Human Scale Cities

Scale or Scale or Scale?

Human scale is not a hard, crusty substance left behind when humans vacate an area.  It’s not a kind of balance to figure out relative weights of various objects.  Human scale designs are comfortable, energy efficient, and attractive because they are appropriate for the human condition.  They “fit us like a glove” and allow us to relax and enjoy life.  They fill us with awe and assuage us with color and sound.  Since human scale designs are based upon real physical needs that vary from person to person, we have adjustable car seats, various shoe and clothing sizes, etc.. 

Why is Human Scale Design Important in Architecture?

Besides letting us save energy by living a comfortable walking distance from many of the things we do, human scale architecture helps us feel comfortable as we move through the city and experience the interiors of buildings.  Critics may say-- “Which human do we scale our cities to”?

Because one size does not fit all, we find ourselves in a dilemma.  Everyone living in a city feels a sense of inadequate scale due to the fact that cites are the result of individuals trying to build what they want without sufficient regard for the effect their project will have on the entire city.  This, in turn, causes the city to become a set of poorly juxtaposed constructs with a disturbing net effect.
If our cities pinch, we’ve got problems that manifest themselves as increases in violent crime rates, respiratory illnesses, infant mortality rates, and school attrition rates.  These problems lead to cost of living increases because of loss of worker productivity, safety issues, and energy costs.

Human Scale Design Balances Economic Necessities
With Real Human Needs

 We live in a world of more than 6 billion humans and the concept of human scale cities becomes very important as the worlds populations continue to grow.  We cannot cram people into cities and expect them to have a decent life, without considering the issues of human scale design.

Likewise, we cannot simply ignore human scale design issues by allowing everyone to sprawl their dwellings over the landscape.  If everyone in Hong Kong had to live like the people of Albuquerque live, there would have to be the equivalent of 40 more Albuquerques built somewhere on the Earth.  Apply this same argument to other densely populated cities like Cairo, Mexico City, Tokyo, Calcutta, and some sense of the magnitude of the problem of building cities to human scale begins to emerge.  

When great cities fall, their failure extends deeply into the countryside and rural villages that depend upon them for supplies, tools and services.  Human scale designs make cities more livable and thereby potentially more sustainable.

Human Scale Cities and Renewable Energy

A noble goal for human scale cities is to make them operate entirely with renewable energy.  This may be possible if we can discover and apply complex design principles that allow us to greatly increase the human population density of our cities (without sacrificing quality of life).  

This is where human scale architecture and ergonomic design can help.  In addition, building cities with structural materials and techniques that minimize our need for resources, while assuring maximum useful life spans for constructs, means the embodied energy of the city is kept low.  Improving the connections of the city means its operational energy is also kept low.  

As we minimize our need for energy, we begin to make it possible to derive that energy entirely from renewable sources.  From grass huts to modern skyscrapers there is a continuum of structural possibilities that can keep us in a renewable balance if we have the mind set to achieve such a balance.

The Esthetics of Human Scale Design

Have you ever wondered about the esthetics of human scale design?  Why have structures like the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Cathedral of Notre Dame, and various shrines in cultures around the world, proven themselves as great attractions?  There must be something satisfying in their proportion, scale and engineering features.  Cultural values play a role in this attraction, but even cultural values are shaped by the presence of these powerful structures.  First we build the city and then the city builds us.  Because of this, if our cities are to improve, we must understand and design for the human condition.

Looming Building Syndrome

As a child, while visiting the city of New York, I was awe struck with the size of the buildings.  I remember standing on the sidewalk outside a restaurant and looking up to the top of the building.  Suddenly, a feeling of terror coursed through me as I strained to see the top of the building.  Simultaneously, I felt like I was going to fall backward and the building was going to fall on me!  This feeling subsided when I looked back down to street level but it left an indelible impression about buildings upon me.   Large structures with vertical walls can seem to loom over people without actually doing so.  Imagine the same structure utilizing the receding wall principle.  Non vertical walls not only help balance the weight of a building and reduce wind loading on the upper floors, but they help reduce the psychological effect described above.  Of course, looking at the same building from a quarter mile away would have had a different effect on me because of the perspective. Isn’t this one of the principles of human scale design?

Car Cities vs People Cities

Many modern cities are built more for automobiles than for people.  The presence of the automobile as a crucial method of transportation forces cites to sprawl and diverts energy that could have been spent building quality structure into transportation. Designs that encourage car traffic result in many kinds of daily stress such as noise, glare and traffic accidents.
Billboards and advertising line our main thoroughfares in attempts to capture the attention of motorists who should be paying more attention to traffic conditions.  We are spending too much of our life getting to our life because of automobiles.  A single bus can displace 70 cars on our city streets. thereby reducing traffic congestion.  This in turn makes it easier to arrive at appointments on time which reduces stress.

In cities with high human population densities, elevators, buses, trains and bicycles become essential public transportation devices that allow human scale infrastructure to survive.  Because of adequate public transportation systems, buildings can be closer together, parking lots minimized, and the clutter of signs and billboards eliminated.  Pedestrian friendly urban environments not only do more with less, they can do it in more visually attractive ways.

What About Claustrophobia?

Most of us have probably been in hallways, elevators, storage rooms, etc. that made us feel squeamish, if only temporarily.  I remember spelunking with a friend.  While traversing a very narrow part of the cave, I got the feeling that this cave could just shift a little and I would be flattened like a pancake.  The psychological effect of small spaces is something astronauts cope with,   However, I’ll bet, if given the choice,  they would go into space in something bigger.
When it comes to rooms, how big is big enough?  Are cathedrals more sacred because they have vaulted ceilings?  What are optimum size spaces for living quarters?  Though there is probably a range of right answers for this question, finding the minimum  optimum moves us closer to a renewable energy future.  Perhaps mirrors should be called space stretchers.  They make small places livable. by making them brighter, and, magically bigger.  Of course ventilation is another factor that should help determine the optimum size of space.  How about sound resonance also? 

Choosing Seating in Restaurants, Theaters, Etc.

  If they are not thinking too much about it, people often try to sit a comfortable distance away from strangers. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. The concept here is personal space.  Buses require us to shrink our personal space perimeter as do political rallies in public plazas and lines at movie theaters.  Despite this, the need for personal space appears to be very real.  Some go so far as to say their personal space stretches for many acres and must be surrounded with special fencing.

Parks Big Enough

Cities with big parks and adequate organic spaces alleviate some of the feelings of compression resulting from loss of personal space.  Modern cities are trying to increase the size of their open space not only because property values go up but because they give urbanites some visual, and therefore, psychological relief.
There is value in allowing other animals to live with us within the boundaries of the city.  Large parks make it easier for people to have “pets” they don’t have to own or dominate.  Many kinds of birds, squirrels, rabbits, or other small animals can thrive in urban parks.  Their presence in the park adds immeasurable value to the park.  Since the need for companionship or at least proximity to other animals is so prevalent in people, the size of parks that create sufficient habitat for these critters should also be considered part of human scale design.

Human scale parks are neither too large nor to small.   I have seen some very small nooks, that might be construed as micro parks, that added tremendous relief to spaces that  overwhelmed with glass, stone, concrete and steel.  
Perhaps we should think parks of all sizes are important for creating human scale cities!

Vanishing Point Perspectives

Vanishing point perspectives achieved with line, form, and color add to the value achieved by having real vanishing points due to distant objects appearing small even though we know they are large.  Along with open space, vanishing points help people feel less confined or claustrophobic.  Even this can be poorly done if the colors and textures are not carefully chosen.  Instead of a vanishing point, the art may take on an aggressive, spearhead look, that puts people on the defensive.

The Sounds of Human Scale Design

The noise never stops in New York city.  Cars honking, sirens blaring, and construction noises seem to fill the air at all times.  Even cites like Albuquerque have noise problems.  Loud vehicles and people noises seem to pass through walls as though they are transparent to noise.  Given that noise is a strain for people, minimizing noise by structural design is important.

What if noise generated in a high rise city could bounce out, and stay out, by design?  This is an advantage linear cities have over the noisy, high rise, downtowns, commonly found in modern American cities.  By spacing buildings far enough apart on a line, we alleviate the sense the city is too crowded and reduce noise, glare and pollution.  Building cities around the needs of people is a practical thing to do!

Do Curving Walls Comfort? 

 The receding wall effect induced by curving walls gives the impression a building is much smaller than it really is.  Anyone who has taken the “golf ball building” ride at Walt Disney World in Florida knows this.  When approaching this building, the sense of the actual volume contained within it is deceptive because of receding wall effect.  Once inside, amazement takes over at the astonishing amount of stuff contained in such a seemingly small building!  This also makes mathematical sense since the surface area of a sphere increases more slowly than the volume as the sphere expands.  The bigger the sphere, the smaller the surface to volume ratio becomes.  Spherical buildings may help future cities achieve great population densities without making them feel overly crowded.

Anomie and Sprawling, Car Cities

 Based on the assumption people are basically gregarious, human scale design can actually improve the social interactions that make cities great places to live.  By creating places that encourage people to socialize, anomie is reduced.  Benches that face into the circle instead of facing out is an example of a simple design that encourages conversations.  It’s difficult to have a conversation with someone who has their back turned to you.

Designing for People Means Creating Healthy Living Conditions

George Bernard Shaw said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man”.  This is antithetical to the concept of human scale design.  Without reasonable men designing with real human needs in mind, human scale design doesn’t occur.  Human scale designs happen when the sciences of ergonomics, psychology and engineering are carefully combined with generally appealing art, to make the stuff we live with.  *****

We may be seeing ever more need for disaster relief for large populations in the future.  Many people have been made suddenly homeless by natural disasters and human caused problems.  Tower Towns can be a way of helping people made homeless have a place to live.


Welcome to Imagine City               Audio Topics                  Global Renaissance

Moving Fast          Empower City            Renewable Cities            Connect City

Human Scale Cities        Super City       Tower Towns       Design Considerations

Restructuring for Activists        Sustainability Indicators         Subsidy by Design 

Linear City Concepts                Network Megalopolis               Urban Agriculture
High Rise Greenhouses                Magnetic Levitation Trains              City Links

Coloring Book 


Most cities in America are car scale, not human scale.

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