Habitat for humanity

The Human Scale looks at city planning around the globe

Jan Gehl a renowned architect and professor has a shockingly simplistic approach to creating human environments: he studies how humans behave in environments.

This seems like a no-brainer but if you look around at the way we live with cars zipping by on sprawling curtains of concrete you’ll soon realize how rare this approach is.

The Human Scale is a documentary that takes a glowing look at Gehl’s work. This is a film by believers about believers for believers. There’s no examination of alternate theories of design and development except for the car-centric modernist approach to social isolation that we so enjoy today.

That said this is a great introduction to the work of the man (and his many minions) who helped turn Copenhagen into a verb for human-centric development. If you want to point the finger at any one person for getting so many Danes on bikes and sipping coffees on pedestrian plazas Gehl’s your man.

The film divided into five chapters takes us on a world tour — Copenhagen New York Los Angeles Melbourne Dhaka Chongqing and Christchurch. It’s a varied list but serves to mostly highlight the successes of the Gehl model but also the excesses and carnage of the modernist approach.

We are toured through China where rapid urbanization is having a profound effect. While 300 million people have been raised from poverty by moving into the new mega cities rampant consumerism car dependence social isolation and pollution are all rearing their ugly heads in a country racing to mimic western development.

That is contrasted with the shift that occurred in Copenhagen with the focus on bikes and pedestrians — in short on people not cars. We are shown the transition occuring in New York where squares are being reclaimed as squares. We are told that in Los Angeles 100000 people come out each year to take over the streets from cars though they wisely don’t talk about the other 364 days in that sprawling contemporary city.

Perhaps most interesting is the tour through Dhaka Bangladesh the fastest growing city in the world. There the government is gobbling up World Bank funding that prioritizes development based around the car despite the fact that few drive or can currently afford to drive. It’s a model that activists are rising up against because it ignores the majority of the people in the city — an unsustainable track that will leave Dhaka struggling for years to come.

As western cities debate how to make their cities more livable rising centres are repeating the same mistakes. Even in the western world entrenched interests look to prevent development that focuses on the well-being of its inhabitants.

At the beginning of the film it’s explained that we know more about the living habits of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat than we know about humans in our created landscape. I don’t know if that’s empirically true but the evidence suggests it is. Why else would we build these places?

The Human Scale will screen on Wednesday November 6 at Eau Claire as part of the Calgary International Film Festival’s monthly Doc Soup series.