The Human Scale

Documentary examines urban development

Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly


How planning for fewer cars, more bikes and more human interaction can save the urban world 

More than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in our cities, and that number is only going to grow.


Some experts predict that by the midpoint of this century, more than 80 percent of the global population will find itself in an urban setting.

But is all this urbanization really good for us, for our culture? Does it help or harm our quality of life? These are the primary questions that Andreas Dalsgaard attempts to answer in his enlightened documentary The Human Scale.

Dalsgaard’s film explores the work and philosophy of Danish architect Jan Gehl, who has long advocated that our cities should be built for the benefit of people rather than for the convenience of automobiles and the profits of developers.

In its quest to explore this important issue, The Human Scale takes us to cities across the globe, including Copenhagen, New York City, Chongging, Dhaka, Melbourne and more. While examining these highly populated hubs of humanity, often in the company of the bureaucrats and planners charged with guiding their evolution, the film searches out examples that can help us explore Gehl’s notion that by decreasing the physical space and planning emphasis that currently goes into all things automobile, city planners and architects can actually heighten human interaction by adding more space for things like bike paths, common areas and greenways that are closed to things with noisy, polluting engines.

It’s a simple concept: The more time we spend walking and talking together, looking each other in the eye while socializing in person rather than by digital means or isolating ourselves in cars or high-rise housing, the better our quality of life becomes — which in turn enriches our culture and creativity.

The film uses Copenhagen as the best example to give weight to Gehl’s thesis. This city has already incorporated many of the architect’s concepts.

Streets have been pedestrianized, and bikes are now the dominant mode of transportation. It is now estimated that only 24 percent of Copenhagen’s 560,000 residents now use cars to get around, as opposed to the 35 percent who primarily use bikes. City planners have established no-traffic zones, housing units built around common areas and more than 350,000 bike lanes.

Not all of the film’s examples of trading car space for pedestrian ways ring as true as Copenhagen’s. The Human Scale attempts to push New York City’s Times Square through Gehl’s round hole, but it doesn’t fit.

While few could argue that Times Square being closed to car traffic is not a good idea, the area’s foot traffic has not really caused a rebirth of community, as the film implies. That’s because such a cultural shift was never really the intent. The reinvention of Times Square was always intended to create a tourist draw and thereby an economic engine. And those who remember how New York City police cleaned up the area by harassing and searching without cause and jailing tens of thousands of young blacks would never claim that community had been enhanced by the often-unconstitutional process employed.

But overall, Dalsgaard’s film holds up well and should be viewed as a helpful map for cities going forward. It is a film that will resonate with Boulder County residents, to be sure. But in some ways, it should also be viewed as a warning. Bike to work days, open space purchases and growth restrictions will never be enough to improve our human connectivity, and thereby our culture. We must plan our communities in ways that look beyond creating barriers to keep out the “others.” To achieve Gehl’s ideals we must find regional solutions to our automobile problems as well as create housing opportunities that amplify community and diversity through the use of common areas and large auto-free zones.

But it is good to see that we may at least be on the right track.