by Bill Millard
Event: Cities for People: A Talk with Author Jan Gehl
Location: Center for Architecture, 09.15.10
Speakers: Jan Gehl, Dr. Litt., Int. FRIBA, Hon. FAIA, Hon. FRAIC — Founding Partner, Gehl Architects
Introductions: Amanda Burden, FAICP, Hon. AIA — Chair, NYC Department of City Planning; Janette Sadik-Khan — Commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation
Organizers: AIANY; Island Press
With pedestrian plazas and bicycle lanes sprouting throughout the city, New York’s public spaces increasingly reflect the influence of architect/consultant Jan Gehl, Dr. Litt., Int. FRIBA, Hon. FAIA, Hon. FRAIC. In some respects NYC may still stand for Not Yet Copenhagen, but we’re getting there; Gehl’s recent presentation was part book launch, part victory lap.
Gehl’s discussion organized the details of modern urban history into a clear, intuitive argument. Corbusier’s revolutionary paradigm of urban form, he charged, overlooked human behavior and scale; architects “stopped building cities and started building buildings,” formally beautiful in isolation (especially when viewed from vehicles), but oblivious to “the interaction between form and life.” He conceded his own prior allegiance to Corbusian Modernism, but credited his marriage to a psychologist for convincing him that eye-level, walking-speed perspectives are essential for livable spaces. Gehl lambasted places like Brasilia, whose “eagle plan” is elegant from a helicopter perspective but devoid of street-level activity, and Dubai, where, he said, “I always get the feeling of being in an exhibition of perfume bottles.”
Instead of obsessing over large-scale forms and skylines, Gehl recommended, architects might better apply their energy to designing spaces that are inviting to pedestrians. Copenhagen’s “potato row” residential district doesn’t create an aerial spectacle, but citizens have pronounced it supremely livable as measured by both high prices per square meter and Denmark’s highest concentration of architects. Incremental adjustments in street design over 40 years succeeded in pedestrianizing the Strøget, bringing Danes into the streets despite the cold climate and extending the outdoor-comfort season from two months a year to 10. “A good city is like a good party,” he noted: people stay longer than expected.
The party metaphor also links infrastructure to quality of life. A city shaped for automobility invites more traffic and invariably gets it, but planners can issue citizens a different invitation and encourage walking and cycling, as New York, San Francisco, and other cities have done, by ranking non-automotive public space over arterials and parking. These cities are currently undergoing a paradigm shift as potentially far-reaching as the 20th century’s experiment with autocentric design. NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s introduction noted that Cities for People is being initially published in Danish, English, and Chinese. “I think it’s essential that the entire planet learn from the lessons [in] Jan’s book,” she commented. Within Gehl’s expanding and well-earned sphere of influence, differences among local climates, scales, and styles are less important than the core principle he quoted from Ralph Erskine, Hon. FAIA: “To be a good architect, you must love people.”
Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.