Towards human scale cities – Reflections on the 15th NECTAR conference

Human scale cities and their planning were at the heart of 15th international NECTAR conference organized in Helsinki. Here’s a tour to the key discussions of the conference.

Neglected human dimensions in cities

Cities are for people. Human scale cities have been at the heart of thinking of Jan Gehl, a renowed Danish architect who has devoted his long career for promoting human scale thinking in designing and planning cities. According to Gehl’s main principles, cities should be designed to support human perception and senses. They should attract people to interact, stay and explore.

Yet, many cities do exactly the opposite. Most cities are failing to account for the human dimension. Massive concrete buildings and skyscrapers characterize most major cities making anyone feel himself small, who is watching them from the street-level. Six-lane highways penetrate through cities leaving little space for pedestrians and cyclists to explore the city. Endless traffic jams create pollution, noise and a risk of accident, driving away people from the city space and causing massive environmental and societal costs. As a consequence, empty and uninviting street spaces decrease the feel of safety and security, which are crucial for well-functioning cities.  Yet, these are just glimpses of the problems associated to current cities, many of which are still growing despite decades of urbanization.

The change is coming from the grassroots

This situation is however changing argued the keynote speaker Mikael Colville-Andersen at the opening event of the 15th biennial NECTAR conference. Like-minded thinker to Gehl, Colville-Andersen has profiled himself as an urban design activist promoting what he calls life-sized cities through his work and TV-series. Cities are waking up to the problems after decades of car-centric planning, but the source and pressure to this change is coming from the local communities and people, argued Colville-Andersen in his opening talk. Citizen movements are increasingly active in demanding for more liveable cities and creating pressure for politicians to respond to these calls.

The NECTAR conference Towards Human Scale Cities – Open and Happy was organized 5th-7th June 2019 in Helsinki by Digital Geography Lab and University of Helsinki together with Aalto University, Helsinki Institute for Sustainability Science (HELSUS), Urbaria, and the City of Helsinki. The three-day event brought together transport and mobility researchers from all over the world to discuss and present views on how transportation and mobility should be organized to make cities more sustainable and pleasant for the citizens and how transport policies, open data and digital technologies could contribute these aims. The participants were welcomed at the opening event by the chair of the local organizing committee Prof. Tuuli Toivonen and the chair of NECTAR, Prof. Karst Geurs.

Focus on interaction and accessibility

One of the key elements in Gehl’s human scale cities is that they facilitate human interaction. Perhaps by this reason, many discussions in the conference were focusing on spatial accessibility since one of the classical definitions of accessibility by Walter Hansen from 1959 is the potential of opportunities for interaction. The presenters were focusing on how accessibility is enabling people to interact and how transportation projects are affecting accessibility on different scales from local to continental and urban to rural.

Present in several talks was also how new measures like experiences and exposures should be considered as alternative ways to measure accessibility, to account for the human dimension better than in traditional approaches, which often only focus on travel time and distance. Humans are complex and multidimensional beings who are constantly evolving. Instead of ignoring this fact, we should embrace these complexities and avoid focusing only on easily quantifiable measures, emphasized Prof. Milos Mladenovic, the organizer of Aalto University Summer School on Transportation, which collaborated with this year’s NECTAR conference.

Inequalities in cities

Another encompassing conference topic was inequality and social justice. While sustainable mobility might be most easily achieved in cities where most people live, cities are also currently places where inequalities run the deepest. This argument by Dr. Tim Schwanen, the transport director from University of Oxford, set the scene for the second conference day, which his keynote talk opened in Tiedekulma. Social sustainability is vital for human scale cities and it relates very much to capabilities of individuals and groups to be mobile. When accessibility options using any other travel mode than car are limited, the most disadvantaged groups often suffer the most. But even walking and cycling can be unequal modes in some cities, argued Schwanen. Put from another perspective, new technologies and services such as Mobility as a Service or bike-sharing systems often end up to benefit disproportionately those who are already well-off without reducing social inequalities. Various critical approaches from researchers are then needed to consider and make visible these inequalities and needs of different groups, who are easily forgotten.

Towards human scale cities

How to plan human scale cities then and who has the responsibility to do it? This question was central to the panel discussion, which brought together some of the key conference topics by giving a say to different actors of city development from planning and private sector to research. Collaboration between different stakeholders is naturally the key to create a common vision for human scale cities, but inevitably values of different actors are bound to clash at some point, agreed the panelists. We should also look beyond technology to human networks in thinking how to make our cities better. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the sharing economy. Yet, 50 years ago most people still knew their neighbour who could borrow them a car when needed, but these kind of ties have become less common, the panelists reminded. As a replacement, technological solutions have been developed to compensate the lack of these types of human networks.

Nordic capitals such as the conference venue Helsinki, which describes itself as the most functioning city in the world, and Copenhagen, the poster child of human scale transportation with its highest modal share of cyclists among world capitals, often top the lists of happiest city comparisons. In many other cities globally, the current situation with human scale development is less bright and there are less reasons to be optimistic about the future. But does that mean that Nordic cities are the closest to human scale cities we can get?

Maybe here we can follow the argument of Tim Schwanen who concluded that wellbeing is always in the making, never a discrete state inhabited by an individual. Drawing a line to wellbeing, a human scale city might not be state of being, but a process always in the making. Positive and negative developments are simultaneous and cities or even areas within cities not always go into the same direction. Different forces contest who has the right to determine the course of the city and the outcome will look different depending on who is the spectator.  We can then only strive towards human scale cities, as most cities hopefully will do, but can actually never be quite there.

Cover photo: Wooden Helsinki by Julia Kivelä 

Elias Willberg is a PhD candidate at the Digital Geography Lab (University of Helsinki) and acted as the head of the conference secretariat at NECTAR 2019 in Helsinki