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Gehl’s influential writings include the observation that it is inherently human to want to be around other people, that being in the presence of other people is highly interesting, and we should build our cities accordingly — at the “human scale”. He has since worked with cities across the planet to improve their quality of urban life by orienting urban design towards people. And with the United Nations predicting that cities will swell by some 2.5 billion people by 2050, making them more crowded than ever, it’s imperative that tomorrow’s cities are developed and designed to be as livable as possible — making Gehl’s observations more timely than ever.
Picture the scene. It’s Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, the early 1960s. Five architects are sitting around their office. All of a sudden a potential new client pops his head round the door. Jan Gehl, one of the five architects that day, picks up the story.
“This man came and said: ‘I have this big piece of land and I want to build something that is good for people.’ We panicked because everything architects do is good for people, and then we started to think, ‘Is it really good for people? And what is really good for people?’”
Gehl has been asking that question for 50 years. And if Jan Gehl is the hero of this story, the villain is modernism — “the only school of thought” when Gehl graduated from architecture school. Modernism has been described as “the single most important style or philosophy of architecture and design of the 20th century”. The characteristics of Modernist buildings include open-plan floors and flat roofs, rectangular and cuboid shapes, and the use of steel or reinforced concrete.
By the time Gehl was at architecture school, Modernism was becoming synonymous with entire cities — including Brazil’s recently inaugurated capital, Brasilia. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa, Brasilia was built in Brazil’s heartland in just three years, using a million cubic meters of concrete and 100,000 metric tons of steel. And it was distinguished by its modernist architecture, with clean lines and zoned neighborhoods.
Back in 1960, when Gehl was starting out, many people saw Brasilia as the city of the future. So it was somewhat surprising when that new client popped his head through the door and said he wanted to build something that was “good for people”. Needless to say, this got Gehl thinking.
“Everything I was taught in architecture school was about life inside buildings. It was always believed that by changing the inside of buildings, people could have a better life,” he says. “Then we started to think, maybe ‘good for people’ is not inside the buildings, but also outside the buildings. Maybe, ‘good for people’ is very much what is happening between the buildings and not in the buildings themselves.”
This novel idea fell on fertile soil the moment Gehl got home. His wife, Ingrid, was an environmental psychologist and, like most married couples, they frequently discussed their work — at the kitchen table and whenever they got together with friends and colleagues. As Gehl recalls, “all these heated discussions always ended with: ‘Why are you architects not interested in people, why don’t they teach you anything about people in architecture school?”
In fact, Ingrid would goad her husband, asking him why his architecture professors would get up at four in the morning to take photos of buildings — when there wouldn’t be any people in the shots. And if there was a point of no return for the young Jan Gehl, this must have been it. Social scientists and architects, he realized, were living in two very different ivory towers. So the architect and the psychologist got funding to spend six months “studying how Italian piazzas were used by people and how people actually used the Italian city”.
For half a year, Gehl observed how people behaved. He sat and watched them going about their lives, observing what they did, where they did it, when they did it, and how long they did it for. What he realized is that there’s no mystery to how people go about their lives.
“We do it, all of us, every day, but we don’t think much about it,” he says. “Only when you start to compress the knowledge and the documentation do you start to see patterns. And the patterns are very, very obvious and very, very clear. You can plan things based on these patterns so that they accommodate people much, much better than if you don’t know about them.”
Gehl has a wonderful metaphor for the predictability of people’s behavior in cities. “It’s like the laguna in Venice where the tide sweeps in, goes out, then goes in again — it’s the same thing with the city,” he says. “It has this pattern: it wakes up in the morning and it builds up and then it builds down again.”
When Gehl returned to Copenhagen, he observed people there, too. Turns out, Danes are just as predictable as Italians. “Now, it’s September. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and it’s a fair day, a good day. You can go down on the main street to a particular intersection, and then you will count 66 people a minute passing that place,” Gehl says, describing a typical observation. “You will go to a square and find out there will be 150 to 160 people sitting there at three o’clock in this weather in September.”
If you’re wondering why Gehl was sitting on street corners counting people, rather than unfurling blueprints or sketching skyscrapers, it’s because he had a mission. At the time, two paradigms dominated urban planning: “Modernism and motorism in extreme forms.”
Just as architects seemed to be building ever higher concrete blocks, so were urban planners paving the way — literally — for more and more cars. “The cars were streaming into our societies in the 50s. This started the invasion of cars,” Gehl says. “We really have to address this idea that every man to be mobile shall carry a ton of steel and be provided with four rubber wheels to get anywhere.”
Of course, no city is developed without a plan. And the best plans are usually based on facts. “The traffic engineers always have endless statistics about how traffic has been developing and how they could widen streets to prepare for the future,” Gehl says. “Every city had a department for traffic engineering transport and no city in the world had a department for public life and pedestrians.” Gehl decided to become that department. “We started to get as much information about the people who use the city as the traffic engineers had about the cars using the city.”
By the early 1960s, Copenhagen had actually embarked on an experiment in urban planning. It started with banning cars and pedestrianizing streets in the city’s medieval centre. Local shopkeepers were outraged and were convinced the experiment would harm business. In time, of course, they were proved wrong.
As Copenhagen’s city planners sought to turn their experiments into permanent features, they found an ally in Jan Gehl. Together with colleagues at the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Gehl was by then also treating the Danish capital as a kind of laboratory. With the city clamoring for statistics about how people were actually using those newly pedestrianized streets, it turned to the pioneering professor.
“We had city planners and politicians and the mayor running down to the School of Architecture to say, ‘What do you know by now, what shall we do next?’,” Gehl explains. Little by little, Copenhagen began to reclaim more of its streets for cyclists and pedestrians. And if you’ve visited the Danish capital recently, you’ll understand. The city now has more than 200 miles of cycle lanes, and it’s very easy to walk around, too.
In a recent book about Gehl’s life and work, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, wrote that “if Jan Gehl didn’t already exist, it would be necessary to invent him in order to save our cities”.
Fortunately, he does exist and, around the world today, many cities have begun to turn their backs on the car and are instead providing more space for cyclists and pedestrians. Every week, Bogota closes 75 miles of roads to car traffic; Berlin, Hamburg and Madrid are planning car-free zones, too; and Oslo is planning to go car-free by 2019. Indeed, we are starting to see a change in how we think about cities and our quality of life.
“We can see it in all the cities which have been tidying up their streetscapes and doing much more for pedestrians and bicycles and public transportation and trying to curb automobile use,” explains Gehl. “Now, we talk about livability, we talk about sustainability, we talk about health, and we’ve started to talk about good cities for the aging.”
What’s more, from academia to policy-making to popular culture, there’s increasing interest in well-being and the importance of how we design our cities. And Gehl’s ideas about building cities for people have never been more timely. They are, after all, universal ideas. “The way I have been advising cities and doing city planning is very much based on the clients which, in all places, are homo sapiens,” Gehl explains. “We have, all over the world, the same biological history. We are a walking animal.”
What all cities have in common are human beings, and at the heart of Gehl’s vision for appealing public space and the urban design that promotes it is what he calls “the human scale”. We experience the city at eye level, usually at walking pace, so a liveable city is one that’s designed with this in mind.
Here’s the thing about cities. We’re going to see more of them in the coming decades. And many of them are going to be huge — so-called megacities home to at least 10 million residents. Today, just over half the planet lives in a city. By 2050, that figure will have soared to 68 percent. As the global population rises and people leave the countryside in search of better lives and jobs, our cities are only going to get bigger.
In fact, the UN predicts that cities will swell by 2.5 billion people by mid-century. Providing housing, jobs, transportation, energy, education and healthcare will be paramount. But it’s imperative, too, that these cities are designed to be as livable as possible. Which boils down to a fundamental observation that Gehl is fond of making: “Man is a social animal.”
Indeed, if Jan Gehl’s lifetime of work in cities teaches us anything it’s that there’s something inherently human about wanting to be around other people — to see what other people are up to — to engage with them somehow. That being in the presence of other people is highly interesting and we should build our cities accordingly — at the human scale.