Human Scale Approach for Designing City Neighborhoods Should Feel Just Right

Human scale urban design is like a mini cheesecake bite. It is simply much more manageable to consume, enjoy, and more importantly, it is not overbearing to digest—it is just right. Pardon the food analogy, but when we think about this notion of human scale in comparison to human consumption, it becomes a much easier thing to stomach, err, envision.

Take smart growth for cities out of the equation for a minute. Let us look at the principle of designing for people in relation to the built environment. It has been proven time and again that people respond most positively to walkable and human scale neighborhoods. What does this actually look like? I witnessed the success of great neighborhoods that are quite attuned to the human scale approach in Copenhagen this past summer. One of the primary aspects that makes this city human scale in such a visible way is the consistent and relatively short building heights, around 3-6 stories tall. The streets are narrower, which discourages automobile speed and access and allows room for other forms of non-motorized transit, like the bicycle. There are more public plazas and corridors where pedestrians can roam free without the worry of cars speeding by. Shops and other practical stores are near each other because the blocks are short and walkable enough to keep pedestrians’ attention going.

From a qualitative perspective, this creates a certain sense of coziness or “hygge”—an aspect that has become characteristic of the Danes, who have embraced this as a main tenet of their culture. The human scale approach also enables city planners and architects to cherish older historic districts that already have this sense of scale and built-in density in one nice package. Everything feels like you are meant to walk around in it. Cities in the U.S. are starting to catch on when it comes to new development and the human scale approach.

One example that has done this very well is Bethesda Row in suburban Maryland (pictured below). A mixed-use, highly walkable and transit-accessible development that has built in cafes, restaurants and shops. So as the developers, architects and designers alike increasingly accept the human-scape approach for great neighborhoods, they should remember the mini cheesecake bite example—neighborhoods should feel enjoyable, manageable and cozy.

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