There is an urban revolution coming, and we need to be ready. Actually, it’s already here. 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that will rise to 80% by 2050. The math is grand enough that it evokes the Industrial Revolution, or even the Neolithic Revolution. This is big stuff, and some of us are more prepared than others. The failures of American urban planning in the 20th century are well documented, even if the lesson hasn’t been learned by the world. Obsessing over cars was a stupid idea, suburbs were worse, and our attempts at public housing often went badly (see 2011’s excellent doc on the subject, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth).
But Danish filmmaker Andreas Dalsgaard is interested in more than simply documenting the failures of the past. His new film, The Human Scale, is a widely scoped adventure through a whole world of urban development. It’s structured like an essay, and fits five chapters into its brief 83-minute running time. Yet, unlike other rigorously formed documentaries, it does not plod. If anything, this format only increases the whirlwind character of the film, which bounces across continents with ease. Dalsgaard studies six cities in particular: Copenhagen, Chongqing, New York City, Melbourne, Dhaka and Christchurch.
On the surface, therefore, The Human Scale has an awful lot in common with Gary Hustwit’s Urbanized. There’s no real way around this. Both Hustwit and Dalsgaard built very international, conceptual films that dive into the importance of urban design. Yet while many documentary subjects are burdened by redundancy, these two elevate each other. Simply put, this is because there are an awful lot of cities. Urbanized looks at transportation in Bogotá, for example, while The Human Scale focuses on Dhaka (Dalsgaard himself previously made a film in Bogotá, which you can watch here). A starker contrast might be Urbanized’s chronicle of the fight over a new train station in Stuttgart and The Human Scale’s look into the crowdsourcing of Christchurch’s city-center after an earthquake. Even within New York City, the two films pick unique and somewhat opposite forms of public space creation.
Moreover, The Human Scale brings something new to the table. The starting point is the Danish academic Jan Gehl, founder of an internationally renowned architecture firm. His writings on the importance of public spaces are so significant that activists in Dhaka are actually translating them into Bengali as part of their program. Dalsgaard follows his ideas and his acolytes around the world, an important theoretical and narrative thread that ties the film together. This is a gamble, of course. At times it feels like an advertisement for Gehl Architects, particularly in the Christchurch chapter. The choice to open each chapter with a quote from the eminent urban planner is a bit much, too.
On the whole, though, Dalsgaard manages to keep a certain distance from Gehl’s stature and the influence of his firm. Urban planners in Australia and China also share their ideas at length, and the most inspiring testimony of the film is given by the activists in Bangladesh. There is a sense of excitement throughout, though tempered by the acknowledgement that certain longstanding will be hard to overcome. The dominance of the automobile, still haunting New York City via the ghost of Robert Moses, has reared its ugly head in both Chongqing and Dhaka. Yet the film also glimmers with a recognition of opportunity, that the next few decades will be a grand chance for the world’s cities to finally get everything right and build truly human environments.
For all of this to work, of course, Dalsgaard has to capture the rhythm of a wide variety of places. A series of skylines and flyover shots for each city wouldn’t cut it. The strength of The Human Scale is its dedication to portraying each individual city on its own terms. The film has five credited cinematographers, another gamble that turned out wonderfully. Melbourne’s pedestrian success comes through just as clearly as Dhaka’s mad traffic disaster. The transitions between cities are stylish and efficient, hyperlinking without compressing too much. Dalsgaard has made a tight, compelling and well-designed film about design. That’s harder to pull off than one might think.
The Human Scale is now playing in New York City and opens in Los Angeles and Santa Fe on November 1st, and in Toronto on November 8th. For more info and playdates see the film’s official website here.