On the Importance of the Human Scale in Walkable Cities
F. Kaid Benfield notices that advocacy groups such as Smart Growth America tend to select pictures of historic, mid-density, mixed-use districts when showing the benefits of walkable, "smart growth" cities. According to Benfield, "We use examples like these to illustrate our advocacy because they represent many of the qualities that newer suburban sprawl lacks but that we would like to see in more urban and suburban neighborhoods: walkability, density, and a diverse mix of uses, to name three."
"But I think there’s more going on than that….I submit that a huge reason why people feel attracted to and comfortable in historic neighborhoods is not just because of their familiarity and walkability but also because they present urban density at a human scale."
Rather than focusing just on density as a panacea for suburban ills, Benfield explains that some benefits of more compact living—such as reductions in impervious pavements (in the transportation network serving sprawl) and the use of cars (in the transportation network serving sprawl)—are found at the "lower end of the density spectrum": "the environmental gains begin to diminish at a density of about 20 homes per acre, and there is little additional benefit to these indicators as density increases beyond about 60 homes per acre."
Instead of density as the measure of smart growth and walkability success, or for density's sake, Benfield suggests that urbanists should consider the human scale as promoted by Jan Gehl as critical to the walkability of neighborhoods.