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Urbanization series: A human-scale urban Willemstad (5)

Written by Caspar Tromp

The suburbanization of modern times has created new problems that are challenging to reverse due to its large-scale implementation world-wide. Yet, a sustainable urban solution is possible, but it needs a paradigm change in city planning as well. This new sustainable urban solution is a dense city that balances both human needs of social contact and privacy, safety and adventure. It integrates the physical and social realms. It is human-scale.

Human-scale is a word that is currently popular among urban planners and designers, especially those with an innovative and activist instinct. The principles of human-scale design are so important, that they are even incorporated into the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 11 of “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. But what does this abstract term actually mean?

To put it simply, human-scale is the design of the built environment experienced as comfortable or pleasant by a pedestrian walking 5km/hour. Pedestrians do not take up much space and prefer smaller distances and thus smaller spaces. Hence, the city is more compact and denser. Uses of living, shops and work are mixed and within walking distance. Walking slower and closer to their environment, people have more time and are more capable of observing their surroundings. They see more details of buildings and natural surroundings. There are also more things to observe and to be surprised by when many things are happening at the same time on the streets. Instinctively, people feel safe and stimulated with the presence of others, hence we tend to seek out places where other people hang out.

Human-scale is not really rocket science. It rather includes a lot of psychology and even some cultural differences, which makes briefly describing the term difficult. Yet, with our human psychology and biology, there are major tendencies in what kind of environment we generally prefer or do not prefer.

To get an idea of what human-scale looks like on Curaçao, one does not have to go far away but will have to look at the past. The old houses and alleys of Punda, Otrobanda, Pietermaai, and Scharloo were designed for a human-scale because modern construction and mobility technologies did not yet exist at that time. The city needed to be compact to allow for short walking distance, probably even more with the tropical heath. Architects were very scarce and most buildings were built by craftsmen and artisans who could have been good at what they were doing, but who could neither read or write. To design the dimensions of spatial order, windows, floors, doors, and gables, measurements were often done using the human body. A window, for example, could have the size of two by three elbows. Hence, buildings were literally built with a human scale. To interact with people on the streets and to cool down the houses, additional open galleries were built in front of the houses in Punda. To show off status, inhabitants competed in beautifying their houses’ gables. Intuitively, we appreciate this urban design and architecture because we sense its humanity, something we consider charming.

This is why cities such as Willemstad, Amsterdam, Cartagena, and Venice not only get titles as UNESCO world heritage but also draw so many people together. Even though old historical inner cities in the past were often too crowded and in lack of basic amenities, slowly urban planners come to realize that they had many attractive qualities. Not that we should build Disney-like copies of old cities, but we could take from the past elements that worked and could provide identity while using modern innovations that enhance liveability. Finally, designing a human-scale city is also about realizing that people make the city first, and secondly the buildings. It is a people-centered approach that is socially inclusive, that looks at space from the human perspective and which improves livelihoods.

Here I present a vision of what a human-scale Willemstad might look like.

Houses and buildings are built on a dense human-scale similar to those of Willemstad’s inner-city. The openness of windows and balconies allow for interaction between the streets and buildings, and the streets and public areas are designed in such a way that they not only prioritize humans but also attract them to slowly stroll, sit down and hang around to socialize. The land is used sustainably and open spaces – especially in the Inner City – are built on various smaller plots to house local people and businesses in mixed-use areas.

The built environment and architecture have a healthy balance between orderliness and chaos, creating an attractive city that is diverse, playful and spontaneous. The city is open in the sense that it is fluid and flexible for (ex)change, socially inclusive and co-created by its people. Public spaces are friendly to children, elderly and women who safely play, move and hang out. Streets are accessible and removed from gates and gated communities. There is ample greenery and nature present in its dense streets, bringing biodiversity, shade and health benefits.

Close walking distances and public transport to services and amenities mean that many streets have become free of cars, resulting in safer streets and less noise and air pollution. This will increase liveability, liveliness on the streets and a stronger social cohesion in neighborhoods. A higher population density per square kilometer not only creates more demographic support for commerce, services and culture in the area, it also results in more tax revenues to maintain a smaller surface of infrastructure.

As people spend more time in attractive public places, our sense of connection to others and belonging to a place increases, improving our well-being. Still, the design of domestic architecture makes sure that, through a patio, for example, there is a tranquil, private sanctuary in your house to retreat to from the stresses of work and life. Architecture is innovatively adapted to the local climate, reducing energy consumption and providing a pleasant climate at home.

Now that you have an idea of what human-scale is: how do you imagine a liveable and pleasant Willemstad?

This story is part of the ‘Urbanization’ series on Willemstad written by Caspar Tromp. In this six-part series, Caspar takes us on a journey to learn about how urban life in Willemstad has developed over the past decades.


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  2. Gehl, J. (2010). Cities for People. Washington: Island Press.

  3. Sennet, R. (2018). Building and dwelling, ethics for the city. Allen Lane.

  4. Sim, D. (2019). Soft city, building density for everyday life. Washington: Island Press.

  5. Tellez, G. (1995). Casa colonial: the domestic architecture of New Granada. Bogotá: Villegas Editores.

  6. UNDP (2020). Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Retrieved from:  https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-11-sustainable-cities-and-communities.html

  7. VannPashak, J. (2018, September 29). Human Centered Cities Must be Built at a Human Scale. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@jvannpashak/human-centered-cities-must-be-built-at-a-human-scale-a6c1336a0428

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