An evening with Jan Gehl
Last night at London’s Hackney Empire Theater, 1,100 people and I attended a screening of the film, The Human Scale. The film focuses largely on the work of Danish architect Jan Gehl (Yan Gale) and his firm, Gehl Architects. The premise of the film and Gehl’s work over the past 50 years is that modern citymaking, and specifically modernist architecture, has failed to take human beings into account. Gehl is not the only person to espouse this. Jane Jacobs would be another highly influential figure who told a similar story. But Gehl was there at the theater last night to offer some reflections and take questions along with a panel of other commentators.
With a surprisingly comedic style, the Dane told us that he graduated from architecture school in 1960, “the worst time for architecture.” This was the era in which the modernists “cancelled city life.” Corbusier declared that buildings must be standalone objects surrounded by green lawns. One can sympathize with the focus on green open space, but this eliminated the density that true urbanism requires, resulting in aesthetically clean but bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes. Robert Moses meanwhile turned New York into an interstate highway for suburban commuters. The film chronicles how this paradigm is being lifted with the pedestrianization of downtown Manhattan under the Bloomberg administration.
The story is largely that of how the car shaped the city, which is to say ruined it for people. While the global environment and western city life suffered tragically from this misstep, the problem now is that megacities of the developing world aspire to the same lifestyle. The wrongness of western car-driving people telling the 1,000 Bangladeshis who move to Dhaka every day that they cannot have a car should not be lost on anyone. But for the planners of such cities, it is less about being told what not to do and more about making a decision for the sake of their own quality of life. They have seen the success of the west, and now they have also seen its folly.
Recognizing that we “measure what we care about,” Gehl spent much of his career compiling data on the urban element that had not been measured—people, what they do and what they want. He started in Italy, where he felt people had a natural love of shared public space. Whether this could be achieved in the culturally cooler European north, he wasn’t sure. But he helped transform Copenhagen into what claims and is widely believed to be the most livable city in the world. The key to this was kicking out cars. More residents bike to work than drive today. And other cities are following suit, seeking the advice of Gehl’s “urban habitat consultants.” Some, like Moscow, benefit from the efficiency of autocracy. Others, like Christchurch, seized on the bittersweet opportunity that follows devastating natural disaster.
The panel discussion moved to the question of London, which Gehl criticized for what he believes the city’s slowness in adopting his recommendations, given a decade ago. This opinion was balanced by a London city transport planner, who highlighted incremental successes. A likeminded private developer gave a good answer to the question of why developers should buy into these types of schemes. They not only make sense for quality of life, but they make economic sense. As I see it, where there are no people, there is no money. And there are no people where there are cars.
We all had a good laugh at Norman Foster’s expense. His vision for an elevated cycle way atop London’s rail network certainly impressed me when I first saw it. But amid Gehl’s comedic flow, it flopped. He pointed out that the objective with cycling is not to get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. It is to participate in the life of the city, “look at the girls, go into the shops,” things one cannot do from atop a rail line. Gehl and other panelists also pointed out that space for bicycles must be taken from cars—not pedestrians.
I often think there is a problem with the profession of architecture itself, because it deals with singularities rather than systems. Gehl has transcended this, and he is not the only one, but he might be the most famous living one. Working from a background in urban design or landscape architecture is no guarantee of getting it right, but I tend to think it helps. The developer on the panel said it is harder to create a public realm than a building. What I understood from that comment is that unlike a building, a public realm has more diverse users and dynamic uses. Beyond the complexities of working with a client and city authorities, it requires working with the people. How well we can do that seems to hold the key to the future. For as the film noted, the people, across generations and geographies, tend to want the same things, which emerge clearly when anyone asks them. They want livable, sustainable cities.
Jake Herson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of the Connected Cities blog.