Globalization has undoubtedly provided many economic and cultural opportunities, and allowed people to move more fluidly around regions and throughout the world. It has allowed many people to zoom out, and to be able to apprehend much of the globe.
There are many factors contributing to this. On one hand, there is the economic imperative – the exhortations to us by advertisements to become part of larger and larger target markets: such as “Disney World”, the “Pepsi Generation” and “Nike’s Better World”. The success of brands such as Coca Cola, Apple, Google and McDonald’s show how recognition and familiarity across diverse cultures can boost business, and companies strive to develop unique and memorable logos and products.
On the other hand, there is the human desire that we have to be part of a larger community and to feel connected. Changes in technology combined with new social media have expanded this almost beyond belief. But at the same time, it has also meant that people are less likely, or less able, to zoom in, and to comprehend their own places. From an urban design approach, this raises several points related both to the process of getting to know our places, as well as to the places themselves and their contemporary qualities.
Archimedes, Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci and le Corbusier were among the geniuses from times past who developed systems of measurements based on human proportions, and applied them to their craft. Later on, measurements such as the foot, the hand, the cubit and the yard became commonly accepted ways of quantifying distances or areas. These were anthropic, that is, they were derived directly from the dimensions of the human body, and most people would be able to relate to these units because they meant something personally. Human scale really meant something. How many people today know the length of their own pace, or the area of their back yard, or the distance to the store? We perhaps know more about cyberspace than we do about our own environments.
As our society has become more and more reliant on the automobile, it has also needed to emphasize technological standards for safety and efficiency. The implications of this are clear if we compare the vehicular circulation network with the pedestrian network. It is highly unusual to have a road width change or abruptly stop – that would obviously be a whole series of accidents waiting to happen. But think about the pedestrian network – how many times do paths change widths and materials, and how many times do sidewalks just end? Does it make sense to be privileging one mode of transportation over another? Of course not, but unless we zoom back in, we don’t notice. The constant reference point should, since we are building settlements for people, be the human experience and the human scale.
At the level of the neighbourhood, we have also zoomed out, to our collective detriment and growing dismay. Places that used to be fine-grained, in terms of the distribution of land uses and activities, have now been supplanted by coarse-grained single-use areas. It is difficult to find places where it is possible to walk to all of our daily activities, from work, to shopping, to entertainment, to recreation. Driving is necessary, and since we default to that mode of transportation, our perceptions also change. We are no longer the slow-moving pedestrian that notices and is affected by the details. At the faster speed of the car, the visual quality of the environment becomes a blur, and therefore out of our concern.
But all of these things do matter. The quality of our experience and the quality of the visual environment are profoundly important aspects. How we can transition back to a human-scaled physical world, while still embracing what technology has to offer, is an underlying objective of the PlanYourPlace project. By combining the skills and knowledge of several disciplines, we will try to find tools that allow people to re-engage, on a detailed and personal level, with their neighbourhoods. Zooming in again could give citizens a chance to have more meaningful input on the inevitable changes that cities go through.