Jan Gehl had a message for the Future Cities audience today: We have no choice but to build people-friendly cities; and doing so is cheap and easy.
If you missed our live audio show with Jan Gehl, the world-renowned founding partner of Gehl Architects, you can catch the archived session, as well as the accompanying live chat and audience Q&A with Gehl that followed, right here: Cities for People: Jan Gehl, Founding Partner, Gehl Architects.
But for a discussion of some of the highlights and pertinent points, read on.
While Gehl is probably one of the foremost proponents of public spaces in the world, he was quick to clarify an important point as we kicked off the program today: Cities should not focus on public spaces, but on people's behavior.
Yes, people. That's who public spaces are built for, after all. That's who cities are built for. But you wouldn't know it by looking at most of them, seeing as people are so often left out of the equation when it comes to city planning. Gehl lamented as much in saying that many cities look great from the air but lousy at ground-level. Further, the "people scale" of city planning is barely even taught to those studying urban planning and architecture (unless, of course, Gehl is teaching the course).
"In neither of the professions, which are dealing with existing cities and new cities, will you find any substantial element of information and education about people's behavior and how the built form interacts with life," he said. "This is a very overlooked area."
Jan Gehl. (Source: Gehl Architects)
But signs that we're putting people back into planning are emerging worldwide, and much of this progress is driven by strong public policies.
Take Copenhagen, where Gehl Architects is based: Gehl referred to official city council policies that have allowed for great progress, including a policy to become the best city for people and the best cycling city in the next five to 10 years ("if we're not there already," said Gehl); and to become carbon neutral by 2025. As a result of strong policies -- which encouraged the development of wider bike lanes, cycle superhighways, etc. -- about 37-38 percent of people already commute to work by bicycle. (And if you're concerned that Copenhagen has too many cyclists, Gehl says, quite simply, "I can only assure everybody that if you have too many bikes biking, and you have too many bikes parked, it is a much better problem to work with than having too many cars driving and too many cars to park.")
Then there's New York, where Gehl's influence is felt in the city's bike lanes and bike-share program, and the pedestrian plazas that now occupy space previously held hostage by vehicle traffic. However, it wasn't until Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched his PlaNYC policy, for a "Greener Greater New York," that a delegation from New York -- led by DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan -- went to observe progress in Copenhagen, and Gehl was called in to help New York with its transformation.
At the same time, while it's wonderful to see these changes in New York, Copenhagen, and even Los Angeles, where the city council recently approved a "Manhattenization" plan to turn three lanes into a pedestrian area along Broadway between 2nd and 11th Streets, it's a bit harder to imagine such progress happening in developing cities in Asia and Africa, for example. But asked whether it's realistic to expect developing cities to adopt these best-practices as well, Gehl said it's not realistic to do anything but that.
"Nothing in the world is more simple and more cheap than making cities that provide better for people," he said.
Not all is progressively rosy all over, though, as far too many cities are still putting auto worship first on their list of priorities.
"We are much smarter now in the 21st century than they were 50 years ago, but many cities still are lumbering around in the 20th century paradigm... thinking they'll be twice as happy if they have twice as many cars," said Gehl. "The truth is, generally you will not be twice as happy but will have twice as many problems."
To overcome this flawed thinking, we have to change the minds of city planners and politicians, he added. One unexpected place where this is happening, says Gehl, is in car-heavy Moscow.
"They have started to humanize Moscow, having been inspired very much by what has happened in New York," he said, noting that there's a strong will there now to create a livable city for people.
"The ball is rolling from one continent to the other, and one city to the other," added Gehl.
Let's hope it keeps on rolling.
For our full interview and subsequent live chat discussion with Jan Gehl, please click here: Cities for People: Jan Gehl, Founding Partner, Gehl Architects.
— Nicole Ferraro, , Editor in Chief, UBM's Future Cities