How Did We Get Used to Out-of-Scale Cities?

People tend to have a narrow scale of spatial comfort. We regularly adjust our surroundings to arrive at a setting we feel comfortable in. We make small rooms feel larger with windows, mirrors, and by keeping them uncluttered. We make large rooms more inviting by arranging furniture to create multiple small rooms. Think hotel lobbies, or the way restaurants arrange tables.

All of these design techniques involve what’s called the “ human scale ”—creating spaces that are the right size and layout for a person to feel comfortable. The human scale also has important economic impacts that we’ll touch on in a bit.

When good architects design buildings, they use people as the foundational size metric. The size of most office buildings has a strong correlation with how many people the architect designs the building to accommodate. The same principle applies to homes, stores, schools, restaurants, and other structures. Admittedly, this varies a bit depending on wealth, but for the most part we see this pattern everywhere. It’s a pattern we expect to find in the places we inhabit.

However, as this post will explore, much of our modern public realm is far out of proportion to the human scale.