Film review: A Manifesto for an Urban Revolution

Published by the Alternate Dream

The Human Scale

Directed by Andreas M. Dalsgaard

Denmark, 2012, 83 min

Not all documentaries need to be manifestoes but this is certainly one worthy form that the films in the medium could take. Jan Gehl is a Danish architect and urban design practitioner, well-known for theories behind making Copenhagen the cyclist heaven that it is. He has written many books to advocate for his ideas and the title of the last one published in 2010, Cities for People, says the gist of his goals. The Human Scale is basically a film version of Gehl’s manifesto for a livable, humane city. Shot across different many cities, from Christchurch and New York to Chonqqing and Dhaka, the film features short and wise remarks from Gehl himself and interviews with great many soldiers of the urban revolution the film advocates.

Watching the film from the sad urban deformity that is Toronto, for someone as passionate as the author for the cause, it is hard not to get emotional and choke up. At the stake is nothing less than the very way our lives are organized as well as the future of our civilization. Interviewees in the film calmly but strongly put forward the obvious reasons why the urban culture of brutal grey high-rises, cities designed for car traffic and suburban sprawl are inhumane and how humans deserve better lives and better mega cities aimed for their scale and not the interests of World Bank or the big corporations. The film escapes the trap of being about Gehl and not his ideas and his contributions are few and far in between and always very timely and to the point. It is full of quotes by him and others that makes you want to jot them down right then and there. Philosophically, the greatest concept that the film stresses is the need for public life and public space. Gehl claims, and proves by pointing to many instances, that if more public spaces are built and maintained, more public life appears too. One of his associates in Gehl Architects reminds us that to be urban is, at its root, to be able to mingle with perfect strangers; A basic radical truth that goes against everything that capitalism stands for.

A manifesto as grand and sweeping as this can only be successful if it takes us around the globe (something not possible for a film with just any budget) and The Human Scale does just that. Examples that are picked couldn’t provide a better mix: Successes of Gehl’s very own Copenhagen; The stark opposite in Los Angeles; New York and Melbourne with their recent transformations and ongoing challenges; dilemmas and opportunities facing New Zealand’s Christchurch after a 2011 earthquake brought it back to point zero and, prominently, grave challenges and choices facing rising mega-cities in China and Bangladesh’s Dhaka. Together, these examples present a thorough and convincing case in defense of Gehl’s ideas.

The film is about the ideas of an architect and it, of course, couldn’t go beyond their scope. It is self-evident that the way cities are organized is a very political topic and the revolution to overturn it needs to happen on the scope of politics not architecture. We can see in the ideas of any honest urban planner who sides with these, if we may, Gehlian ideals, a clear disgust with capitalism but not a grasp of why does this system work the way it does. The seemingly modest goal of turning the goal of development to be for ‘humans’ and not businesses and corporations is, of course, nothing but the core of socialist ethos.

On a more macro level, the film is devoid of historical and political background that would have made it greater. Marxist scholar, Paul Sweezey, for instance, long ago linked the American ‘car culture’ to the country’s capitalist development. What are the historical roots of the ‘bird shit architecture’ that Gehl decries? The film doesn’t go there. Some political background is given. In Dhaka, we see protests and a movement that targets World Bank and the government for not putting people’s interests front and centre. In Christchurch, we see the intervention of central government against the clearly-expressed wishes of local populace and the dilemma that even execution of these wishes will need foreign investments. But not much is explored and in many senses it just seems that people with ‘great ideas’ appeared on scene and changed things. (The film, for instance, doesn’t seem to be aware that some of the visionary changes that happened in Chongchinq where because of the leftist route that its governor, Bo Xilai, took against the mainstream direction of the China’s central capitalist government. Later we see that the changes are overturned which coincides with Bo’s fall from power, by the orders of the central state, but none of these is hinted at.)

Still, The Human Scale is great for what it is. The revolutionaries and socialists who wish to fight the urban revolution on the plane of politics could use the scientific and intellectual backing of Gehl ideas which the film does a great job of advocating for.

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