Requiring that New Development Use “Human Scale”

By Dom Nozzi, AICP


Several months ago, the new urbanist list I subscribe to contained a discussion about how to incorporate the all-important “human scale” in new developments occurring within our towns.

To me, this question is essential, as our towns are being ruined by the epidemic of GIGANTISM that cars have compelled us to design for, despite our interests as human beings seeking to live in a charming, lovable place. We must do all we can to require new development to be built at a scale appropriate for people — not cars — if we expect our towns to be high in quality.

Can we incorporate “human scale” as a design requirement in our town’s land development regulations?

“Human scale” is inherently subjective as a concept. Given that, using human scale as a guideline or development regulation must rely on one of two tactics: (1) Trust, or (2) Quantitative (objective) measures.

Up until several decades ago, communities were largely able to trust developers or planners to design a development to be, in this case, suitably human in scale. At that time, then, strict and quantified development regulations were mostly unnecessary for the
developer to deliver proper human scale.

In more recent times, however, the overwhelming emergence of car travel has meant that a great many of us think more about the needs of space-hogging motor vehicles than the needs of humans. Our perception of “suitable human scale” has therefore shifted (we look at site plans with new eyes). We think more about the needs of our Ford than the needs of Jeff or Suzy – sometimes unconsciously.

Given our car-dependent world in recent times, then, we can trust developers and planners less when it comes to knowing what “human scale” means. Speaking as a town planner who wrote development regulations for 20 years, I would argue that even clear “intent” language and even example drawings are mostly insufficient in reliably obtaining suitable human scale in new

As a result of all this, objective and quantifiable (or numeric) measures of “human scale” have become much more important. Regulations, more than in the past, need to specify that for “human scale,” buildings must be, say, 15 feet from the curb to achieve human scale. It is tragically no longer enough to avoid such numeric precision in calling for human scale.

“We know it when we see it or feel it” is fine when our society had more of a consensus about what it feels like for humans. But now, cars are so much a part of our world that such a consensus is mostly lost.


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Or email me at: dom[AT]

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Filed under Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

3 responses to “Requiring that New Development Use “Human Scale”

  1. Victor Dover

    Dom, if you had to limit yourself to only measuring five or six things to confirm the correct scale is achieved, and you had to use the same ones across regions, climates, and cultures, what would they be? Block size (perimeter)? Block [face] length? Building-height-to-street-width ratio? Connectivity (intersections per square mile?) Window proportions? Frequency of doors? Transparency/opaqueness?

  2. Victor, in my view, the lynchpins for correct scale would be the curb-to-curb street width and the building ht to street width ratio. Next in importance would be block size, block length, and connectivity. I also believe that the percentage of land w/in the town center or neighborhood that consists of car parking is essential for correct scale. A crucial tactic for place-making: pull bldgs up to abut the curb/corner of an intersection that is quite modest in size. One of the most deadly ways to kill place-making is to pull bldgs back from intersection corners. What are your measures?

  3. Dom,
    Keep up the battle. I would love to see more walkable cities. I bike to work, but I live in the country. I love the old towns with their small business districts, but most of these are dead, and we drive down a strip of malls until we get to Walmart.

    I have a request. I have a website focusing on residential architecture, and I have a section on pattern language and the new urbanists, but its a little thin. I would love a comment or two from someone as knowledgeable as yourself. Also my section on human-scale could use an expert chiming in. The former is at and the latter is at .

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