The Human Scale, screening at the Architecture & Design Film Festival on October 16.

The theme of this year’s Architecture & Design Film Festival, running in New York October 16-20, is urbanism—a subject that never seems to go out of style, especially with non-fiction filmmakers. The scale of city life, the rituals, struggles, triumphs, and failures, create innumerable stories (eight million in New York City alone) so monumental that they must be captured; so fleeting that only the immediacy of film can do them justice.

But documenting the evolution of urban spaces and humanity’s place in them is particularly urgent at this moment of record (and, in some place, dangerously unsustainable) urban migration. Everything is under reconsideration—from how we live in cities to how they’re planned—and this year’s ADFF presents a cross section of the debates raging both on screen and in the streets.

Director Andreas Dalsgaard’s The Human Scale opens the festival on Wednesday, October 16th (watch a trailer above). The film in part profiles the career of Danish architect Jan Gehl, who transformed Copenhagen over the course of 40 years with his studies of human interaction with the city. His findings led to a fundamental shift from a culture of automobile worship to one that celebrated the health, safety, and interests of people. But the primary concern of The Human Scale is how the Copenhagen experiment has carried around the world, from New York’s big-time buy-in (more than 300 miles of bike lanes, public plazas in traditional car centers like Times Square) to a massive rebuilding project in Christchurch to the underground translation of Gehl’s work in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The Human Scale is an impressive film, one that sets the tone for the rest of the festival by posing big questions: Can cities meet the needs of the people living in them? What is the place of cars (and suburbs, for that matter) in a megacity world? How complicit is Modernism in urban decay? How do we preserve the past without sacrificing the future?

Many of the 24 other films on the festival lineup, organized in 15 total programs, take up the debate. Away From All Suns! is a reverential, mournful ode to Modernism that celebrates three Utopian buildings in Moscow under perpetual threat from redevelopment. But equally important to the film are the people who live in these structures and struggle to protect their homes and heritage against the city’s seemingly insatiable desire for destruction. The 26-minute Fagus – Walter Gropius and the Factory for Modernity also celebrates Modernism, this time blissfully, by profiling the Fagus shoe-last factory in Alfeld on the Leine, Germany. Meanwhile, the 1988 film Social Life of Small Urban Spaces—an influential work on architects and documentarians alike that examines how people interact with cities—gets a repertory screening and feels as necessary and urgent today as it did 25 years ago.

Filmmakers, architects, and designers will also be on hand to engage directly with viewers in discussions about urbanism and the legacy of Modernism. But if isms aren’t your thing, there are other films worth your attention, from works on the careers of notable architects (Tadao Ando – From Emptiness to Infinity, The Vision of Paolo Soleri: Prophet of the Desert) to deep-dives into iconic buildings (Sagrada – The Mystery of Creation, The Oyler House: Richard Neutra’s Desert Retreat).

What sets the ADFF apart from other festivals is its dedication to the conversation—between the viewer and filmmaker, issues and experience, theory and practice. But this year’s lineup of films, panels, and programs, framed around vital urban issues, feels especially compelling—and essential.

Click here for the complete schedule of ADFF films, screenings, and discussions.