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Christian MilNeil

Christian MilNeil is an online producer for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. He lives in Portland, where you might see him running errands on his bike no matter how cold it is.

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Posted: March 12, 2014

‘The Human Scale’ screens at Space Gallery on March 12

Written by: Christian MilNeil

Billions of people worldwide are moving into cities in order to have access to better economic and cultural opportunities. But from Scarborough, Maine to Dhaka, Bangladesh, the sprawling neighborhoods being built to accommodate humanity’s urban migration seem like they’re being designed not for the health and well-being of humans, but for the convenience of our automobiles.

“The Human Scale,” a documentary being shown at Space Gallery on March 12, laments modern cities for forcing each of us to waste thousands of hours stuck in traffic and burning gasoline, instead of enjoying the company of our friends, family, and neighbors. The movie’s main protagonist, the Danish architect Jan Gehl, says that “we know much more about good habitat for mountain gorillas or Siberian tigers than we know about good urban habitat for homo sapiens.”

If they can make it there, they’ll make it anywhere: the conversion of Times Square from a busy crossroads for cars to a pedestrianized plaza is one of the film’s featured success stories. Photo courtesy of the New York City Department of Transportation.

Gehl and his associates are in the business of figuring out what good urban habitat should be. They travel around the world to create bits of well-designed, welcoming streets and public spaces amidst rapidly growing megacities, like Chongqing, China, where they walk around on foot and talk about the number of benches in a small public garden, or how a particular crosswalk is painted.

The film’s talking heads can sometimes drone on about bureaucratic urban planning intrigues, but fortunately, the movie heeds its own advice by staying mostly focused on the human residents of the cities it visits, and their hopes for the future. The cinematography offers an engaging parade of street-level views of people and landscapes from various world cities. It’s like a 70-minute trip around some of the world’s best people-watching spots.

The screening at Space Gallery is being co-presented with the Portland Society of Architects, and viewers will probably be thinking about how the film’s ideas might apply here in our own city, where several high-profile urban design debates have been handed off for lawyers to decide.

Portland is no Chongqing, but we, too, are struggling to accommodate a significant surge of migrants — young artists, refugee families, job hunters, retired empty-nesters — who are all seeking a better life here.

Depending on whom you ask, this is either potential human habitat for a growing city with a housing shortage, or a serious threat to Portland’s livability. Press Herald staff illustration

In the abstract, most can agree that Portland should make room for more housing, more arts venues, and more car-free families. Yet every proposal to change the city’s skyline brings howls of protest from people who insist that we actually need more space for cars, or that new apartment buildings can’t be allowed to infringe on the ocean views of wealthy neighbors.

Unfortunately, “The Human Scale” doesn’t offer much insight on how to deal with such conflicts, and that underlies the film’s most serious shortcoming.

Sidewalk cafes and chess games in the park make for a charming urban habitat for the well-off, but millions of city-dwellers (including hundreds of Portlanders) need basic housing a lot more urgently than they need an al fresco cappuccino.

Rather like the highway builders who callously bulldozed inner-city neighborhoods a generation ago, the architects featured in this movie (and the documentary filmmakers who are celebrating them) don’t actually seem to have much in common with the humans they want to help. Their designs and values might be more populist, but these planners still come across as somewhat out of touch, and very privileged.

This is unfortunate, because Portland should work harder to create better-designed streets and public spaces. But this film, with this perspective, is unlikely to change anyone’s mind – much less settle any debates – about how our own city should grow.

The Human Scale Trailer 2013 from Final Cut for Real on Vimeo.

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