Sam Sullivan’s response to “The Human Scale”

Sam Sullivan’s response to “The Human Scale”

Jan Gehl and his disciples begin with a refreshing yet ancient approach to city building – that the function of a city should be more important than its form. They study how humans actually interact with their environment and seek to maximize utility and enjoyment. They start from the same place as the modernists.

They rightly rail against the utopian planners of the 1960s who led the suburban revolution of freeways and low-density suburbs. Professional planners have always had a necessary anti-urban bent with their emphasis on separating uses and buildings. This has been a successful strategy in improving industrial cities of more than 100 years ago but it has been continued far beyond its usefulness.

Yet here the liberating “form follows function” is replaced by a different utopian vision equally prescriptive. Once again “function follows form” but now the prescription is not freeways and suburbs but a hostility to buildings over six stories.

The reasons for Copenhagen’s height limits made sense 100 years ago before elevators and mobility issues and environmental awareness. And when John Starley invented the modern bicycle in 1885 this form integrated nicely.

There was a time in Vancouver when the market was relatively free to innovate and “form followed function”. The West End rose from its suburban past in a cacophony of different building types. Towers played an important role in keeping the price of housing down and preventing sprawl.

The Copenhagen model has low enough and consistent densities that the bicycle is a preferred method of travel. This is not the case at least in downtown Vancouver where high-rise towers have made it possible for greater numbers of people to live in the downtown in an area approximately 3 km x 2 km. Copenhagen rarely exceeds 5000 people per square kilometer whereas downtown Vancouver can have three times that density.

Observations indicate that bicycles are the preferred non-automobile mode for trips from 2 km to 8 km. In Vancouver the three most bicycle dominant neighborhoods are Point Grey, South Cambie and Grandview Woodlands. These are largely “suburban” neighbourhoods. In the high density downtown, bicycle use is closer to that of distant suburbs. As in Manhattan and other very high density neighborhoods, although good bicycle facilities are an important part of the mix, the preferred mode of travel will be by foot.

The movie was notable for its attempt to try to explain the irrational phobia against height. It claims that the reasons to oppose high buildings is “fresh air, exercise, meeting people”. Although I appreciate the effort I fail to see a necessary connection between these.

The uncomfortable relationship between professional planner and citizen was highlighted. Social scientists study the behavior of people and how they interact with their environment; their observations and conclusions are highly sophisticated. But they also go through elaborate processes to have people tell them what they want. Experts travel to Christchurch New Zealand on the far side of the world and the citizens miraculously say what they want is – Copenhagen.

Technology and communication and an awareness of the damage that humans can do to the environment through sprawl and climate changing greenhouse gas emissions requires new thinking about cities. Architects, engineers, social scientists and yes developers have much to contribute to the design of our cities. They are aware of the important developments in technology and the demands of the market. Both the six-story city and the bicycle were important in the development of European cities. But things change. We have new technologies and new market demands.

We should hold tightly to the maxim that “form follows function”. And just as we question planners who give us freeways and sprawl, we should be just as suspicious of a priori prescriptive injunctions against height.

Read More at the Doxa Festival


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