Placemaking and the Human Scale City

January 18, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

The term “human scale” has shown up a few times in our hometown news over the past several months, as a coalition called New Yorkers for a Human Scale City has organized to fight Mayor DeBlasio’s sweeping zoning changes (among other things). The group calls for “an end to the violence that real estate developers have inflicted on our skyline, parks, public areas, and cityscape with the proliferation of dramatically over-scaled buildings that ignore the historic context of our city.”

With counterparts in major cities around the globe, these human scale advocates share a common concern about the impacts of unrestricted development on our neighborhoods. Project for Public Spaces is active in this international discussion, but rather than directly protesting developers or luxury housing or zoning changes, we frame the conversation differently – everyone has the right to live in a human scale city, and one way to achieve this is through placemaking.

Defining the human scale

In its simplest definition, creating a human scale environment means making sure that the objects that we interact with every day are of a size and shape that is reasonable for an average person to use. That’s why our stairs have a 7 inch rise and an 11 inch run, for example, and why our doorways are 80 inches. (Of course, the fact that building for the “average” person does not guarantee universal “accessibility” is an important, but separate, issue).

But this doesn’t cover all of the ways people interact with a city. Often, we use the term “human scale” to distinguish between those accessing the city on foot and those viewing it through a car window. Although both involve people, we use human scale to refer to pedestrians, which leads to a companion term: automotive scale. This is a relatively recent invention, first cropping up in LA during the 1920s to describe a new development along Wilshire Boulevard, now better known as “Miracle Mile.” Developer A.W. Ross explicitly designed its storefronts to be viewed at 30mph, creating in the process an entirely different experience of the city and its streets. While these commercial/automobile strips are now ubiquitous in the U.S. and abroad, nearly a century ago they were a revolutionary development.

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The Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, an early example of the “automotive scale” | Image from the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries

Human scale also can refer to how people perceive a city. We have known for a long time that architecture affects emotions, and vice versa (for a primer on this, check out Happy City or The Architecture of Happiness). And studies have shown that boring megastructures stress people out (we use the term “Architecture of Place” to describe the sort of buildings that do the opposite). An entire academic discipline, Environmental Psychology, is dedicated to exploring the interactions between humans and their physical surroundings. Long before it was an area of study, dictators took advantage of the impact architecture can have on the mind. By creating architecture at a monumental scale, rather than a human one, they inspired fear and awe in their citizens.

The architecture of fascism, especially Nazism, took this logic to its most extreme, enshrining National Socialism in the buildings of German cities to create what has been called an “Architecture of Doom.” In the words of author Deyan Sudjic, “Hitler used architecture to define and make possible his idea of what a totalitarian state should be… the individual counted for less than nothing.” By destroying the individual scale of a city, the tyrant believed he could usher in a new age. His vision received praise from some of the era’s architects, notably Le Corbusier, who once wrote “Hitler can crown his life with a great work: the planned layout of Europe.” While fascism went out of fashion after World War II, the style of architecture did not, and now you can see that type of monumental building in cities around the world, from massive civic plazas (see Boston, Albany, Tiananmen Square) to skyscrapers that dominate entire city blocks (see Midtown NYC, boring financial districts everywhere).

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A modern attempt to create buildings to a monumental scale at Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY | Photo: PPS

If the human scale is about perception, then we cannot apply a single objective definition; each person views the world from a different angle. That means the human scale in any given community depends upon what that community perceives as human scale. In some neighborhoods, 20-story buildings would be a horrible monstrosity, but along Manhattan’s Broadway they create a beautiful and functional street. Nothing is inherently beyond a human scale. However, in practice, massive towers, blank walls taking up entire city blocks, and parking lots don’t come out of a placemaking process. What does emerge are places with different things to do, local stores, public spaces, and walkable streets. They tend to embody the principles outlined in our guide to creating Streets as Places.

So if the human scale of any given environment is defined by its community, then the outcome of placemaking is a human scale city. We usually define placemaking as a community-led process, but another way to say this is that it is human-led. That is, change is driven by a group of individual human beings with names and connections to their physical surroundings built environment, not solely by trends in the real estate market, zoning laws, or large city agencies. And, as we always need to keep in mind, placemaking is a process, not an outcome.

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A human scale on 7th Street SE in Washington, DC | James Calder via Flickr

Creating a human scale through placemaking

In many cities, the main obstacle to developing at a human scale are municipal departments and the real estate developers who exercise an undue influence on those government officials. Planning departments look to make city-wide changes in zoning instead of neighborhood specific ones, resulting in controversies like the ongoing saga in New York City. If placemaking is embedded in the planning process instead of treated as an auxiliary feature, the result will be a human scale city. Shifting power to those who live in and use an environment means that changes in the space can be welcome and contextual, rather than forced.

“When it comes to urban planning, we need to do a better job of listening to existing communities, engaging residents, and considering the long term impact of rezoning on the people who have lived in our neighborhoods most, if not all, of their lives. Once a developer’s shovel hits the ground, the die has been cast for generations. We have to do this right. NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, in a press release opposing Mayor DeBlasio’s affordable housing plan.

This is a personal issue for all of us on the PPS team. In addition to the many neighborhoods around New York City that we are attached to, we’ve witnessed firsthand the impact poorly-done development can have. Our office is right down the road from Astor Place, home to two new shiny, awful, buildings that have dominated the street level and destroyed the human scale of the area even as the city planned a much-needed pedestrian space. It’s a missed opportunity, and it will be a few lifetimes until there is a chance to fix the mistake of this generation.

We don’t like to define ourselves by what we are against. We aren’t against skyscrapers, development, luxury housing, or cars. We are for places. But in practice, that means that we do oppose projects that destroy or prevent the creation of quality spaces, and we challenge sweeping reforms that do not acknowledge or accommodate local contexts. There is no one human scale, but by engaging in a placemaking process, we can find the scale that works for every community.

Tags: building resilient communities, Placemaking