The Human Scale

Since beginning his work during the early 1960's, Danish architect and founding partner of Gehl Architects, Jahn Gehl has long been regarded as a person that appreciates the human element within the public realm of our cities. Gehl, along with his wife, often documented these human behaviours and interactions in order to gain a real world understanding of human interaction.  This appreciation has lead to Gehl penning many books and receiving world-wide recognition for his work which highlights the longstanding notion of building cities using strict, linear urban principles which were particularly utilised during the modernist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Gehl goes further to assert this notion is in fact not conducive with the way people, and more importantly, communities work successfully.  

Following on from Gehl's 2010 book Cities for People, a documentary titled The Human Scale was filmed and released in November 2012.  According to the film's synopsis, the documentary questions our assumptions of modernity and explores what happens when we put people in the centre of our equations. Along with statistics, Gehl also measured human activity in many different ways such as asking questions like, "How many people passed this street in a 24 hour period?", "What percentage of these are pedestrians?" and "Is this street performing well for all its users?".  These are valid questions that aid in gaining an understanding of how, when and why people use a space and the connectivity with the spirit of place.

The Human Scale is summarised quite succinctly by musician David Byrne on the documentary's website; "The doc is wonderful... The film is largely about the very encouraging (for me) reaction to our present situation. To think about encouraging happy accidents. To create common spaces. To find less disruptive ways of getting around. To bring us back together".

Humans throughout the course of our history have consistently congregated in groups and worked together to achieve goals, however as a consequence of the relatively new paradigm of modernisation, people are increasingly living a more solitary existence which in turn can have side effects. The Human Scale delves into the reasons why this is the case, and how the western notion of building cities around cars which primarily used a simplistic and academic formula where, for example, roads for cars go here, houses and shops for people go there and parks go over here was normal practice.  One over-riding theme that resonates after watching The Human Scale are the similarities of the challenges that each city is and will face growing into the future, and how city planners have realised that building cities for cars has not been a successful urban model. 

Jan Gehl postulated that "city planning has been going on for a number of years with a rather incomplete toolbox". It is estimated at 80% of the world's population driven by the chance of a better life will be living in urban areas by 2050, therefore completing the city building toolbox and building cities for people should be an absolute priority.  With the use of Gehl's baseline urban data information, city planners now have a starting point and the tools to set realistic and sustainable planning goals. Based on the evidence we have now, where we are seeing ever increasing urbanisation leading to ever increasing stress on essential services and human well-being, there is a strong case now that we need to make a change in our urban growth approach.

So how is this relevant to us?

Melbourne has been famously transformed with the help of Gehl Architects in association with the City of Melbourne from a dying city in the 1980's where economic growth was non existent and people stayed well clear of the central business district after 6pm, to a city that today is widely regarded as one of the world's most liveable. This transformation was certainly no accident and the strategy revolved around accommodating the needs of the people. Those that grew up in Melbourne in the 1980s and 1990s, myself included, can attest to how much better Melbourne is these days compared to 25 years ago.  In saying this, Melbourne is by no means a poster child for good urban design. This city faces some major infrastructure challenges heading into the future such as the construction of the Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel, a potential Airport Link and accommodating our growing population in areas abundant with amenity and services whilst minimising construction of more roads and limiting suburban sprawl.

It can be reasonably asserted that if we continue on current trends with heavy focus given to building our cities with cars as the centerpiece for growth, then society will eventually suffer a slow paralysis over a long period of time as our population expands. The future of our urban environment is not something we should be afraid of, in fact we should be excited at the possibilities and opportunities that lie before us. These opportunities lie in optimising our land use in the form of medium to high density living and multi mode transportation offerings where appropriate, as they are the most sustainable means by which to grow and efficiently connect our cities into the future.  There is no doubt that we are at a cross roads in Melbourne's urban development and the options are there right in front of us. The only question that exists now is, do we take the blue pill of the people or the red pill of the automobile?


Chris Saunders's picture

Nice article. I didn't catch the doco while it was playing at ACMI, and I'm not sure if its on anywhere else right now in Melbourne? It sounds like something that SBS would possibly pick up at some stage hopefully. I like Gehl's phrase 'Bird Sh*t Architecture' a lot!

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Chris Peska's picture

Thanks mate. Yeah I think it may be part of MIFF? But I haven't checked. I am trying to get a copy of the DVD. Gehl has some good one liners! :-)

Observe. Design. Build. Live.

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