Jan Gehl: The City Is Big

How to Study Public Life / Island Press

“I graduated at the first worst point in city planning,” said Jan Gehl, the famed urban designer, at a crowd of hundreds at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The 1960s were the era “when the architect was big and the city was small.” Eventually, Gehl, who is trained as an architect, saw the light. He married a psychologist, who asked him, “why do architects hate people so much?” He soon realized there was a great “void of knowledge” about how to create buildings and public spaces people actually want to inhabit. So for the past 40 years, Gehl has picked up where activist and author Jane Jacobs left off, and “studied the life of the city in the way same a traffic engineer studies the flow of traffic.” This Danish architect is now appropriately small and the city is big.

Gehl’s six books, many of which are viewed as seminal reads in urban design, have been translated into 28 languages. “They are even in Chinese,” he added, but considering many Chinese cities have not taken up his lessons about creating cities for people, “perhaps they haven’t had time to read them yet,” he laughed. He wasn’t singling out the Chinese for special criticism though. “It really took us about 50 years for the West to really read and absorb Jane Jacob’s messages.”

Two Destructive Paradigms

Over the past 50 years, we’ve had two major paradigms, said Gehl. While Modern city planning ideas were first conceived in the 1920s, with Le Corbusier and his “Contemporary City,” which would be filled with freeways and gargantuan skyscrapers, it wasn’t until the 1960s when they were first implemented. Then, “planners started laying out cities from the airplane.” They would go up in helicopters to “get the full site view.” Modern architects and landscape architects followed their lead, so no one “looked after the people scale anymore.” Gehl calls this the “Brasilia syndrome:” the “city looks fantastic from the air, but is shit on the ground.”

Brasilia Modernist City / Skyscraper City

Unfortunately, the Brasilia model has not breathed its last gasp yet. China is creating Brasilias everywhere. Dubai is creating “bird shit architecture, just a collection of funny buildings. They hope they can just plop these down and a city will form around them. This doesn’t happen.”

Dubai / Dubai Dhow blog

The other paradigm is the “car-centric city, or the car invasion.” People in cities have been pushed out in favor of creating an environment for cars. “This is a landscape of cheap gasoline.” This landscape almost took over lower Manhattan as Robert Moses sought to bulldoze Soho, the West Village, and parts of Chinatown to create huge freeway off-ramps and high-rises. Only Jacobs, with her “ceaseless” efforts, was able to stop him. She taught us that “if the Modernists and motorists dominated cities, they will become dead places.” She taught us “we must look at how people use cities to understand how to shape them.”

A New Paradigm

It was only taken us 50 years to process Jacob’s messages, but people now want “lively, attractive, safe, sustainable, healthy cities.” Through new research, “we now know the relative importance of rich public life, its value for democracy, public inclusion, and our happiness.” Successful cities are “people-oriented and smaller scale.” This is because “the greatest attraction of cities is other people.”

Cities where people can walk, bike, and use public transportation are better for people, too. “The cheap petroleum society has major health risks. Lack of daily physical exercise is worse than smoking.” Gehl’s goal is to “move people naturally through city design.” Investment in this design pays for itself: “We save on health costs.”

Gehl said Copenhagen, Denmark, has successfully moved from a “traffic place to a people place.” In the 1960s, the city took car traffic out of its main street. This effort coincided with the publication of Jacob’s book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Gehl said since then Copenhagen has “improved every day” — and continues to do so, with its new goal of becoming the best city in the world for people (and bicyclists) by 2025. The city is accomplishing this through “distinctly people-oriented policies” created by the city’s office of public life. Bicycling rates have doubled over 10 years, and now 37 percent commute to work every day by bike, in comparison with just 27 percent by car. In fact, the issue now is “serious congestion on bike lanes.”

Melbourne is another city that has thrown off the shackles of the car. “The city started out with traffic ridden streets.” The downtown was deemed the “donut” because there was nothing in the center. “It was a useless city center.” Now, there has been a “transformation, and it’s one of the nicest cities in Australia, Asia — even the world. It’s an Australian Paris.” Downtown, daytime foot traffic has increased 40 percent and nighttime traffic, 100 percent. There are now Copenhagen-style bike lanes, which use parked cars to protect bicyclists. Sydney has also become a better place for people, transforming itself with new bicycle infrastructure.

People-sized street in Melbourne / Buytaert

Amazingly, Moscow is also making great progress. After they hired Gehl Architects, they have made great gains in returning the sidewalks to the people, at least downtown. “We are trying to humanize the city in a place inundated with cars, where the car is king.” Gehl said post-communism, Muscovites felt it was their god-given right to drive and park anywhere. “For a few years, this worked OK and then it didn’t.” Now, Gehl laughed, “if you park your car in the wrong place, it will be sent to Siberia.” He said the “transformation has been a miracle. There are now routes for people, which were nonexistent before.”

Moscow pedestrians / Gehl Architects

In the U.S., New York City is doing the most to “discourage commuting by car and increasing the use of subway, biking, and walking to get around.” NYC has also put in “more bicycle lanes in five years than Copenhagen has in 50 years.” Closing Times Square to car traffic has been a “huge success,” and a “fantastic influence on other cities,” because “if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere.” Gehl really hopes more pedestrian malls will open where there was gridlock across the U.S.

Times Square Pedestrian Plaza / Project for Public Spaces

Studying People in Cities

After the success of Cities of People, Gehl and co-author Birgitte Svarre just released How to Study Public Life, which outlines the “field of public life studies.” Here, Svarre took the stage and explained how the field came about. “People knew something was missing in the suburbs but they didn’t know what. They didn’t know how to grasp the issues. There would be greenery and air but no life. Researchers had to start from scratch and treat the city as a lab. They had to go out and learn how to really experience a place.”

Early on, Gehl would go sit in a well-loved square in Italy, spending the whole day studying how people used the space. He found that “people prefer to stand at the edges.” Using that lesson, she asked us to think of all those awkward public spaces that have no edges. Are they human scale?

Gehl and others’ research on public space sits on the shoulders of many others. “William Whyte, Clare Cooper Marcus, Donald Appleyard, Peter Bosselmann, Allan Jacobs, and Fred Kent all tried to figure out the tools for researching public space.” These researchers were part of various schools, which Svarre defined as the Berkeley, New York, or Copenhagen schools.

Svarre said “we know a lot today” because of these people, and their analytical methods still hold water. While new technologies and big data have increased the capacity to collect and analyze data, old-school “observational studies,” which are “cheap and easy to do,” are still important. “Otherwise, you just have lots of data, and then what do you do with that? You can’t replace being there, capturing the nuances.” Svarre said perhaps “we’ve gone from complex back to simple.”

Gehl made a point about how a simple observation can reveal much. When one woman who worked at the Danish embassy in Vietnam went to Copenhagen, she told Gehl, “wow, there are so many children.” Gehl was surprised she said that because Denmark is actually shrinking and can’t even maintain its own population. What this woman witnessed was that every parent who had a child brought them out “because it was safe for them to be out.” In contrast, in Vietnam, which actually has a baby boom, “it’s difficult to see children anywhere because it’s not safe for them in the traffic.”

Parents in Copenhagen actually get their children on bicycles as early as age four, letting them bike to school. Some 30 percent of families in the city also have “family bikes,” in which all the kids pile in. Gehl said “good, safe bike lanes were a condition for all of this.” Furthermore, this really shows that “if there are many children in the city, it’s a sign of a good quality of life and livability. Same with older people and the handicapped.”

Danish bicyclist with kids / The Times (UK)

Read Gehl and Svarre’s latest book, How to Study Public Life, and check out an interview with Gehl.

3 thoughts on “Jan Gehl: The City Is Big

  1. George R. Frantz, AICP, ASLA 02/13/2014 / 8:51 am

    “They are even in Chinese,” he (Gehl) added, but considering many Chinese cities have not taken up his lessons about creating cities for people, “perhaps they haven’t had time to read them yet,” he laughed. Like many urban planners Mr. Gehl incorrectly assumes Chinese cities are just like our cities, and thus automatically assumes they have the same issues as our cities have. The Chinese are not like us, and their cities are not like ours. The physical form of their cities indeed have much to offer American urban designers in terms of urban form, providing quality urban living environments and quality urban public space, and in the area of ecologically sustainability. But fortunately from what I’ve seen, they are not (yet) emulating our failures in urban planning and design.

  2. Urban Adriana 02/19/2014 / 5:26 am

    Reblogged this on Urban Adriana and commented: we must look at how people use cities to understand how to shape them. Jacobs

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