The Human Scale: Density vs. Community?

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city skyline drawing

Something we don’t think about until it’s out of whack is the idea of “scale.” Anyone who’s lived in a nice little neighborhood filled with bungalows until some guy moves in and builds a 3,500-square-foot monolith knows exactly how jarring a wonky grasp of scale can be to live around.

Downtown, though, it’s easy to get lost in cities, where the equation of scale-versus-life keeps defaulting to “more/bigger/higher/bolder is better.”

As someone who understands the amount we’re taxing the planet through sprawl and eco-obliteration, I think the solution posed by increasing urban density through high-rises is often a no-brainer. Stick a thousand people in a high-rise that shoots up 40 floors instead of sprawling them in acres of of low-rise or detached dwellings, and you can do the math about how much land and nature is preserved.

But is that the only world we want to live in? And how does it feel, living among towering concrete behemoths? What happens when one ditches the towers and adopts a life where the economies of scale aren’t so… vertical? Or vice versa?

From Hoosiers to High-Rises

The film Hoosiers is an American classic now, the story of some Indiana farmboys who go to the basketball state finals. Never having been to the big city, the fellas get to their stadium and have a moment of clarity on just how far off the farm they’ve come. The thing is ginormous, a monument to man’s intellect and architecture’s greatness — a cavern that to hold thousands of screaming, roaring basketball fans, rather than their small-town school gyms that have more bleachers than soul to fill it.

Then Gene Hackman pulls a measuring tape from his pocket and tells a boy to measure the basket height, the free-throw line, and whaddya know? They’re all the same as back home on the farm.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

The Hoosiers scene explains a lot about the emotional resonance that comes with scale. Take something that works on a one-to-one human scale and thrust it into a mega-tropolis, and suddenly our humanity evaporates some, we find our smallness, and everything becomes about the collective, a unit.

Sometimes, for me, cities are to humans what hives are to bees. We go there to swarm. Let us get free for a while, though, and it’s a whole other world.

Maybe the outside world is too unleashed for some people. Some love the systems and pattern, the buzz and busyness, that comes from being in the swarm of the hive, living in high-rises,  in the middle of it all. They enjoy being one of the collective, a tiny cog on a massive wheel, because there’s an urban order of things.

For others, life in a city can be inconceivably disorienting, the ever-smalling of self.

small quiet street illustration

Finding Your Perspective

I am the latter. I was drowning in the city. I never noticed life anymore, just concrete. My days were consumed with bustle, ever busy, I felt almost bullied by the downtown hub. I lived in Vancouver, which has exploded in size since the 1980s. Its ever-buzzing swarm-mentality, and the clip at which it grew, had grown too much for me.

Not one to give up the Westcoast lifestyle, I found what I needed, and on a smaller scale, in an island city nearly 90% smaller than Vancouver. Here, the tallest building is only 22 floors, compared to the 62 floors of Vancouver’s 659-foot Shangri La. Most buildings here, though, are walk-ups at four or five floors.

Measuring Up

With my world smaller, I feel bigger. I feel more meaningful and like I’m a part of it all.

There is an interesting article about all this, written by urban planning expert Robert Freedman, who was involved in Toronto’s redefining of urban development. It turns out the buildings around me, here, are considered “mid-rise.” In Toronto, they worked hard for a definition on mid-rise, and this is how they broke it down.

We analyzed a number of successful mid-rise streets from around the world and found a correlation between street width and building height—a ratio of approximately 1:1 or less. The buildings are roughly as tall as the street is wide. When lined up side-by-side these buildings create a streetwall. When streetwalls face each other along both sides of an Avenue they create an “outdoor room” or defined space. It’s the proportion of that space that creates the distinct mid-rise ambiance. Again, it just feels right. This realization led us to define a mid-rise building in Toronto as a building (greater than four stories) that can rise up to, but no higher than, the width of the adjacent right-of-way. Read the rest of the article here.

When the planet needs less development, it’s hard to compromise nature in trade for mid-rise development over smarter-footprint high-rises, but it seems to me we need to have both.

We need that sense of humanity

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that artists, writers, painters, and other creatively-minded people who live and work with passion tend to be drawn to brownstones, low-rises, and character-home areas. If you make your stock and trade on your humanity, then you’re probably looking for a human scale to do it in. For others, it’s exciting to be downtown. And that’s okay, too.

We need that humanity, that contrast of people, places, and style. Scale isn’t necessarily a one-size problem we need to solve. It should be a lifestyle choice and an option. It’s a big world. There’s a lot to love about variety. Today, living in a smaller place, I find big excitement from visiting the city and being dwarfed by high-rises, because variety is good for the soul and makes us appreciate what we have.

Unique flavors of cities

If city planners ensure developers maintain that variety of building heights, there won’t be a scale problem to solve. Cities, like people, should have unique flavors in different places. Keep the low- and mid-rise developments in some ‘hoods, and cities will keep a variety of citizens around too.

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