Finding our scale

A friend of mine who teaches in U. of T.’s visual studies program once told me that one of the biggest challenges an artist faces is to find the right scale for their work. I’ve pondered this a lot over the years and I don’t believe I have yet found that scale. Sometimes I want to go mad big. Other times I like the intimacy of a miniature. But it’s easy to see that Michelangelo’s Pietà would lose its power at coffee table size; you can get up close and personal with the Mona Lisa at a mere 21″ x 30″; and a teeny tiny Rothko probably wouldn’t have made me burst into tears. This principle applies to all the arts – a symphony doesn’t work at the same length as a pop song; some of us need to write a novel to get our ideas across while others can do it in a haiku.

On that note, it seems fair to ask what is the right scale for a city. Governments on all levels as well as the business world seem obsessed with the concept that bigger is better. For decades it has baffled me why growth should be desirable or even acceptable. Am I alone in thinking that 7 billion humans on our precious pale blue planet is more than enough? And the idea of a globally based economy that needs to perpetually grow to stay healthy strikes me as tremendously old school if not downright crazy. We’re coming to the realization that an economy based on unlimited growth really doesn’t work and many of us are moving on.

We aren’t drawn to great cities of the world because they are big. We visit New York and Tokyo, that little fishing village on the Mexican coast or a farmhouse in the south of France because they have character, colour, patina, diversity, dimension, layers, texture (and of course great food). None of these characteristics have anything to do with scale. We don’t go to the suburbs, we go to the centre, where the density is, the part that people have worked on and in for centuries, because that is where the richness and magic lie.

Peterborough has all the features of a great city – a river, bike trails, heritage architecture, a local food market, neighbourhoods, a university, cultural complexity. We need to ask ourselves, will Peterborough benefit by being bigger? Are we not clever enough to make a city that people will visit, buy from, and yes, even envy, without spilling over into the surrounding countryside? I don’t believe Peterborough will become a better city by making traffic flow faster through the centre of its green space, by inviting a casino into town, by creating sad jobs in big box stores or in industries that continue to undermine the health of the planet, but by using, protecting and reframing what we have. And what we have is access to a beautiful natural environment with nearby farmland, a city that’s a walkable / bikeable size, a distinctive arts, music and performance culture and a lot of very creative people willing to work like beasts to make culture our growth industry.

I survived in a big city for many years, but I thrive in Peterborough, in large measure because of its scale. Someone like me is simply overpowered by a big city. And I attend more cultural events here because I don’t have to languish at a bus stop or get stuck in traffic to cross town – I can just hop on my bike, take in a show at the local theatre or watering hole and still be home by 10 p.m.

In town planning as in art, there is a lot to be said for knowing when to stop. And when you give a creative act, or a business, or a city the freedom to find its best scale, it begins to have an unexpectedly nuanced life of its own.

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