The Human Scale: Part II

Further Defintions of the Human Scale as it relates to town and cities

“The car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.” — Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, 2000

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” — Edward Abbey, The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West, 1977


In the first part of this text I dealt with the horizontal and vertical aspects of the human scale in urban environments. Today I will write about how the human scaled town or city handles growth and expansion, answering that perennial bugbear of a question: “you have a nice idea for a town there, but does it scale?”. Let’s dive in.

Growth, Repetition, Replication

The first question I always get when talking about the human scaled city is whether or not the human scale, “scales”. I assume the question actually means “can we use the human scaled town as a model for the growing global urban population?” The answer to this is ‘of course’, followed immediately by ‘and we must’.

The person who has done the most to explain how the traditional human scaled city grows versus how the modern city grows is the Luxembourgian town builder Léon Krier1, mostly in the form of simple drawings2.

A traditional city, having grown up and reached its mature form, just like a human or most any other living organism, ideally stops growing. The alternative form of growth would be monstrous. Imagine a man or a tiger or an ant that never stopped growing, or even worse, that just some parts or limbs of a man or a tiger or an ant never stopped growing—such a thing would monstrous, a thing of nightmares.

A mature traditional city will instead “grow” organically, by replication. Like a man and a woman having a child and starting a family. These children (colonies, in the case of cities) will then go out and find their own place in the world, and one day start families of their own, and so on.

Historically this “expansion by duplication” has been handled in many different ways. To take one example, the ancient greeks. Even as early as before the death of Philip II of Macedon (in 336 B.C.) they had sent out settlers to found new cities as far East as modern Georgia, as far West as Spain and Morocco, as far North as Russia and as far South as Egypt. These colonies drew on surplus wealth and populations to replicate their parent cities in a new land. Closer to modern times, medieval Princes and Lords would found new cities by inviting settlers to build in the manner they were used to in their homelands, on unsettled land or on conquered land.

Growth by colony means that you can pick the best possible location to match the skills and ambitions of the colonists (and even the needs of the mother city). You are not limited to simply expanding onto the less attractive land near the mother city. As we see more and more often today, cities are growing onto land that is highly vulnerable to natural disasters and quite frankly not good places to live on. Modern cities are increasingly prone to sinking, to floods, to earthquakes, landslides or wildfires (see Indonesia, England, Haiti, California, Japan, for historical as well as recent examples).

Another problem with cities growing in size but not in density—over-reaching the human scale—is that the unchecked growth will inevitably threaten valuable farmland, vulnerable plant and animal species, places of great scenic beauty or with unique irreplaceable ecological values, thus making the city less attractive to its citizens, not to mention being downright suicidal.

The colony method of founding new cities by replication rather than an unending expansion of low density, paved, suburban or commercial sprawl, connected by car or in the form of sleeper towns along commuter rail, has proven to be both sustainable and efficient everywhere it has been tried, across time, culture, religion, climate, soil, and topography. Our modern method of unlimited expansion however, is a relatively new kid on the block. It is still experimental, compared to the millennia of experience we have with traditional human scaled cities. Our modern experiment in auto-prosthetics is fragile, unstable, unreliable, unsustainable and absolutely a disaster from an environmental viewpoint.

We can take the city of Charleston, South Carolina, as an example of hypertrophic urban growth, or sprawl. Since 1940 the town has grown massively, but when looked at in more detail, like the Charlestonian architecture firm Bevan & Liberatos Architects3 did in 2015, we find that although the population grew with a mere 67% in 75 years time, the land area of the city grew an astonishing 1300%. In essence, when we today talk about urban growth, what we are really talking about is suburban growth. Real, old-school, traditional urban growth rarely happens these days.

In conclusion, when we build cities or think about how to accommodate growth in existing ones, we would do better to look to Léon Krier and Walt Disney, and less to short term developers or the basic biological functions of brainless fungi.

Beyond the Spatial Again

In this ever expanding essay of mine (ha!) I will make yet another break and dedicate a Part III for the other ways to use the human scaled metric when applying it to towns and cities: Temporal, Material, Social, etc. I hope you stick around for the next one.

Sighișoara, Romania. Founded in the 12th century by Saxon merchants and craftsmen invited by the Hungarian Kings to settle and defend the borderlands. Its layout and style of vernacular architecture is to this day typically Saxon and it is one of the most appreciated tourist destinations in Eastern Europe. Photo by Rale P., https://www.instagram.com/rale_p/
Sighișoara is known by several names: Schäßburg in German, Schäsbrich in Transylvanian Saxon, Segesvár in Hungarian, Shesburg in Yiddish, Castrum Sex in Latin. Photo by Rale P., https://www.instagram.com/rale_p/
1

Born in Luxembourg on April 7th 1946, Léon Krier is most famous for his role in the creation of the neo-traditional town of Poundbury, in the Duchy of Cornwall, The United Kingdom, which somehow and against all odds, codes, zoning laws, and a fully hostile “intelligentsia”, has proved itself a success.

2

These drawings were collected and published in the book Drawing for Architecture (By Léon Krier with a foreword by James Howard Kunstler) in July 2009. It is probably the book about urbanism and architecture that will give you the most for the least money, time, and effort. This book has never left my work desk since I got several years ago.

3

Bevan & Liberatos Architects is one of those rare architecture firms that specializes in traditional buildings, both classical and vernacular. Currently located in the heart of Charleston, one of the most charming cities in North America.