Documentary: “The Human Scale” – urban city planning

This afternoon I watched a screening of The Human Scale, a Danish documentary on city planning. Fascinating topic: Half of the human population lives in cities or urban agglomerations. By 2050 this number will reach 80%. Europe has it comparatively easy: over here cities and towns tend to be low-rise and quite accessible. And even cities like London or Paris are compact and well-administrated when compared to the sprawling, congested, traffic-clogged mega cities of Asia and the Indian Sub-Continent – or South/Latin America, for that matter; I would imagine problems in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo are much the same.
The documentary centers around the work of Danish architect Jan Gehl who was one of the first city planners to develop tools and mechanisms to quantify human behaviour in cities. How do people use their cities, how do they interact with the urban environment around them, where do they like to meet up, where do they walk, what do they need from their urban space?

Gehl asked all of these questions; his premise was that the development of modern cities since the 1950s and 1960s has been structured around the demands of cars and private transportation. Traditional urban planning looks at the traffic flow of cars and private transportation; and the result are cityscapes with endless highways and flyovers, high-rise apartment towers and people moving away from the city centre into fast-developing suburbs. And with the changing cityscape comes isolation and alienation for the people who live and work in these cities.

Jan Gehl argues that cities must become more human-centered and interactive because people are social animals. We want – and need – interaction with other people and cities ought to provide this. For examples, through public parks or pedestrian areas, or any public spaces carved out from the urban cityscape. To illustrate some positive examples of this new approach to urban planning the documentary tracked recent urban developments at New York’s Times Square or Copenhagen. And even in Chongquing, apparently the fastest-growing city in China, there are attempts to create pedestrian walking routes through the urban grid, so you can walk across the city whithout stumbling over bad sidewalks or having to dodge traffic.

The film interviewed architects, urban planners and municipal transportation authorities in different cities, including New York City, Melbourne, Dhaka and Chongquing, analysing the difficulties of adapting traditional city planning to the demands of the future. The last chapter of the film focused on the city of Christchurch in New Zealand, where the city centre was more or less completely destroyed by an earthquake in 2011. Christchurch’s centre is now slowly being reconstructed, with the input of locals and other stakeholders who put forward their ideas of how they wanted their city to look like.

Unsurprisingly, people prefer their cities to be pedestrian friendly, with low-rise building, lots of urban green spaces, an accessible infrastructure and – well, human in scale. In the case of Christchurch, the demand for low-rise buildings was actually successful and new constructions in the city centre are not allowed to be higher than seven stories. Yay for people power!

The film was inspiring and interesting – it also fired up my latent “Fernweh” (lit. “far sickness”), an evocative German term for the opposite of “homesickness”. When you have “Fernweh” you yearn for other places and want to go off travelling. Seeing those Asian cityscapes definitely made me want to hop onto the next Qatar Airways plane (Qatar is my favourite airline to travel from Berlin to Asian destinations)!

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