Photo: Copryright AECOM by Robb Williamson.
The Human Scale is as much a cry from the heart as it is a documentary about urban design; when we plan cities, how can we focus on the individual? The presence of Jan Gehl is felt everywhere throughout the film. He identifies ways in which modern cities repel human interaction, and he makes his appeals through the experience of specific cities (e.g. New York, Christchurch, Dhaka, Siena – all places where Gehl and his practice have worked). Other protagonists – planners from Gehl’s practice, city officials, random people off the street – take up the argument that the planning of cities must relate to human needs for inclusion and intimacy.
Gehl emphasizes the systematic study of human behavior and a principled application of pedestrian-oriented strategies to the public realm. These neo-traditional approaches are still at odds with contemporary planning. In the past, Gehl fought against car-based design, city planning championed by traffic engineers. Now he is also effectively opposed to the dramatic ideological narratives of architectural designers working at very large scales.
Interestingly, The Human Scale remains relatively quiet about the profound transformations due to the increasing globalization of cities. The film also focuses heavily on the physical sensations of the city but is silent about the advent of new virtual worlds enabled by social networking; this is unexplored territory that could provide other opportunities for the creation of more resilient, human-focused environments.
Cities now produce vast amounts of data, and the capability of collecting, processing, and acting on data activated by the people who live, work, and travel through cities. Will this ubiquitous data suggest ways for cities to become more livable, efficient, sustainable, and democratic? Or are these approaches doomed to killing the serendipity that makes cities creative places, or as Richard Sennet said, potentially making cities ‘stupefying’ instead.
In the end, however, there seems to be a clear and emerging understanding of the reciprocal relationship of cities and people. For me, Jane Jacobs said it best: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Chris Choa is a principal in AECOM’s Masterplanning + Urban Design practice.