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Taking It to the Streets

May 2011

Interview by Alanna Malone

Jan Gehl is an architect and former professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. He is the founding partner of Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects - Urban Quality Consultants, and the author of five books, including his most recent Cities for People. He strives to introduce human-scale livability to cities all over the world. Recent projects include New York City’s new public plazas and bike lanes.

Gehl’s city improvement projects include Copenhagen, Stockholm, London, Amman, Melbourne, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Photo © Jan Søndergaard
Gehl’s city improvement projects include Copenhagen, Stockholm, London, Amman, Melbourne, San Francisco, and Seattle.
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GreenSource: What are the three levels of city planning you describe in your book?

Jan Gehl: One can look at city planning on three different scales: 1. The macro scale, which I call the airplane scale, because you're hovering over your model and organizing buildings into nice patterns. 2. The site-planning scale, which I call the helicopter or rooftop scale. 3. And the people scale, or the eye-level scale, which is the most important. While there are a lot of planners and architects looking after the airplane and rooftop scales, the treatment of the people scale has been very distant. It is as if nobody has really addressed making good urban habitats for homo sapiens. There's not been much research done—we probably know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas or Siberian tigers than for humans. Modern planning should be about life, space, and then buildings, in that order. It's an international issue; throughout the world in spite of race, religion, and culture, biologically we all have the same development; we have the same senses. All the basics in our behavioral patterns are identical from one end of the globe to the other.

GS: Why aren't designers and planners focusing on this human scale?

JG: It has not really been known before that the physical environment has such a terrific role to play in human behavior—where we feel comfortable to go and whether we like being in the space. All these interactions between quality of life and physical form have not been studied very carefully until recent years.

If you look at the education provided for traffic engineers, planners, architects, and landscape architects, they study what is good for automobiles, developers, the economy, and ecology…but they don't get a thorough knowledge of what is good for homo sapiens. All the professions are commissioned to look after something else, with the issue of human scale as a sidenote. We must ask: What life would we like to see here? What kinds of spaces will we need for this life? Where should the buildings be placed? How should they be organized in order to actualize wonderful neighborhoods?

GS: Which cities are addressing this issue correctly?

JG: For many years, there's been interesting work going on in Portland, Oregon, and I've been involved myself with the transformations in New York City. I am very impressed with the speed and consistency of their work to have better sidewalks and public spaces and incorporate bicycling as part of life in the city. When you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.

GS: Are you surprised by the controversy that has surrounded the bike lanes?

JG: I'm not surprised that there would be some backlash, but I've followed this and talked to some of the people who live near the lanes in question. They say that 85 percent think it's a great idea. So it's a small minority who raises these negative feelings, but a powerful one.

GS: Which should come first, a cycling-friendly culture or the infrastructure to support cycling?

JG: You wouldn't get the culture if you don't have the infrastructure. In Sydney, the city is full of informative posters about how biking and walking improve conditions for the climate and human health, linking the bike lanes very clearly to saving the world. That could be a good idea in New York; not only to put in the lanes but also to explain why. You do it for mankind, not to harass anybody in particular.

GS: What are you working on now?

JG: We're commissioned to rebuilding efforts in Christchurch, New Zealand, after the recent earthquake. They want to use the opportunity to get rid of many of the bad compromises from the 20th century, which are burdening all cities in the western world. They want to make a very good city for the 21st century, rather than just repeating all the errors from the past. Interesting…and humbling.

GS: Do you think building-certification schemes like LEED are doing enough to address these issues?

JG: I have a saying that an endless number of green buildings doesn't make a sustainable city. To make our buildings green five-star or LEED-Gold is fine, but not enough. We have to get the cities to change their ways. If you pay attention to the smaller scale, inviting people to walk and bike, you get a more lively and livable city, a safer city, a more sustainable city. It's a much healthier lifestyle to have people use their muscles in their day-to-day life. There's so much to be gained with making people-oriented cities. So what are we waiting for?

 

This article appeared in the May 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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