The Human Scale

What is the basic unit that cities are developed for?

Is it people? or is it cars?

This is one of the central questions posed in a movie that I recently got to go and see called ‘The Human Scale’. The concept is fairly straightforward. The movie goes over how in the 50s and 60s there was this idea that those blockish apartment blocks, combined with separation of areas for work, leisure and housing was the way forward. But in order to make this work you needed efficient transport between these areas.

Big roads and freeways became the driving force in the design of cities and since we know that bigger roads attract more cars which in turn necessitates bigger roads people began finding themselves coming in second to cars. “There is no square in time’s square, 89% of it is given to road” exclaimed an amused looking American planner.

Jan Gehl suggested that we never questioned what people wanted and we never measured people flow, just traffic flow which resulted in cars driving design. He developed a toolkit to assess and design cities that were for people rather than cars and has had some amazing success.

Check this trailer:

It was great to think about how do you design spaces for people and the importance of thinking about what those people need to be part of the city. It went through Bangladesh and America, where Times Square was at least partially returned to the people and also Melbourne where they talked about the seemingly never ending urban sprawl being so massively destructive. They talked about the natural human speed, 5km per hour, and what moving at that speed means. They talked about the fact that we like to feel near to other people which in Melbourne has been capitilised on by the use of our laneways (which was prompted by Jan Gehl) that got people out eating, drinking and living in our city once again.

Most frighteningly though it talked about the need for people to stand up for good design. The movie showed Christchurch (NZ) which has been decimated by earthquakes to the point where the city centre (the red zone) will have to be all but completely demolished. It told the story of a massive campaign to not only bring it back to what it was but make it better that involved over 100,000 people saying what they wanted. What did they want? Space for bikes, space to sit and play, flowers and gardens and building that were no more than 6 stories high so that they could see the Cathedral spire from anywhere. It turns out that 6 stories is also a turning point, where people are not so disconnected from the street that they wont bother to come down from there space to inhabit it. Any higher is also far more expensive which means that to get a return you need to build much higher.

It was summed up quite well by one planner who said something along the lines of ‘we can let business build what they want and this will bring a massive economic short term economic boost to the area, or we can build a city that will support the lives of the people for the next 100 years’.

It’s slightly scary that the end of this story was that the central government had taken over the planning of the city from the local government and ignored most of the regulations that the local people had demanded. It didn’t have an entirely unhappy ending with the central government eventually giving in to local pressure to compromise on some things like building heights, but for me it really brought back the need for the people who inhabit the city to take action to make sure that they determine how the city develops.