Hot Docs – The Human Scale

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Before moving on to films I’ve seen in the past couple of days, I should briefly mention a second I saw on my first day here.

The Human Scale is a Danish documentary about cities that offers a now familiar argument that the desirable city is one built on a specific scale, both in terms of footprint and in height. Beautifully shot, the film began rather conventionally. So conventionally that I thought I had seen it, or some ever so slight variation thereof before. It was divided into five sections each focusing on a different city and the sections on Copenhagen, NYC, and Chongqinq were all interesting and illuminating, but familiar. That said, the film takes the work of Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl as its focus, structuring it’s analysis of cities around his work on urban scale and city life. He is influential and the film follows his associates and students as the work worldwide. Thus, even while the stories from familiar places were familiar, the documentary communicated the importance of Gehl’s work on scale to contemporary thinking about architecture and planning.

The sections of the film on Dhaka and Christchurch were more interesting and the film ended strongly on the basis of these investigations. Dhaka, the fastest growing city in the world, seems a key inclusion, not least with tragic events in the news recently linked explicitly to building, space, and labour. The final part of the documentary on Christchurch was particularly compelling. I knew the city had suffered the tremendous earthquake but hadn’t realized the scale of the destruction. With a substantial portion of the city centre either destroyed or structurally compromised, Christchurch has a incredible opportunity to rethink and redesign the city and, to the credit of local government, seemed to consult the people in the process of imagining the new Christchurch. the problems of course arrived when the corporations arrived and wanted buildings of more than seven stories and when the federal government intervened to placate these corporations and wanted to overturn several of the key design features that had been decided upon through the collective process. The people fought back and some compromises made, but it was very much a lesson in how the shape of cities isn’t determined by our collective will, even in circumstances that would seem to invite it, but by corporate intervention and governmental cowardice.

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