Essentially an under-acknowledged intro video for an architecture firm, The Human Scale takes us around the world to explain, on a level just above the boilerplate you’d expect from such a video, how the Gehl Architects’ school of thought is transforming car-centric cities to pedestrian-friendly ones, and in so doing, improving people’s lives. That this people-first concept should produce greater well-being seems fairly self-evident, but the film offers little evidence to bolster it, besides Jan Gehl, who we rarely hear or see throughout the film, recalling that Siena, Italy, a pedestrian-dominant city he studied when he was younger, is “famous for being a nice place for people,” and that after car traffic was limited in Times Square in New York City in 2009, accidents decreased there by 63%.
While there’s no doubt that a city’s walkability is important (it also, in a broader picture, decreases dependence on oil), the film would have benefitted from either stats or testimonials in favor of its central premise. Instead, we’re only presented with Gehl’s optimistic disciples talking us through projects to improve their cities the world over, their shared concerns being to counteract the stranglehold that modernism (illustrated by clips of Le Corbusier and his isolating buildings) put on city life, and to avoid the model of the United States, which unsustainably built its infrastructure around the automobile.
As a travelogue, The Human Scale offers some rewards, like seeing the zoned-off, post-earthquake downtown of Christchruch, New Zealand, or Dhaka, Bangladesh, the world’s fastest growing city, but these scenes are often complicated by an underlying tone of pessimism that’s compounded by the film’s staggering statistics about overpopulation, which can at times nearly contradict the optimism that the film is clearly aiming for. (In one scene, Kristian Villadsen, of Gehl Architects, walks us through his pedestrian pathway in Chongqing, China, only to discover that the “police and planning department” had partially changed it back to accommodate cars.)
The film’s single-minded focus on Gehl’s brand of pro-pedestrian urban design as the answer to modern life’s ailments is, while comforting, too fantastical. While it’s true that if 80% of the world’s 10 billion people will be living in cities by 2050, these places will need to be redesigned in order to accommodate for this growth, there’s obviously a mélange of aspects—energy, water, transportation, tourism, public spaces vs. private ones—to consider. So, it seems somewhat arrogant that the film presents Gehl’s firm as having all the answers when even their own David Sim says that city planning is so complex, and needs input from so many people, that the whole idea of a master plan is absurd.