29 July 2014


The Hunan Scale poses important questions about the future of cities

The central thesis of Andreas Dalsgaard's documentary of the teachings of architect Jan Gehl, 'The Human Scale: In Five Chapters', is relatively straightforward. Early in the film Gehl offers us a simple truism behind what he considers to be the main problem faced by major cities across the globe:

'If you make more roads, you will have more traffic; if you have more space for people, you will have more public life'

By sacrificing the needs of people to the needs of cars, Gehl believes that we have made a fundamental error in structuring the modern city. Established cities such as New York City have provided the blueprint for new cities in rapidly developing countries such as China. Gehl argues that new cities are blindly copying the mistakes of the past, pushing out the vital human element in favour of traffic.

The reason for many of these mistakes comes down to a lack of basic research and understanding of how humans interact within cities, especially around those elements that support our happiness. Indeed, many cities are now attempting to reverse the dominance of the car, bringing people power back to the streets (including, somewhat surprisingly, Los Angeles - albeit for just one day a year).

It is interesting to note that one of the main examples of this shift towards a more human scale is Melbourne. For most of its history the city centre served the traditional function of providing an environment for commerce and trade during working hours. Little provision was made for out-of-hours activities; city workers quickly sought the refuge of the suburbs at the end of the working day. A concerted effort in the 1990s to adapt the intricate network of service lanes within the city grid for residential and entertainment purposes has resulted in a notable 'humanising' of a formerly functional space. The population of the grid has jumped from the low hundreds to tens of thousands over the past decade or two.

The flow on effects of this residential spike are clear. Although the debate over whether the city centre is an enjoyable place to live continues, there has been a definite expansion in the 'service infrastructure' (supermarkets, heath services, bars, restaurants) required to support both residents and users. This infrastructure has been accompanied by a notable shift in the nature and use of public space within the grid towards encouraging greater human interaction, exemplified by spaces such as Federation Square.

Despite the success of the laneways program, Melbourne's experience underlines many of the contradictions in attempting to return established cities to a more human scale. Despite the creation of a high-density residential area within the city grid, Melbourne's overall footprint continues to expand at an astonishing rate. Many of these newly established, low-density suburbs lack the basic elements required for a sustainable and human focussed city, including access to fast and efficient public transport and public space. Perhaps most telling is the continuing reliance by city planners on car infrastructure such as the proposed East West Link. Planned improvements to public transport over the same period, while welcome, are more modest in scale.

The real challenge is to somehow translate some of the lessons learned within the grid to the entire city. Achieving a human city on a monumental scale is undoubtedly difficult and, in some ways, contradictory. The only certainty is that an ever expanding road system will inevitably diminish the quality of life of all Melbourne's residents, especially those on the city's fringe.