Measuring the Unmeasurable: Human Scale in Chinese Cities

Urban Constellations. This is a common metaphor that I have encountered in the fields of human geography and urban studies. The most comprehensive set of global data about urban expansion in the 21st-century(densities, areas, population, etc) considers The-City as a single unit of analysis that shape a Universe of cities. As of 2010, the world hosted 4,231 cities (units) with 100,000 or more people. According to the Atlas of Urban Expansion, the constellation of Urban Asia (East, Southeast, South, Central, and Pacific-it excludes Japan-) contains 47% of these units. Any map of cities projects China and India as the largest concentration of urban geographies today. The notion of ‘instant cities of China’ has been utilized for over the last 30 years to express disorientation and amusement about the pace of urban growth in this country. The size, number, and scale of Chinese settlements produce a sense of overwhelming confusion in the gaze of visitors and urban researchers.

Reid Ewing and Susan Handy (2009) have attempted to objectively measure subjective qualities of the urban street environment. In the paper Measuring the Unmeasurable: Urban Design Qualities Related to Walkability (2009) Ewing and Handy study five design qualities related with physical characteristics of streets and their edges: human scale, transparency, imageability, enclosure, and complexity. The methodology that they follow consists in measuring physical features of streetscapes through 200 video clips that were filmed in dozens of cities across the United States. More than 100 features were measured for each scene.

The definitions of the authors regarding these five urban design qualities are: 1) Human Scale: The size, texture, and articulation of physical elements that match the size and proportions of humans. It also corresponds to the speed at which humans walk. 2) Transparency: The degree to which people can see or perceive human activity beyond the edge of street 3) Imageability: The quality of a place that makes it distinct, recognizable and memorable. 4) Enclosure: The degree to which buildings, walls, trees, and other vertical elements visually define streets and other public spaces. 5) Complexity: It depends on the variety and types of buildings, architectural diversity and ornamentation, landscape elements, street furniture, signage, and human activity. Ewing and Handy (2009).

Measuring the unmeasurable in China. How can we address the question of human scale in Chinese urban contexts?  My current research in Shanghai is focused on analyzing degrees of human scales in the suburbs of the city. The use of video clips is a central method to portray the everyday life of citizens and their interaction with urban space and nature.

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