Friday, January 24, 2014

The Human Scale - Thoughts from a 5 year old

262/365 Night cycle

Last night I and 1,100 others packed into the Hackney Empire to watch a screening of The Human Scale - a film by Andreas M. Dalsgaard about how cities work. It focusses around the work of Danish architect and professor Jan Gehl who has studied human behaviour in cities through 40 years. He has written several books on how modern cities work against human interaction and intimacy, and argues convincingly that we can build cities to take human needs on board. The gist of the film is that when we plan on a human scale, rather than on a scale for buildings or cars we improve our cities and that it's actually cheaper to plan for humans than cars. The film covers case studies from various cities around the world, looking at mistakes that have been made, and in some cases how they are being corrected.

It was an absolutely fascinating film, and inspiring as to how cities can be changed to work for people not cars. We then had a panel discussion, which was a little less so! It was chaired by Dave Hill from the Guardian, who made a good job of getting questions from all levels, including our own up in the Gods. All of the participants, including Gehl himself unfortunately, seemed to fall into the trap of believing some of the nonsense we've heard spouted recently that London's streets are too narrow to adapt for cycling for example. This is of course only the case if you continue, as TfL seem to be doing, to prioritise the movement of cars and motor traffic over the movement of people.

The other thing Gehl picked up on, which is spot on, is the difficulty that the Mayor of London has compared with, say, the Mayor of New York, that he basically has next to no powers to make the 32 boroughs and the City of London actually do anything. This means that for change to happen we are dependent on people in the boroughs being forward thinking and open to making brave changes. I think it's fair to say on that that some boroughs are braver than others. You can see an example of this in the allocations of money for cycling recently granted to boroughs, based on their own bids for cash. The disparities in funding show the disparities in ambition. Of course Boris himself spouts grand aims about cycling and so on, and then in the next breath backs ridiculous road building schemes that forget that people actually live and go about their daily lives right next to the pollution spewing out of these monstrosities. And Lewisham council's lack of ambition for a cleaner healthier borough shows in their unwillingness to back a 20mph speed limit on the borough's roads, despite all the evidence of the benefits this would bring. (To give them their due though at least they see a bit more sense than their neighbours on daft ideas about expanding roads!)

But why 'thoughts from a 5 year old'? Well, this morning I was chatting to my daughter as we walked to school and she was asking about the film I'd been to see the night before. "Oh, you won't be interested in that," I said. But she continued to press for explanations, so I told her what it was about. "I am interested!" she exclaimed, putting me firmly in my place. So I asked her what three things she would do to improve Catford. These are her ideas:

1. Empty the bins and take them off the streets when they're empty so they don't smell

2. Put up signs everywhere saying "Welcome to Catford"

3. Plant more trees on the streets to get rid of the air pollution.

Add to that getting rid of a few more of the cars and I think we have the start of a plan.

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