When Urban Design Makes People Feel Like Ants

What is this, a center for ants?!

Male model Derek Zoolander hit the nail on the head when pointed out that the scale of the model for his Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good was just not quite right. Jokes aside – and he may not have realized this at the time – Zoolander was actually hinting at a much deeper issue that has been affecting our transportation habits for the past several decades.

Ever been to Toronto’s downtown financial district and realized how many of the skyscrapers there literally can make you feel like an ant? Take the TD Bank Tower, for example. Built as Toronto’s original skyscraper, this building’s larger-than-life construction dwarfs its guests as they approach the building across its massive, barren stone courtyard, look up at its 56 floors, and enter through its triple height lobby.

We often don’t consider the scale of our surroundings, because well-designed environments are built to a level of scale that just makes sense. A neighborhood designed for walking, for example, features small, dense businesses and buildings laid out such that at a comfortable walking pace, one can experience many diverse businesses in just a few minutes of walking. Similarly, an area designed for driving contains features that are more spread out, so that the average driver can experience most of the surroundings as they travel through the area at higher speeds.

But sometimes our mode of travel is incompatible with the scale of our communities, and when this happens, the result is a feeling of discomfort, confusion, and stress. Imagine trying to drive down Toronto’s Yonge Street while looking in the window of every storefront passed – trying to do such a thing while navigating traffic, stoplights, and speed limits is next to impossible even for the most confident, skilled driver.

On the other hand, this same stressful feeling is experienced by pedestrians and cyclists attempting to navigate suburban communities. Imagine trying to navigate a typical North American “Big Box Store” plaza – the dispersion of businesses and other features beyond a “human” scale lead to feelings of isolation and frustration. It’s no wonder more people don’t walk or cycle in these types of environments!

Scale can have real consequences when it comes to land use. Communities designed to be conducive for automobile travel are inherently more spread out, making less efficient use of the land they are built on. Low, flat buildings with huge parking lots are set far back from the road and any sidewalks that do exist run alongside the busy street and terminate at the edge of the parking lot, leaving pedestrians to fend for themselves. Even when cities try to encourage biking and walking by adding painted lanes and wider sidewalks, the anticipated benefits are often never realized quite simply because that kind of environment is just not a desirable place for pedestrians and cyclists to be.

Clearly something needs to change, but change cannot happen overnight – managing scale of development is a task that requires long-term thinking. Increasing density results in reduced parking availability and the need for viable transportation alternatives, which might suggest that the transit capacity needs to exist first. However, justifying transit expansion purely based on future demand can be very difficult to do, and often these projects can go unfunded. The result is the need for a single strategy for urban regions which encompass both transportation and development needs. Organizations like Metrolinx in the GTHA are actively addressing this need. Metrolinx’s Mobility Hubs program identifies areas with high levels of current for future planned transit as areas with great potential for increased density and mixed-use development.

We need to make a serious decision about how we want to design our communities going forward. We certainly aren’t designing for ants, so why should people have to feel like ants when they try to navigate their built environments on foot? Walkable communities are vibrant desirable places which encourage active lifestyles, and help to reduce our society’s ever increasing carbon footprint.

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