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Reimagining How to Build Cities on a Human Scale

Andreas Dalsgaard, director of The Human Scale, explains how we address the contradictions of contemporary cities.

By Madeleine Watts
June 11, 2013
By Madeleine Watts
June 11, 2013

Cities are brilliant. They facilitate things like coffee, sex and conversation. You can get a pizza at two in the morning, you can stumble into washed-up models at the pub, and you can ask your local drag queen where they got their fabulous dress while you stand in line for an ATM.

But for all of that, our cities have problems, and increasingly we are realising that the spaces we live in have an unparalleled impact on human health and happiness. There are 7 billion people alive today. By the end of this century there will be 10 billion. And it's estimated that 80 percent of those people will live in cities.

"We have to deal with a doubling of urban dwellers in the next forty years. How are we going to make life in these places sustainable?" This is the question asked by Danish filmmaker Andreas Dalsgaard, whose documentary The Human Scale made its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival last week and will screen at Melbourne's ACMI in June and July.

The Problem with Building Cities as Machines

In centuries past, cities were built at human walking pace, with the street and the square the fundamental elements of urban life. Think Rome. But things changed radically in the 20th century. Under the influence of modernist architects like Le Corbusier, cities were reconceived as machines for living, with the central functions of work, home and play separated for maximum efficiency. The most important element was the car. Buildings were meant to be glimpsed momentarily as you sped past on the freeway. Think Los Angeles.

This has led to perfume bottle cities like Dubai, every building built to impress. They are places that look fantastic from the perspective of a helicopter. But they look rubbish from eye-level. Moreover, they aren't good for people. The cities we are building right now are making people ill. We build out, fostering social isolation and financial hardship. And we build up, when taller buildings inhibit fresh air, exercise and meeting other people. They are, in short, bad for your health.

"In the Western world, we created this way of life, and we're now learning that there are huge problems connected with it," says Dalsgaard. "A lot of Western cities look towards Copenhagen and ask 'Why is it that 37 percent of people bike, why is it that you have this wonderful public domain and public life, can we get some of that?' And at the same time we have countries like China, which are developing so fast and copying a way of life which isn't sustainable, both on a human level and environmentally. Then we have the third world, represented by Dhaka — 3 billion people worldwide knocking on the door, about to make the same mistakes."

The Human Scale is asking us to consider the ways a human-centred approach to urban planning, design and architecture could address these issues. "There are so many things we struggle with in human society," says Dalsgaard. "We have obesity, we have diabetes, we have depression and anxiety, and a lot of these things are connected with how we live."

How to Reclaim Cities for People

The central figure of The Human Scale is Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and urban designer who has inspired something of an international movement in urban planning. In the 1960s, Gehl began mapping pedestrian behaviour in Copenhagen. What he saw was that if you make more public space, there will be more public life.

The best example of Gehl's vision is Copenhagen. The streets are for people, not cars. Small bars and cafes proliferate, public life thrives, and bicycles and walkers control the pace of life. These measures are more sustainable, not only financially but also environmentally and psychologically. People are healthier, they interact with each other, and they feel a sense of ownership over their own city.

"It is so cheap to be sweet to people in city planning," explains Gehl. Because one of the central points of The Human Scale is that the way we are developing now — more cars, more high rise buildings, more energy consumption — is more expensive and dangerous than we can perhaps conceive of. Gehl's approach instead recognises that we can't halt the pace of growth. We have to look at what we have and consider how we do more with less.

The Human Scale shows how Gehl's ideas have been adapted successfully in New York and Melbourne. One of the loveliest moments of the documentary is a scene showing a spontaneous snowball fight which broke out in New York's Times Square after it had been pedestrianised according to Gehl's recommendations. It demonstrates a wildness and passion which can only emerge in a city if you have a critical mass of people reclaiming public space.

But these changes clash with the short-term interests of industry. "It's a constant struggle," notes Dalsgaard, "and the only way you can struggle is through the public domain. Citizens need to raise their voices saying 'we want this', or 'we don't want this.' If you don't have people doing that, then the poor measure of profit that huge high-rise developments make, they will prevail. And it's not that I'm against profit, I just believe in smart profit and long-term profit. And we have to find ways to fight for that."

Why does this matter in Australia?

In 2007, The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, commissioned Jan Gehl to create a plan to put life back into Sydney. It aimed to create more public spaces; to encourage small businesses, bars and cafes; to create a vibrant night-time economy; and to introduce cycleways and pedestrianise areas of the CBD, as had been done in Melbourne decades before.

"Melbourne understood this thirty years ago," says Dalsgaard. "And that has meant that Melbourne today is a very attractive city, which has out-competed Sydney in many ways."

Some of Gehl's proposals have worked in Sydney — it's seen an explosion in small bars due to reformed licensing laws, and events like Vivid encourage people into the streets. But peak industry groups sit at odds with public interest. We see this in the development of Central Park at Broadway, with the looming high-rises gradually blocking out the sunlight. And we see it in the proposed development of Barangaroo, where prime waterfront land which could be used as public space is likely to become Sydney's second casino.

When asked about this conflict, Dalsgaard points to the success of Copenhagen's Meatpacking District, a former industrial section of the city (much like Barangaroo), which could have generated a vast amount of money for the government. But instead of selling off the district to developers, Copenhagen decided to keep the Meatpacking District as a place with low rents to encourage creative communities. This has transformed the Meatpacking Distract into the most exciting and innovative part of Copenhagen. "The thing about industry," notes Dalsgaard, "is that it's profit driven, but we have very poor measurements when it comes to long-term profit. It's a huge short-term cost for Copenhagen to decide to do that. But because there's this creative hub, people all over the world now are talking about the Meatpacking District. How do you measure that value?"

What The Human Scale demonstrates is that it's dangerous to build just because you can. It shows that governments, industry bodies and architects the world over need to stop creating cities like a self-important child sat at a table with a Lego set, looking down from above. What matters is making cities good for people, making sure they are places that keep us healthy and happy, and which we want to wander, rest and linger in.

The Human Scale is screening at ACMI from June 14 to July 4. The Sydney Film Festival continues until June 16.

Published on June 11, 2013 by Madeleine Watts
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