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What is human scale?

I often use the term “human scale” and assume that its meaning is obvious to everyone. Here is a quick explanation of it, specifically for how it relates to biking and walking.

When your community is at human scale, things are proportional to the human body. Signs are readable when you stand near them, and there are minute details in the art and architecture. You can walk from one front door to the next as you would walk through a hallway. Navigating across the community is intuitive and accessible. And, perhaps most notably, it’s easy to interact with other humans without needing extra technology.

Those of us living in North America probably associate human scale with our historic downtowns, college campuses, and tourist destinations. At home, we’re much more familiar with automotive scale.

In automotive scale, signs are enormous and distant so as to be visible to speeding cars. Art and architecture is plainer, usually minimalistic, because drivers wouldn’t see small details anyway. Front doors are spread apart to accommodate wide parking lots and lanes of car traffic. Navigation is often only feasible with a map or a GPS. The rare human you see will look miserably out of place.

To walk as a human within an automotive-scale community can feel disorienting, uncomfortable, and even degrading. Where are you? There’s no sense of place. Everything looks the same: vast deserts of asphalt and concrete walls barren of detail. Noisy cars zoom past you. You have to constantly stay alert and constantly look both ways before stepping anywhere. Visiting a store that’s “just” across the street feels like an epic journey. Venturing any further is like getting lost a labyrinth.

I think that the idea of human scale elegantly summarizes what makes walkable communities pleasant and productive. There’s science describing what “human scale” is exactly, but we as humans intuitively know it when we see it. It’s the scale that we naturally use when we build things ourselves. It’s the scale at which everything was built before corporations with bulldozers built things for us.

Understanding the distinction between human and automotive scales is one key to understanding why so many efforts to build infrastructure for walking and biking fail. You can’t just drop a sidewalk or a bike lane into an automotive-scale area and expect people to use it. Things that seem dense when you look at them from a car or a birds-eye-view can seem spread apart when you approach them on foot. You need to downsize the overall scale of the buildings and streets to fit the human body.

Like most great ideas, human scale is not a panacea. We shouldn’t assume that all people are the same size and share the same abilities. A child walking to school will have different needs than an adult walking to work. It’s not as simple as checking a box to upgrade your town.

But compared to our status quo of using automotive scale as a one-size-fits-all for everything, building more human-scale communities is an excellent goal, no matter how you define it.