Monday, May 16, 2011

Human Scale Design in Central Honolulu: Part 1

(This is the first part of my independent study project in the Spring of 2011.  Special thanks to Professor Luciano Minerbi for agreeing to quarterback this project and for his help along the way.)

Human Scale Design in Central Honolulu
Reclaiming the King-Beretania Corridor for People in the McCully-Mo’ili’ili Neighborhood
By Alex Broner

Part 1: A Personal Story.
                When I first moved to Honolulu in the summer of 2010 I rented a room on the other side of the highway from the McCully-Mo’ili’ili (MM) neighborhood and the couplet of King and Beretania Street.  I checked online and found a grocery store to which I could make my first food shopping trip. I then donned my backpack and set out on foot. What I found shocked me. First of all I was amazed by the fast paced and aggressive nature of the vehicle traffic. On my first outing I found myself nearly struck down on several occasions and at other times befuddled by the need to ask permission to cross the street by pressing a button.  Eventually I arrived at my destination, the Times Supermarket on King Street. Actually; I walked past the supermarket twice because the shape of the store was so unexpected. This is what greeted me: 

Photo credit: Google
Note that the entire side of the building facing the sidewalk is almost completely blank. The sign on the side is angled in such a way as to be more visible from the street than it is from the sidewalk. On the whole this is a building that dismisses the pedestrian and heaps attention on the automobile.
What this building represents is a failure of architecture to take into account urban context. In the part of New Jersey where I grew up, buildings such as this are the norm for the kind of low density suburban development that is prevalent.  The McCully Mo’ili’ili neighborhood is anything but suburban, as evidenced by the multi-story residential building is the background of this photo.
Contrast this building with another urban supermarket, that of this QFC supermarket located on Broadway Avenue in Seattle, Washington:

Photo credit: Google.
The whole front entrance is right at the edge of the sidewalk. Pedestrians can see in while people inside can see out. No one worries about being mugged on the sidewalk next to the building because there are always eyes watching. The sign is turned towards the sidewalk and can be seen by pedestrians from blocks away. Also notice that the street, while nearly as wide as King Street in Honolulu, is used in a different manner. Only 2 out of 5 lanes are used for through traffic, making this an imminently easy street to cross. Barely visible in this picture are the overhead trolleywires that power the quiet and clean running trolleybuses that run regularly.
                Note also that these stores exist in neighborhoods that are substantially similar in their relationship to the wider city context. Both McCully Mo’ili’ili and Capitol Hill are located between the Dowtown/Chinatown commercial core and major state Universities. Major bus routes between downtown and the university pass through each neighborhood and in both cities a high capacity rail system is will connect the neighborhoods even more thoroughly than the buses do now.
                The point of this vignette is not to beat up on Honolulu or raise up Seattle as a paradigm of virtue. Each city has its own problems and opportunities and its own rich history. Some neighborhoods in Seattle are as auto oriented and unpleasant to walk around as any in Honolulu while some neighborhoods in Honolulu are very enjoyable to walk around. One of the major factors influencing whether a neighborhood is a walkable or not seems to be when it was originally developed.  We see that neighborhoods built before 1950 tending to have human scale design while those after 1950 tending to favor the automobile.  This isn’t because the human being changed in its physiology or essential needs in 1950, rather our design conventions changed.  The assumption of autopian thinking was that a human can be perfectly happy spending life going from parking lot to parking lot. This kind of thinking resulted in the devastation of our public space and substantial squandering of public resources on the endless duplication of roads and parking spaces.
The reason I bring this history up is that because the change in how we design things was a product of intellectual trends in design, we have the power to change again. What differentiates this new push for human oriented design from the older pattern that originally influenced the form of Capitol Hill Seattle is that this time we need to be quite explicit in defining what we intend.  Our plans shouldn’t mindlessly follow some pre-existing form simply because it’s “traditional” but rather we should be conscious in our choices. Only by engaging with the needs and limitations of the human beings can we create places that embrace our humanity.

What is human scale design?
Human scale design is design that takes into account the social, psychological, and physiological needs of people who will use the built environment. While one would think that attention to human needs would always be first and foremost in the attention of planners, architects, and landscape designers, the reality is that the attention of these professionals is on considerations other than the people who will inhabit their creations. How else to explain manifestly unpleasant creations such as the Boston City Plaza?(Kuenstler 2004) Danish architect and planning visionary Jan Gehl observes “… in 50 years nobody has systematically looked after a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens. We have written very few books about it. There’s been very little research done. We definitely know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than we do know about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens.”(Interview with Jan Gehl, )
I started this project with the intent of reading some of the most important of these “handful” of books. As I progressed in my reading I couldn’t help but contrast what I was reading with the degraded, auto oriented environment around me. When I started as a planning student at the University of Hawaii I thought coming up with a plan for improving this neighborhood would be my final project. After reading up on human scale design I came to realize that developing a plan all by myself and putting it on paper would not take more than a semester’s effort, and that the more involved work would be to put this plan into action. Towards this latter end, I have begun assembling a community group under the name “Community Building Action Squad”(CBAS). CBAS will work with various stakeholders in the neighborhoods near the University of Hawaii campus on projects to improve the built environment.  It is in this context that one can consider this paper a first chapter of a much deeper body of work that is still in progress.


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