Human Scale Design

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Living and human life is important. We all deserve the time to have hobbies and to be amateurs.

Too often we think in terms of judging and thinking. What does a space look like? Is it a good space? Has it been approved by committee?

Humans should not be put on pause.

Humans need time to celebrate small joys.

But how do we have these lives? Where does the time go?

Humans in Western societies dream to vacation in places where we can be human. Where we eat local food and stay in a small place. Visit local shops. But why don’t we build our cities on this model?

Many spaces are designed as pass-through spaces, armchair investments and large-scale housing projects. Far less concern is paid to the harmony of humans as they exist within and alongside these spaces over time.

Santorini, Greece is built at Human and Donkey Scale

How can we design, spaces, cities and communities in harmony with people and the environment?

What does human scale feel like?

Human scale feels like what the Greeks called Kairos time, which is a kind of human-scale time. It is the time of watching a sunset or falling in love. It is care, empathy, variety and history.

Human scale means a friendly homestay, not a corporate hotel room.

It feels like a local bakery on a friendly street.

A public park with a hill and natural features.

Individual houses and courtyard apartments.

It feels approachable and empathetic.

It’s about knowing your family doctor for two generations.

It feels like home.

What doesn’t human scale feel like?

It feels like what the Greeks called Chronos time, which is a kind of industrial, non-human time.

Getting stuck in a parking garage after hours because the automatic ticket machine is broken.

Getting picked up from the airport by a rideshare vehicle instead of a family friend.

Ordering takeout and getting it delivered by someone you don’t know.

Walls of condos blocking out the natural light from city streets.

A feeling of being swallowed by the environment.

It is the time waiting for the meeting to be over.

It is the time under fluorescent lights in a corporate environment. It is the grimy, soulless airport hotel you stay at when your plane is delayed overnight. It is thrift, newness, temporary, and liminal.

You want to pass through these spaces as quickly as possible in order to get to a specific place.


What do so many of the features of Non-Human scale have in common? They are what Marc Auge calls “Non-Places”, in which we are on pause. We don’t have relation, history, or identity.

The modern individual increasingly passes through transitory spaces. The only way to reconnect the self to a place is to use a phone or music device.

The public space has thus become a private one, where private conversations, texts and music are carried on by individuals as they go from one place to another. An airport gives no one identity, relation or history, but a cell phone or computer does. One can easily connect to virtual reality to escape the blandness of the physical one.

Some of the highways in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of many cities influenced by the highway concepts of Robert Moses.

How do these spaces get designed? They are created by judging, thinking, and calculation, not sensing and feeling. They are spaces at scale. This space needs to be designed for 5,000 people an hour. Very often, and very unintentionally, a non-place is built. It is built solely because it needs to provide a function. These spaces are sufficient if they are a good space for the job. They are approved by committee solely as a place to pass through.

Highways are a non-place. They tear apart neighborhoods. They are not meant to be populated, but only as a way of passing through. In traffic jams, everyone has the same feelings, but they’re not connected. They are separated by exoskeletons. No one can set foot on a highway. They are stuck, but unconnected. In this case, many people use cell phones or music to reconnect themselves to place. This technosocial interaction helps users to transcend the heaviness of a fully rendered physical body. If one’s physical self is stuck in traffic, one’s mental self can travel elsewhere, assisted by phone.

Doctor’s offices and airports put people on pause.

Humans should not be left alone in Non-places for too long. The result resembles solitary confinement.

We don’t need to have places be this way. We can bring them back to human scale.

Principles of Human Scale Design


Quality air from plants, both indoors and outdoors. Provide courtyards with greenery. Work with native plants, and with indigenous people to ensure quality, maintenance, history, and respect.

Clean up industrial sites and work with indigenous populations to manage rivers and forests. This will cut down on wildfire, algal blooms and other issues that result from industrialization.

Living spaces and buildings should have adequate airflow. Buildings with courtyards can ensure that there are at least two sides of the building with windows for a cross-breeze.


Sound insulation and diffusion allows people to be more human.

Provide insulation from industrial noises, such as cars, or place living spaces at a setback or raised surface from the street.

Provide places for people to have loud parties, make music and listen to their own music.


A building should be built to work with the sun. It should work so that plants can work with it. In countries with dim light, making use of the sun is the most important. Everyone should have access to natural light.

Organize buildings and neighborhoods to make good use of light, allowing for light to pass through homes and buildings as the day progresses, allowing light to tell a story as it passes—the story of human life. Working with natural light can reduce heating and cooling needs, as well as electrical needs. Natural light reduces eye strain when looking at computer monitors, and promotes humans and nature being part of the same daily cycle.

Pirkkala Church, Tampere, Finland. Light sequence on altar wall: Early morning, late morning, midday, early afternoon, mid-afternoon, late afternoon. Architecture: By Käpy and Simo Paavilainen. <Image © Henry Plummer 2009.

“Scandinavian countries have developed great buildings that resonate with both the scarce light in winter and the long summer days. Henry Plummer, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has very carefully studied the various daylight phenomena in the Nordic countries, with extensive photo journeys and brilliant writing that combines an analytical perspective with a poetic touch.” (Source)

Involve and Learn From Nature

Cultivate practice of working alongside about nature through native plants and continuing the practices of local indigenous peoples.

Begin to build building architecture with respect to the landscape. Conceive of larger strategies to restore ecosystems to that the cost of natural disasters is lessened.

Working with nature cultivates variety. Plants change shadows over the day. Light can create moods and experiences. Hospital patients with a view of plants out their window have faster recovery times.

Use shapes from nature for paths. Use curves when possible. Listen deeply to Japanese understandings of living alongside nature, having harmony in small spaces. Work to celebrate and preserve cultural history. Donate to cultural institutions. Make no demands in return. Leave your mind open.


Food should come as locally as possible, and suited to the climate. Indigenous community members should always be involved, be supported, and lead restoration programs involving native crops, land management, and rituals.


Objects used daily must be durable, should be made locally, and should be made with care and craft and last a long time.

Car Free Zones

As a means of interacting with a city, cars are imperfect. Designing around foot traffic is a different story - the same paths can be in use for decades, with very little need for upkeep. An effective city has neighborhoods designed for pedestrians, and lets its automotive roads serve as connectors - arterial streets for shipping and transport, not as the primary means of getting around.

A neighborhood shouldn’t be a street to be passed through, but an area which can be explored and discovered. Exploratory layouts are hugely beneficial for small businesses - if new people can discover the store on their own, they’re more likely to remember it and visit again, or tell others about their new discovery.

And yet, few cities currently have pedestrian zones with access to all of the essentials. Even everyday tools like supermarkets and drug stores are often accessible primarily by road.

Human scale means that interacting with a city can be done with on foot, bike, or public transportation.

Designing around foot traffic is a different story - the same paths can be in use for decades, with very little need for upkeep. An effective city has neighborhoods designed for pedestrians, and lets its automotive roads serve as connectors - arterial streets for shipping and transport, not as the primary means of getting around.

These should be within walking distance:

Daily essentials:

  • Supermarket
  • Drug store
  • Work
  • Exercise/play
  • Natural areas for connecting with nature
  • School
  • Artistic endeavors
  • Food
  • Social third spaces such as music venues and coffeeshops
  • Events
  • Art
  • Family doctors, dentists and optometrists

A neighborhood shouldn’t be a street to be passed through, but an area which can be explored and discovered. Exploratory layouts are hugely beneficial for small businesses - if new people can discover the store on their own, they’re more likely to remember it and visit again, or tell others about their new discovery.

Having large arterial streets for shipping crucial items to hubs, followed by many smaller streets that can hold humans and bikes allows for more density and safety, while driving down the price per square foot to rent buildings. This means that small businesses can grow sustainably, providing for small town-like resources that are more local.

And yet, few cities currently have pedestrian zones with access to all of the essentials. Even everyday tools like supermarkets and drug stores are often accessible primarily by road.

Even though Manhattan seems like it might not be at human scale, it gives pedestrians many options for getting around. Buildings are tall, but there’s lots of offset from the street, giving pedestrians a feeling of space. Even though many buildings there are large, NYC is designed at human scale.

Google Maps colors ‘neighborhoods of interest’ with yellow highlights. New York City is filled with neighborhoods and is relatively walking distance. Additionaly, the Subway connects most citizens to anywhere they need to go, often beating congested car traffic at the surface level.

Compare the density of Manhattan to the relatively low density of Salt Lake City, Utah, below.

The comparative experience of being in Salt Lake City is one of car-based necessity. Everything stretched out, and new buildings are being built that don’t harmonize with the history of the city.

Curves and Eyesores

Use Curves and arches for doorways when possible. Right angles dull the mind.

Reduce right angles by Cutting corners to create entrances. This allows multiple accessible points from both sides of a street.

Paint murals onto “void walls” to help humanize the giant blank walls of new apartment and condo complexes.

Use a staggered approach when building up to ensure there is room for sunlight below, as well as views, balconies and nature.

Main Street Design Patterns

Everyone knows the overshadowing feeling of an ominously tall building or oversized home.

One of the things you’ll find across all the streetcar mainstreet architecture with a Bottom, a Middle and a Top.

Clerestory Windows

A regular rhythm of raised entries, and windows

It’s a common pattern. When you build with this pattern in a style like this, it can be a totally modern building if it relates to these patterns. It is possible to working with this scale across the world, applying these principles to any modern building.

The at bottom left building was designed prior to SMILE's adoption of design guidelines. The sketch-over above illustrates how these new guidelines could have been applied to modestly adjust the design to have a better fit with the main street patterns. This top illustration maintains the same density and relates to smaller lot widths, as well as includes local area features, such as roofline forms, arches, etc. (Source: Main Street Design Guidelines)

The future and history of human scale design

“Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish been caught, and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money.” ―Cree Indian Prophecy

Technology at Human Scale describes technologies, rituals and maintenance that create livable and self-sovern conditions for human life and time. Ideally, human scale is buildable by communities and maintainable by communities.

In modernized societies, the ability to modify or choose from a variety of locally-harmonious architectures and building forms is removed from the general public. This fractures communities, increases crime, contributes to physical and mental blight, and contributes to crime. Additionally, working against the environment instead of with it will become increasingly expensive over time. Working on harmonious architectures now will help humanity exist beyond the next few generations.

"Environmental protection is not a luxury for sentimental tree-huggers but a matter of long-term survival for the human race." Janet Townsend, Pleasantville, N.Y., Aug. 9, 1995.

We are the environment. By working alongside the environment, we are ensuring that we will be able to exist. The artificial separation of humans from ‘nature’ was a justification for extractive progress at scale, but we know now: quality does not scale. Concepts of forwards or backwards are aligned with linear time. Nature reproduces. Our cities are a mere blip in natural history. Let’s work with those who have a thousand years of history. Nature has the answers.


Portland Main Street Design Guidelines

Local communities have important knowledge and history they can contribute to helping new buildings fit as our city grows. However, many communities often lack the resources or expertise to know where to start. We provide free and low-bono services to fill the gaps in planning support to help those in need.

Design guidelines highlight strategies for new development any community can use to help new development fit better within our most historic areas while leaving room for creativity and innovation.

Julia Watson. Lo—TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism

In an era of high-tech and climate extremes, we are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. Enter Lo—TEK, a design movement building on indigenous philosophy and vernacular infrastructure to generate sustainable, resilient, nature-based technology. With a foreword by anthropologist Wade Davis and spanning 18 countries from Peru to the Philippines, Tanzania to Iran, this book explores millennia-old human ingenuity on how to live in symbiosis with nature.

A Pattern Language - Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander The book uses words to describe patterns, supported by drawings, photographs, and charts. It describes exact methods for constructing practical, safe, and attractive designs at every scale, from entire regions, through cities, neighborhoods, gardens, buildings, rooms, built-in furniture, and fixtures down to the level of doorknobs.

Grouping these patterns, the authors say, they form a kind of language, each pattern forming a word or thought of a true language rather than a prescriptive way to design or solve a problem. As the authors write on p xiii, "Each solution is stated in such a way, it gives the essential field of relationships needed to solve the problem, but in a very general and abstract way—so you can solve the problem, in your way, by adapting it to your preferences, and the local conditions at the place you are making it."

A notable value is the architectural system consists only of timeless patterns tested in the real world, then reviewed by multiple architects for beauty and practicality. The patterns include provision for future modification and repair, in keeping with the principle the most-satisfying living spaces are those which, like the lives of their occupants, tend to change and evolve over time.

The book values human rights such as freedom, and it shows how architecture can enhance or reduce an individual's sense of freedom.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a 1961 book by writer and activist Jane Jacobs. The book is a critique of 1950s urban planning policy, which it holds responsible for the decline of many city neighborhoods in the United States. The book is Jacobs' best-known and most influential work.

Jacobs was a critic of "rationalist" planners of the 1950s and 1960s, especially Robert Moses, as well as the earlier work of Le Corbusier. She argued that modernist urban planning overlooked and oversimplified the complexity of human lives in diverse communities. She opposed large-scale urban renewal programs that affected entire neighborhoods and built freeways through inner cities. She instead advocated for dense mixed-use development and walkable streets, with the "eyes on the street" of passers-by helping to maintain public order.

Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, by Marc Auge The concept of non-place is opposed, according to Augé, to the notion of "anthropological place". The place offers people a space that empowers their identity, where they can meet other people with whom they share social references. The non-places, on the contrary, are not meeting spaces and do not build common references to a group. Finally, a non-place is a place we do not live in, in which the individual remains anonymous and lonely. Augé avoids making value judgments on non-places and looks at them from the perspective of an ethnologist who has a new field of studies to explore.