Human Scale and Cities for People

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I wake up every morning to an air raid alarm from my iPad, just ornery enough to make sure I get out of bed. After hitting the snooze button five times, it’s 6:00 AM by the time I actually leave bed. My floor is mostly clean in the morning, though I’ve often dropped homework or some other project down there, so I do need to be conscious of where I step. Certainly that could be improved, but after years of habit, I know it won’t be.


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After getting dressed, putting my eyeballs in (I wear contacts) and restoring order to my hair, I eat breakfast in the dining room upstairs. Once finished, usually around 6:40 AM, I return downstairs to brush my teeth, shove my school supplies in my bag, throw on something warm if necessary, and leave the house. I walk down the sidewalk in the cool morning air, turn the corner, and keep walking till I reach the bus stop, which is conveniently located two houses down. It’s typically 6:48 AM when I reach the stop, and while I wait I watch the sunrise over the mountains to the east, rays fanning across the sky to signal the sun’s soon arrival. The 62 bus arrives at 6:52 AM. I board and begin the hour-and-a-half commute from my home in West Jordan to the University of Utah.

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The girl I have been dating, Jasmin, grew up in Lewiston, Idaho, a fundamentally rural place. She teased me one day by calling me a “city boy.” I replied, “Well, I’m not really a city boy. I grew up in the suburbs, so I’m a suburban boy, which is worse than either the city or country.”

Jan Gehl’s film Human Scale discussed the rolling out of the suburban housing “carpet” when it discussed the reinvigoration of Melbourne, Australia. The film said things about suburbs that I had realized years ago just from daily life, things that make me disappointed with every new housing project that springs up. Suburbs are perhaps the most antisocial arrangement for human settlement. Everyone owns their own home and yard, and a suburban home has reached its ideal when one does not need to leave his home. People barely use their front lawns, for that matter! Everyone is cooped up within their walls, the world they’ve created, and they can go all day without stepping outside. Since the suburbs are the domain of cars, sidewalks barely accommodate two people hand-in-hand, and are typically empty. As was discussed in class, one reason why I hardly ever walk in my neighborhood is because there’s no good answer to “Where to?” One mile of uninviting houses is the same as another, so I would be better off driving.


The film said things about suburbs that I had realized years ago just from daily life, things that make me disappointed with every new housing project that springs up. 

One can walk for miles and see nothing but house after house after house after house, each one a bubble not meant to be popped. I rarely interact with my neighbors; I can only think of two block parties in my life where my neighborhood actually felt like a community. Perhaps it would be different if I were Mormon and went to church with my neighbors every Sunday. But I am outside that community (and will never enter it), so my neighborhood is nothing but dull.

Could this change? In truth, I have little confidence it will. Emphasis would have to shift away from personal space to public, community space, and I can’t think of any way to do so without bulldozing suburbs and restarting from scratch, combined with shifting new construction from housing to apartments or condominiums. Perhaps I lack imagination. If that’s the case, it will come in time. In the meantime, the solution for me is to not live in suburbs anymore. I find them a dull purgatory between city and country life, not being either one or the other. I hope living in the city within walking distance of multiple venues may bring a new spice to life that I only experienced in Washington, DC. Of course, that would depend on living in the right city.


After stepping on the bus, I take a seat towards the back, put headphones in my ears, and listen to music while I read or write something related to my studies. The bus will make a few more stops through my neighborhood, picking up passengers along the way, before turning onto Cougar Lane. About ten minutes later at a stop outside a community center, Jasmin will board the bus, and she will either sit by me (if I somehow managed to keep a seat free) or we will both stand, and for the rest of the journey to the University of Utah we enjoy each other’s company. (She and I met on that bus; it was a chance encounter between strangers that turned into something more.) The bus drives on to the Trax Fashion Place West station, and while there are a few businesses along the way, the route never ceases to be suburban.

The morning bus’s schedule lines up with Trax’s Red Line schedule well, so we are not long at the station before we board the train. There is not a seat for one (let alone for two), so we stand for the remainder of the trip. The train moves quickly, and finally, after perhaps thirty minutes, I have escaped the suburbs. After 50 minutes, the train enters downtown Salt Lake City. We pass the city library, Trolley Square, numerous restaurants, coffee shops, bars, grocery stores, and tattoo parlors before the 900 South stop. The train then climbs up the foothill to the University of Utah, swinging around the two initial curves, giving a good view of the valley all the way to the Oquirh Mountains and the Great Salt Lake to the west. Upon reaching Stadium, we exit the train, tapping off, and walk the rest of the way to class. 


Los Angeles was the first major city I visited, and I was 19 at the time. Prior to then, the only city I had visited was Boise, a city inferior even to Salt Lake City (although, truth be told, I don’t remember much of it). So for most of my life, downtown Salt Lake City represented “the city,” with the iconic tall buildings, the light rail, and the exotic shops and restaurants. It is hardly a bad city, but there is room for improvement.

Consider this: one of my favorite times in Salt Lake City is the time of year when a small portion of the city, the City Library and City Hall, becomes similar to the pedestrian city described in Human Scale: that is, the Utah Arts Festival. When I go to the arts festival, I am not too interested in what I buy at the end of the day (if anything). I enjoy simply walking from booth to booth, looking at artists wares, discovering something new, grabbing some food from a vendor on the closed-off street and eating it while sitting on the grass. I think this is similar to the pedestrian experience that Gehl calls for, similar to the experiences I had in New York and Washington or even simply Park City.

Compare that to walking from Trolley Square to the library along 500 South any other time of the year. This is a time when the pedestrian experience is onerous, and the only concern is going from point A to point B. With a wide street to the left and supermarkets or banks to the right, there is little to enjoy.

What if 400 South was remade into a pedestrian-friendly street year-round?

Admittedly, I don’t believe every street needs to offer a tantalizing experience to pedestrians. Perhaps I could experience something better in another part of town, other than 500 South. For example, I recall my first semester of college when Prof. Kubarycz, my Intellectual Traditions II professor, took the class for a walk through Salt Lake City, dropping in on art galleries, wrapping up the evening with pizza at Este Pizza and a back-alley concert. In addition to that walk, winter strolls through Temple Square are always fun, and as a child I remember my family around Christmas time walking through the city to see the displays. All of these seem to be the pedestrian experiences that Gehl calls for, and they happened right in Salt Lake City.

But Salt Lake City has not had the reinvigoration that New York City or Copenhagen has had. Salt Lake City’s urban planners have not yet appreciated the importance of pedestrians’ experience. But I am optimistic, believing this not to be because of disinterest but rather because of ignorance, which can be remedied.

What would it be like if my morning commute were different, if the city had experienced a transformation? What if 400 South was remade into a pedestrian-friendly street year-round? The train would likely move slowly to accommodate the new traffic. The sidewalks would be wider, and the restaurants, coffee shops, and bars would expand into the new space along with new street side cafes. Perhaps more people than just the homeless would hang around the library. While my morning commute likely wouldn’t change, maybe in the evening commute I would get off the train at 900 East and use Salt Lake City’s new Bikeshare system to ride to the Courthouse station, flanked on either side by a flurry of pedestrian activity, street peddlers, and novel new stores, galleries, and restaurants. Perhaps I’d even experience more chance encounters.

It’s a possibility worth considering.

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