of Gehl's work in quantifying the use pedestrians make of public spaces, the number-crunching stops there: We're never given figures that back up frequently made assertions that having more people on the street for longer periods of time makes them happier and healthier. (One interviewee says, in essence, that it's impossible to be a human being if you primarily commute via car.)
In their discussions of making megacities livable by limiting the height of buildings (to, say, six stories) in order to encourage street life, no one addresses the question of what would happen to the people who live and work above the sixth floor: How far do cities need to sprawl out to accommodate their new low-rise dwellings? And can we imagine some means of getting them from work to home—subways are never discussed; buses get a single mention—other than walking?