Cities are animals.
Daily, we are shot through their tunnels and avenues, blood cells of a greater being. We exchange our mental and bodily energy for…wealth, power, CO₂, heat, garbage, human progress? The diasystolic beat of urban procession was perceived by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who described his design process for New Gourna:
“When planning a city one has to consider the man who is being planned for…using all the forms of planning that create strong impressions and changes of mood as well as a feeling of expansion; an increasing generalization that begins when he goes from his house to the side street, and then to the main street, the square and finally to the centre of town in a graduation of scales that is something like a crescendo in music.
The opposite should happen when this man comes back home from the centre of town – decrescendo.”
From “Hassan Fathy” by James Steele, Academy Editions, London 1988, excerpt from a previously unpublished manuscript
I would add that this scale continues into our dwellings, from public entertaining rooms to domestic spaces – the veins and capillaries of our communal existence.
If we consider our cities as higher-order beings, why design them on life support? Before coal, solar, and nuclear power, we relied on our own energy. We spent millennia studying the wind and sun, optimizing our structures to thrive on them. This habit will not die quickly. As technology advances beyond our intuitive grasp, unease rises deep in our psyche. We throw the windows open, escape to the garden, and reject the nightless, dayless, floodlit and conditioned spaces that are the inheritance of our progress. Modern standards of comfort should build upon natural systems, not against them.
What is good for the body is good for its cells. Urban planners must consider the human scale of their plans. From a God’s-eye view above their drawings, designers often privilege a beautiful diagram and traffic flow over the experience of each resident. Scale is a critical issue. We need interruptions. We need nuance. We need destinations to draw our interest, and collective investment. In this era of unprecedented mobility, cities must be functional and interesting in order to survive.
Working site plan for Hill Town Resort project (drawing by the author)
Cities can be improved at their greatest scale. A modern grid looks a bit like a hurricane, or galaxy. Lazy, sweeping arms of suburbia spiral denser and hotter towards the center, at its peak giving way to a void – the central plaza. This pattern is the universal result of unregulated urban growth. Everybody jostles into one center, then retreat to the periphery, day after day. Traffic, infrastructure, pollution, and stress come with the single-centered commute.
This can be alleviated by looking to the past. When people walked to work, our world was smaller. The size of a sustainable urban district, containing its own ecosystem of businesses, residences, and retail, was limited to a half mile radius – a ten to fifteen-minute leisurely walk. A certain density and street pattern naturally took form in thriving neighborhoods. We could develop cities like Atlanta and Houston by increasing density and diversity of uses around popular destination points. Targeted infill, within the present boundaries. These sprawling cities could become clusters of semi-autonomous quarters, rather than suburbs feeding a Central Business District. Scale will refocus on the pedestrian, rather than the vehicle. Traffic will subside and leafy, brick-paved streets will become public spaces again. And we can all return to our ancestral roots as Paleo-hipsters on bikeshares.
Lincoln Square, Chicago – a neighborhood for people, not cars (drawing by the author)