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.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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