Published in 1/2024 - The Heart of the City


Against the Human Scale

Tommy Lindgren

The key challenges of urban planning extend beyond the human scale, argues Tommy Lindgren.

In the 1950s, Philadelphia town planner Edmund Bacon had invited Architectural Forum journalist Jane Jacobs to see some of his urban design initiatives. The visit followed a precise choreography, with the pair first turning their attention to older parts of the city, where they witnessed the dense jumble of dilapidated houses and the people going about their lives amidst it all. They then made their way to a series of newly built housing estates where the everyday chaos had been replaced by order and calm. The visitors were impressed by the obvious quality of what they were seeing, but there was one aspect of these new developments that would continue to bother Jacobs after returning from the excursion. They were practically deserted with none of the people or the hubbub of the previous places they’d visited. Was this an urban planner’s blind spot: were the challenges the planners had set out to resolve ultimately the ones that really mattered? Was it possible that they had overlooked something essential about life in the city?

When we discuss city planning and design today, the liveliness of urban spaces and the qualities that promote it are front and centre in the discussion. Whether you are leafing through an architecture competition brief or casting your eye over an urban strategy document, you will struggle to find writing that does not contain words like “human-scale design” or “urban vitality”. Following the professional missteps of modernists and functionalists like Bacon, it is the living city that his colleagues now focus their planning and design efforts on. Ideas first put forward by Jacobs, journalist turned urbanologist, and her fellow pioneers like Donald Appleyard and William Whyte, are now mainstream. Today, it is Jan Gehl and his followers that most powerfully continue to espouse these urban placemaking principles.

Gehl has added his own significant contributions to the concepts and ideas developed in the 1960s: notably the concept of the human scale. He argues that it is people with their sensory perceptions that should be placed at the heart of all urban planning. And yet I would argue that the paradigm around the human scale has served to narrow our perspective, offering us only a partial view of what high quality urban environments and high-quality urban planning mean and obscuring the very things we should be focusing on.

The paradigm around the human scale has served to narrow our perspective.

The twelve quality criteria for public urban spaces and accompanying methodologies developed by Jan Gehl are extensively cited in urban planning literature. The paradigm also encompasses the related concepts of placemaking and transit-oriented development (TOD), fifteen-minute cities and new urbanist principles, all of which centre on quality as judged by a pedestrian. Although these concepts and approaches characterise urban design discourse in post-industrial nations in particular, manifestations of them can now be found around the world. 

The human scale doctrine no longer represents a challenge to prevailing urban development practices and has instead been fully integrated into them. Even the high-rise towers that, over the past decade, have been planned in Keilaniemi, Espoo, name check Gehl, signalling a commitment to pedestrian-friendliness. The big decisions are made elsewhere, and it is then up to urban designers to tinker with the produced environment and turn it into attractive, lively spaces.

Many of the most significant challenges currently facing architecture and urban design appear to have become detached from any physical context and are more readily described as a series of actor networks. The resilience of the built environment, management of emissions, urban health impacts, the role of non-human urban dwellers, green networks and the biodiversity that exists within urban blocks and wider neighbourhood areas are all part of the urban experience, but their essential qualities, characteristics and drivers are not limited to the “human scale”.

The notional human being, complete with five senses, is a gross oversimplification of the people that actually live their lives within the urban fabric.

The notional human being, complete with five senses, at the heart of the Gehlian school of thought is a gross oversimplification of the people that actually live their lives within the urban fabric; sensory perceptions are subjective and “typical” human beings are few and far between. It’s also worth pointing out that our way of experiencing and interacting with the urban setting is mediated by a series of cultural and technological tools that allow us to reach far beyond the confines of our physical bodies. 

The human scale has certainly provided useful answers to some of the questions being asked about urban environments, but it is no longer fit for purpose as a comprehensive approach. An urban area’s suitability for casual and social use cannot be the key driver informing design. The human scale does not provide answers to our current challenges and the notion of human beings as merely sentient animals fails to adequately describe the people who actually use and engage with the city. 

What we need to do is to make space for questions, for uncertainty. We need to be willing to look not only forward to imagine the infinite challenges our cities will be expected to respond to in future but also backwards, to revisit earlier, currently sidelined, approaches to designing and understanding the urban realm.

What is it about the urban environment that really matters? How do we go about accurately describing, understanding and then changing the world? One approach would be to not rely on the human scale – let’s be prepared to leave it behind and instead observe the world as it really is.

If we were to conduct a tour of some current urban development initiatives with a modern-day Bacon and a modern-day Jacobs, what design goals do you think would the former see in the process of being achieved and what blind spots would now alarm the latter? ↙

TOMMY LINDGREN is an architect, and works as a lecturer in urban design at Aalto University. As a designer, writer and researcher he is focused on cities and the processes of building.

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