Human Scale


“Human Scale is Body Scale” said someone, sometime over the holidays, in a radio interview. That’s as good a starting place as any to wade into this fundamental topic touching every aspect of our daily lives. The word ‘scale’ comes from the late 14th century, from the Latin scala “ladder, staircase” ( It breaks a larger whole into smaller, measured, and typically equal steps. Think of the musical scales and their relationship to human hearing. The concept of ‘scale’ captures the notion of putting the measure to everything. When we add the term ‘human’, it suggests using human sense perception as the yard stick. Human sense experience, in the final analysis is the instrument by which we not only experience, but rationally set out and measure everything—Man is the measure of all things (attributed to Protagoras, 480-411 BCE).

We can establish threshold measurements for all the human senses. In hearing, for example, it may be the din of conversation in a restaurant; over-hearing a family dispute at the neighbour’s house; or the sound of heels clicking on the floor of the apartment above. The principle of white noise also plays here. The musical scales, of course, have already been cited as a paradigm of ‘human scale’. The measure of the vibrations of the monochord have been used to establish groups of sounds according to consonances, or what pleases the human ear. The particular smells of regional cuisine, the need for the containment of odours, or the ability to create cross ventilation at home to let in the freshness of spring air characterizes our sense of smell. Then, there is our sense of touch: feeling the smoothness of wood, the sheen of marble, or the texture of a garden wall. When I travel to see architecture, I often jibe my friends that I travel on my stomach. There is so much about regional taste that finds as much expression in food and drink as in painting, sculpture and architecture. We find ‘human scale’ in painting class, in the exercise of mixing all the colours in graduated steps starting from the three primaries: red, blue and yellow. What surprised me was how quickly the eyes became sensitized to the task making better ‘measurements’ of the distance between colours as the exercise progressed. The Impressionists made it the focus of their art at the end of the 19th century.

In urbanism, we encounter human scale in the street, neighbourhood and city. Not surprisingly, since the size of the object in question is boundless, and the purpose of is creation is to support human life itself, decisions about the ultimate shape this grand mixture of public and private spaces will take end up making a great deal of difference as to whether the resulting place will either support—or subvert—the social functioning of its people. Thus, it is often remarked that while at first we shape the city, in the end the city shapes us. In urbanism we encounter both physical exertion and the impressions made on our senses combining to render our experience of place. Thus, the height of buildings can be measured in terms of the number of flights of stairs, and how easy it is to mount against using an elevator. The width of a street can be measured according to the distance we discern the expression on a human face, not just the sufficient amount of space required to accommodate traffic (Try it with a friend—frown or smile, which is it? We can discern the difference between a frown and a smile at about 100 feet, thus setting a practical human limit to urban space). Travel distance has been changing throughout the history of technology: sailing ships and canoes; beasts of burden; and machines—bicycles, trains, automobiles and airplanes. However, the distance we travel walking for five minutes (0.25 miles or 400 meters) has remained more or less constant throughout the ages. Over that time it has become the baseline measure for the footprint of the neighbourhood unit or quartier. Spinning the easy-walking distance as a radius gives us the footprint of the quartier—120 acres; 50 hectares; or 0.5 km2. We experience the quartier as a limit on how much of a city or town we can come to know just by living there. Of course ‘the knowing’ has to take place at the walking, ambulatory pace. Riding transit, using a bike, or driving in a car—at higher speeds than walking ‘if you blink, you miss it’.  For pedestrians moving in urban landscape designed for automobiles the easy-crossing distance becomes an important issue. It can be measured both in traffic time (the green cycle of a traffic signal), and traffic girth (number of vehicular lanes crossed).

There is another set of measurements in urbanism that relate to the human experience of place but are controlled by the movements of the sun, rather than by the projection of our senses. Here, a fundamental tenet in winter cities is that the sun must be allowed to penetrate to sidewalk or street level every day of the year. In warmer climes the opposite holds true: we encounter the concept of the ‘luxury of shade’. In hotter regions public spaces must be shaded against the sun in the hot months. Water mist is often sprayed into the air to reduce the ambient temperature. Keeping observations to the region where I am writing this blog, at Latitude 49’N the ratio of the height of the buildings to the width of the fronting street should be 1 : 3 in order to achieve penetration of winter sun into the public realm. However, here visual sense perception can also come into play. Since antiquity it has been observed that the simple-number ratios that inform the musical scales and please our ears, also set the limits for constructing built environments that satisfy our eyes. The Renaissance square, for example, was constructed so that the heights of  fronting buildings would not exceed a ratio of 1 : 2 in proportion to breath of open space; and a ratio of 1 :3 in proportion to the length of the public place. Walking into public spaces built with these proportions one is overwhelmed with a ‘a  sense of place’. 

The final consideration regarding human scale has to do with our projection of meaning into the experience of place. Walking into a Renaissance square can be a threshold experience. It is not so much that we are walking into an ‘open space’, but rather that we are walking into an ‘urban room’ defined by the exterior façades of fronting buildings and the sky. The outside face of private buildings combine in our experience to form the inner surface of a huge room. A shift in scale has taken place in our place perception, where individual buildings have crossed over in a flash and blended together to render for us a collective experience of place. Very quickly ideas about ‘before and after’; ‘inside and outside’; ‘here and there’; ‘public and private’ from in our psyche when coming upon these places on foot. Of course, these experiences can be orchestrated by a town plan hierarchically, embedding unique way finding cues into the neighbourhood fabric that convey place information as well as social meaning. For example, placing an urban room in the centre of the neighbourhood greatly enhances our experiences of place. It structures the place into ‘core and periphery’. Not only was this the pattern used for all Greek and Roman settlements (probably inherited from Egypt), put it formed the basis of each colonial town plan in the Americas. Building on these traditions that have been honed to our sense experience over millennia we can to locate transit stops, weekly markets, shops and services in clusters that will not only serve local populations, but support their natural inclinations for social mixing. Such simple decisions layer new meanings and social functionality to the everyday experience of the neighbourhood.

Leonardo Uomo_Vitruviano

Leonardo da Vinci produced this famous image in one of his notebooks. It illustrates a ratio or proportion of 1 : 1.6 existing between the measurement of the height of the navel from the floor, and the extended reach of the arms. The former is spun to generate a circle; the latter used to draw a square. Mythologies about squaring the circle not withstanding, the diagram locks into consciousness fundamental issues in the design and modulation of both public and private space according to the apprehension of human senses and the exertion of the human body. In other words, human scale.


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