Especially for the urban dweller, the car is mostly a trap, a tremendous expense, and, as a pedestrian, a danger—no doubt that’s why most car ads feature empty roads. For years, the needs of the automobile ensnared traffic engineers, who widened roads only to invite yet more traffic, and who disregarded the needs of pedestrians and neighborhoods. With an ominous if stylish approach that often belies its upbeat moments, The Human Scale examines several cities worldwide that are grappling with the perverse effect the automobile has had on urban planning, including Asian cities poised to replicate mistakes made in Western ones, sometimes thanks to misguided aid.
The documentary notes that half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that by 2050 this number will have risen to 80 percent (of 10 billion people). Subdued narration and bleak violins interfere with the documentary’s core message: that happiness is possible in cities as long as they physically function for the human beings in them. The film sidesteps weighty issues like water, energy, and housing supplies, and doesn’t properly acknowledge that its principal subject is really the firm of pioneering urban researcher and architect Jan Gehl, whose work has helped reverse the car-centric debacle perpetrated by the likes of Robert Moses in the 1960s.
The Human Scale lacks both the punch needed to appeal to the layperson and the deep wonkiness to gain the attention of true geeks of the built environment.