Hot Docs 2013: The Human Scale

The-Human-Scale-Documentary-Poster

If you build it, they will come…outside.

The Human Scale focuses on urban planning and architecture and how that affects the way human beings interact. It’s an important film because it is estimated that by 2050, 80% of the world’s population will live in cities. How those cities are designed, and how they should be designed, to accommodate this massive influx of people, is the discussion of the film.

Historically, the Western cityscape was designed for cars and traffic. Planning was measured on how fast an individual could get around the city in a car, and how bad traffic was. This was the measure of a “good” or “bad” city – if traffic was horrible, it was bad. Otherwise, it was good. The problem with this type of planning is that it doesn’t take into account (1) the people who don’t have/can’t afford cars and (2) how people interact with the environment. One of the most telling examples of the film is when an architect describes how the perfect roads are built to maintain a 60km/hr speed for cars. Contrast this with the average walking speed of a human being at 5km/hr and you can see the disconnect. Cities built for vehicles, but not people.

This car-centric design has had side-effects. People in cities are more likely to stay indoors once they get home. We don’t really know our neighbours. The length of time it takes to get from one place to the next reinforces our isolation. Designing a city is an incredible and fascinating task.

The majority of the film details some of the small things that people want from their cities (the architects conducted city-wide surveys, like in New York City where there were over half a million responses that researchers sifted through and codified). What do people want? Public spaces, more places to sit, pedestrian-only streets, bike lanes, etc. These are all relatively little, simple, and inexpensive (especially in contrast to building another highway) changes.

What’s great about this film is there is no single answer to the problem. Creating public spaces isn’t going to magically fix everything (or even anything). The best line comes near the close of the film when one architect describes what they’re doing as making “invitations.” Having a pedestrian walkway, or more areas to sit does not mean that people will actually take advantage of them – all the designers can do is make the spaces more “inviting” to do so. I really like this analysis. It means that while these are great ideas, their success depends on other people accepting them.

Grade: A

Sidenote: The one truth that emerges from the film is that building more roads will not decrease traffic – rather, it will increase it. The simple calculation seems to be that if there are more roads connecting a city, individuals will choose to live further from it and purchase a vehicle to get to the city. And because there are more roads, there is less space for bike traffic and walking to a destination could take an interminable amount of time, so less people use these alternative methods.

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