Hot Docs Review: 'The Human Scale'

The Human Scale
(Denmark, 83 min.)
Dir. Andreas Dalsgaard
Programme: Rule Breakers and Innovators (International Premiere)
How much time do you spend in traffic? A child of the Ottawa suburbs, I can’t even fathom the hours of my life that I lost sitting in traffic. Isolated housing might seem like a nice, quiet, and safe environment to raise a kid, but a lot has changed since the boon of the suburbs several decades ago. The Human Scale, a smart talking heads doc by Andreas Dalsgaard, explains how patterns in human behaviour have shifted in recent years in terms of placement and habitat. We know more about the ideal living situations of gorillas than our own species, one expert notes.

Danish architect Jan Gehl, however, made some forward-thinking studies about humans and their environments. Typical urban studies, Gehl notes in the film, focused primarily (if not solely) on traffic flow. The priority of urban design was not to create the best living environment for humans, but to create the best scenarios so we could all drive ourselves from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible. The ideal city moved from the European style living, where people live in proximity to where they work and play, to the North American suburban style, where people drove from outside the city and all converged at the centre for work and then made the nightly exodus to the land of strip malls and TVs broadcasting “Dancing with the Stars.” That style, Gehl notes, just doesn’t work anymore.

The Human Scale examines the shift in consciousness of the relationship between humans and public space. Gehl explains that a better city design could be devised by studying the behaviours of humans themselves: how do people, rather than cars, flow through the streets? How would they use the public space that’s clogged by traffic congestion and parked cars? Gehl and various other architects, academics, and activists explain that a shift away from isolated living and a renewed focus on increased communal space creates a much healthier and efficient city.

The Human Scale looks at the necessity of re-evaluating urban design in five chapters. Each chapter focuses on a city— including New York, Copenhagen, Dhaka, Chongqing, and Christchurch—and looks at how each city has adapted or failed to adapt realistically to the demands of its growing population. New York, for example, made the bold move away from traffic flow—busy streets and honking horns seems like such an important character trait of the city—and instead emphasized pedestrian traffic and community by redesigning Broadway and Times Square as a communal space. The result looks far more inviting. (Any New Yorkers want to add a yay or nay to debate over the Times Square redesign?)

Other cities, such a Melbourne, changed by recognizing a greater ideological shift among the population. One urban planner notes that Melbourne's suburban housing seems like the ideal dream for young couples… a decade ago. Now, though, the suburbs simply don’t seem like a viable option since they’re an ideal that relies on cheap gas. Cheap gas doesn’t exist anymore, so a shift back to centralized living is the better economic plan. It’s the healthier, sunnier, friendlier one, too, as ensuing studies report that human behaviour and mental health is improving.

The Human Scale smartly avoids lofty idealism and academic nitpicking. The ideas offered by the talking heads are all viable options for reclaiming public space and reframing how we think about the needs of cities. The final chapters of the film shrewdly look at the possibility of starting over, as a study of Dhaka notes the potential social collapse that could arise by focusing on the needs of the minority of the rich (re: more expressways and parking pass) at the expense of the needs of the working class majority (re: public transit and accessible living). The situation, one urban planner notes, is that continued emphasis on cars and on western living will have cities “heading to a chaos created by themselves.”

The Human Scale is sure to voice many of the concerns that urban dwellers have with cities that seem content on riding the gravy train. Public space, low rise housing, and accessible services seem more useful than extra parking or more congested streets. Wouldn’t life be better if we sat together in cafés instead of shoulder-to-shoulder in traffic?  

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

The Human Scale Screens:
Saturday, April 27 – 4:30 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Sunday, May 5 – 9:00 pm at the ROM

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more info on films, tickets, and showtimes.

UPDATE: The Human Scale screens in Ottawa Nov. 14 at the Mayfair Theatre hosted by the Urban Forum Canada and the Royal Danish Embassy. Click here for details.
-It also screens at The ByTowne Nov. 19-21.