- Urban development
Transition tales #6: In search of the Human Scale
The secret of liveable cities
Our next story takes us to Copenhagen, Denmark. Scoring among the highest cities on ‘liveability’ and ‘happiness’ indexes makes one wonder, what it the secret to that success?
The general answer seems to be that citizen-focused planning is still at the heart of Copenhagen’s developments. This brings up the concept of working at a ‘human scale’ when it comes to urban transformations. It entails exploring the interactions between humans and their physical surroundings, before changing the cityscape with dramatically over-scaled buildings that ignore the human context of the city. Copenhagen’s secret seems to be that it relies on its capability to maintain the original housing stock, promote extensive pedestrian zones and foster a strong bicycle culture.
‘One group was pushing cars out of the city whilst others were trying to push them in’ – Jan Ghel
What Copenhagen did was to re-think the modernist movement that was going through Europe in the 1060s and 70s. In that time, the planning vision was dominated by utopian images of cars in the sky and grand boulevards with shiny skyscrapers side-by-side. The Danish questioned the pragmatism of this movement, arguing for a more human-scale approach to planning that would maintain the traditional place-making alive.
“In the 60s and 70s, we thought that if you built huge blocks with apartments and efficient traffic systems, everyone would be happy … But quality of life is more than square metres, concrete, lifts, motorways and subways.” – Søren Elle (Copenhagen Transport Department)
The Danish mode of planning argues for the usefulness of place-making as a tool for creating a human scale city. What they put forth is the idea that any given place has to be defined by its own community, in order to function harmoniously, as such the transformation scale has to be locally embedded. Place-making is not only a community-led process, but more importantly a human-led intervention. This means that change is driven by a group of individuals with connections to their physical surroundings, not solely by trends in the real estate market, zoning laws or other city agencies.
The ‘human-scale’ conceptualisation of planning seems to point towards the main dichotomy which we are faced with nowadays: the top-down vs. bottom-up perspectives. Danish architect Jan Ghel, one of the main supporters of the ‘human-scale’ perspective, advises on the risks posed by the highly top-down, professionalised perspective held by planning departments. He argues that making city-wide changes in zoning from a ‘Lego’ point of view lacks a key component: reinterpretation of space. The appropriation of space and success of planning initiatives are driven by the way in which individuals connect with the physical surroundings. What Jan Ghel emphasises is that planning nowadays overlooks one important aspect, the fact that city making is a continuous process, not an outcome.
Considered by most “the last living worldwide renowned guru in urbanism” architect Jan Gehl has been rebuilding cities to accommodate the needs of modern societies for the past fifty years. He has been involved in transforming major cities, from Sao Paolo to Copenhagen, Moscow and Singapore, having at the centre of his focus the individual-oriented scale.
Watch the inspirational video below to learn more about how to make cities liveable.
The stories we present reside at the intersection of planning, culture, politics and economics. We introduce a series of weekly uploads from a number of sources (conferences, interviews, summits), that offer a better image on the way cities are changing and what are the ideas behind this transitioning.