Film Festival: Behind a brave new city

By Peter Calder

Documentary assesses the impact of architect Jan Gehl's philosophy, writes Peter Calder.

Jan Gehl's foresight led to the transformation of Copenhagen.
Jan Gehl's foresight led to the transformation of Copenhagen.

Anyone working on - or even thinking about - Auckland's Unitary Plan should spare 83 minutes over the next week to take in one of the screenings of a Danish documentary at the film festival.

Its title, The Human Scale, makes plain its underlying idea: that cities are more than simply platforms on which economic development is constructed; they are places where people live. And they live to do more than work: they play, walk, meet, sit, flirt, laugh and contemplate.

The film's director, Andreas Dalsgaard, turned to film after studying social anthropology, which he says "introduced me to a way of thinking and looking at the world that I want to share with other people".

His first documentary, Afghan Muscles in 2007, was about bodybuilders in Afghanistan, but the idea for The Human Scale originated much closer to his Copenhagen home, in the work of the Danish architect Jan Gehl.

Gehl, now 76, is scarcely a household name in Copenhagen, though he should be, since his ideas contributed hugely to creating the attractive, people-friendly and supremely liveable city that Copenhagen is now. In 1962 he was instrumental in creating Stroget - the first street in Europe fully closed to cars, which has now extended to a pedestrian network of more than 100,000sq m.

Speaking from Copenhagen, Dalsgaard told me that Gehl, who this year won two supreme architectural awards in Denmark, was not always highly regarded by his peers.

"He never built anything. He was a scholar and taught people and wrote books but there are no grand buildings to his name. He was regarded as someone who was interested in people and that was considered very strange in a community of people who considered themselves artists. He regarded certain principles of urban design as more important than aesthetics."

Crucially, Gehl developed a way of statistically quantifying the human experience of city life, Dalsgaard says. "From very early on he sent his students into the street and measured public life. How many people moved through the street, where they stopped, what they did, how many people sat down on a bench and how long they sat for. It added up to a whole statistical picture and a map of how life correlated with physical changes.

"He did this year after year over the city and gradually the city government started using it. It had a huge impact on life in the city and people's behaviour."

The essence of good urban design, Dalsgaard says, is to "connect to people's emotions, to give them something to relate to".

"It's very difficult to relate to global warming and make changes in your own life. But in Copenhagen 37 per cent of people cycle every day. And when you ask them why, only 1 per cent of that 37 say it's because of the environment; 60 per cent say it's because it's the most convenient and fast way to get where I want to be.

"That's something you can relate to in your everyday life. If you make cycling fast and convenient and safe, people can relate to it as a human being saying what kind of life do I want."

The film is far from just a talking heads eulogy to Gehl, however. In visiting New York and Melbourne, it shows how intelligent, human-size planning has brought life back into cities. Barely 20 years ago, Melbourne's laneways were places to get mugged or buy drugs; now, lined with cafes and shops, they buzz with life. More soberingly, the film takes us to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and Chongqing in southwest China - cities choked by overpopulation, and official corruption and incompetence.

Headlong planned redevelopment is obliterating neighbourhoods where people once walked and talked and the implications are chilling for the quality of life in cities where commuting for two hours each way is routine.

"It was important for me to include Chongqing and Dhaka," says Dalsgaard, "because they show the extent of the challenges that we're facing."

A local connection is provided by coverage of the May 2011 visit of Gehl Architects partner David Sim to Christchurch, where there's nothing to see yet, but much to talk about. And talk Sim does, urgently, passionately and convincingly about cities as repositories of memory rather than collections of buildings.

"It's beautiful," says Dalsgaard, "that you can share an idea like in Christchurch. But it's awfully difficult to implement and you can see how many struggles there are between local government and national government." Given the challenges - in Chongqing or Christchurch - Dalsgaard admits to not being very hopeful about the future of the city - or rather the city of the future. "My main hope with this film is that people become aware that the way we talk about cities is not just a question of pollution and global warming or traffic flow.

"It is also a question of how it affects your life, your happiness and behaviour.

"I don't mind people driving cars, maybe they'll be electric in 20 years anyway. But they will still be spending four hours a day in their own car, not engaging with other people, wasting so much time out of their lives being bored.

"They'll be getting fat because they don't move and they'll be lonely because they don't engage with other people. There are other ways to organise your life and I think we are slowly becoming aware of that."

What: The Human Scale
When and where: Screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland, tomorrow Civic 1pm and Monday 10.45am; Lido Wednesday, 6pm; Bridgeway Sunday August 4, 6.15pm.
Info: www.nzff.co.nz

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