Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl is well-known in the field for his common-sense approach. His interventions in urban centers such as New York City’s Times Square, Melbourne's downtown, as well as projects in Mexico and China all focus on the concept of putting people first: not cars, not delivery trucks, not taxis, not traffic in general - but people. Gehl famously puts pedestrians and cyclists first, and both his book and blog ‘Making Cities for People’ argue how such a people-centered approach makes for much more enjoyable, livable places. The Human Scale is a documentary film about the work Gehl and his colleagues do around the world. Here is a brief introdcution from the film’s director Andreas Daalsgard:
“Architectural films usually focus on the bricks and mortar. They are beautifull and aesthetic depictions of the work of great architects. But they are also dead. I wanted this film to make the human being visible, as a creature within it’s habitat. Within bricks and mortar. I wanted to create a caleidoscopic image and sound scape, where the audience can participate in a sort of meditation on modern life. The urban planners, thinkers and architects in the film make observations, ask questions about our lifestyle, and provide some possible solutions. But most of the answers are left to the audience. Who are we, how do we live, and where are we going as a species? And can we even do a damn thing about it?”
One interesting chapter of the film focuses on post-earthquake planning in Christchurch, New Zealand. As is quite common after such devastating disasters, the community is shocked to the point of needing ‘community therapy’, and planning for either reconstruction or new projects frequently gets caught up in that need. The film includes interesting comments from David Sim, Partner at Gehl Architects and planner for the Christchurch Recovery Plan, about this monumental task and its challenges. It also briefly shows how Sims and his colleagues are working with children and are using LEGO blocks in visioning excersises with them. As Sims explains: working with LEGO can be fun and creative, and very accessible for people of all ages, but it also poses the risk of people acting in this “God-like” manner, floating high above the ground and creating some sort of all-encompassing “Masterplan”. This of course, not being very conducive to the people-centered, bottom-up planning approach that Gehl Architects usually stands for at all.
Another fascinating episode of The Human Scale deals with Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Dhaka is suffering from increasingly terrible traffic jams. Unfortunately all the large-scale projects approved and financed by the International Development Bank (IDB) and World Bank consist of car-focused measures, such as adding lanes to highways, widening roads, and constructing overpasses for pedestrians, thereby making the city more and more difficult for pedestrians to navigate. In the film local city planners criticise this pattern, pointing out how few people in Dhaka actually can afford a car. Essentially these internationally-funded projects only serve the very wealthy people and the upper middle class. One of the planners says: “(We are) heading into a chaos, that we have created ourselves.” Several people in Dhaka started protesting against such planning projects and one young community activist actually translated Gehl’s book ‘Cities for People’ into Bengali in order to advocate for a more people-focused planning approach. My impression is that these developments which could lead to improvements are still in the early stages, and much still needs to happen in Dhaka for the city to become more livable. However, the city (as so many others portraied in the film) is at a crossroads and it is fascinating to observe these dynamics.
Very interesting to me is also the much more general question the film poses (for example when it focuses on the fast-paced growth of many Chinese cities): do ‘western’ planners have a responsibility to intervene and to advocate for better planning approaches? Can cities in developing countries avoid making the same mistakes that our cities made in the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Can better solutions be found locally? A friend of mine, who lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, pointed out how arrogant it often comes across when Western experts, such as Gehl’s associates arrive in far-flung places and talk about ‘fixing’ the existing problems. I’m torn myself on the topic. Do we really know better, and is it our responsibility to advise and assist? Or do we need to step back and let local community activists take over and fight their own battles and do things their own way?
Also: an important point for further research: what is the current planning philosophy of the World Bank and the IDB? Are they really still stuck entirely in this very ‘modernist’ thinking of: the more roads and other large infrastructure projects we build, the better’? Maybe our role as planners should be to serve as advocates, to put pressure on these organisations and to lobby for a general reconsideration and overhaul of such principles.
More information about the film is available at www.thehumanscale.dk
A clip about Christchurch is at: http://thehumanscale.dk/christchurch-new-zealand/