Visions of the city of the future
Danish architect Jan Gehl's ideas call for more public spaces
Posted: September 11, 2013
Jan Gehl returns to Italy, where his urban planning research started.
Cities developed haphazardly. Sometimes there was a sort of a plan for a grid, as can be found in Washington D.C., most of Manhattan and a few other cities. Older cities, such as Prague, have streets that run any which way. Newer sections of those cities might make a bit more sense for people driving cars, as urban planning in the last century was mostly focused on vehicle traffic, ring roads and urban expressways,
But that is changing. The documentary The Human Scale looks at policies that are meant to take the cities away from cars and return them to people. Most of the ideas put forth in the film come from Jan Gehl, a Danish architect who for four decades has pioneered the idea of urban car-free zones. The film points out that currently 50 percent of people worldwide live in cities but that will rise to 80 percent by 2050. So making cities livable should become a priority for city administrators.
Gehl began his research in Siena, Italy, in 1965. He kept notes on where people went by foot, whether they relaxed in the sun or the shade and how they interacted in public squares, Towns in Italy at the time has a reputation for being pleasant places to live, compared to the rest of Europe. While town centers like the one in Siena served to make people happy, the new suburbs were planned to make cars happy, he says. This was the genesis of his research and is ideas for urban planning. His ideas slowly were adopted in Copenhagen, and now are starting to spread worldwide.
The film looks at some of the other places where his notions have started to take root, from New York, where part of Times Square has been shut down to cars and opened to people, to cities that are being built up now in China, and to other cities that re-evaluating the balance between cars and people.
Written and directed by: Andreas M. Dalsgaard
Cast: Jan Gehl, Jiangyan Wang, Janet Sadik-Khan, Helle Søholt, Rob Adams, David Sim
This opening up of public spaces does more than just make it safer to cross the street, the experts in the film claim. It opens the possibility of social interaction across different layers of society. Some streets in Copenhagen, for example, are closed from one week in the summer to allow for a big music festival that attracts 100,000 people a day from all sorts of backgrounds and puts them together in a common space, which the experts claim is beneficial to urban life.
Another city that figures into the film is Christchurch, New Zealand, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2011. Experts in the film discuss ways for rebuilding the city with a different, more human focus. Dhaka, Bangladesh, also gets covered, where planning so far has focused only on the rich, and left out the majority of people. This creates a road to chaos, according to the film.
People who appear in the film, aside from Gehl, include other architects, city officials and people from organizations that are trying to improve city life. One criticism of the film is that it ignores other ideas for cities aside from reducing car traffic. But the film doesn't claim to be a comprehensive overview, just a starting point for a discussion.
The Human Scale is playing in limited screenings at kino Světozor starting Sept. 12 and other art cinemas accross the country. It is also available for streaming in video on demand on Aerovod.cz.
Raymond Johnston can be reached at
Tags: urban planning, Jan Gehl, Human Scale.