To Make Cities Livable, Architects and City Planners Must Put People First

Modernism has ruined our cities, says the world-renowned Danish architect and urban design consultant Jan Gehl.

Annamari Typpö, 26.11.2018

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High-rise buildings and neighborhoods are popping up around southern Finland as cities try to optimize the use of urban space. The argument is that compact, high-density cities are both more sustainable and more livable than their low-density counterparts.

Jan Gehl, the pioneering Danish architect and urban design consultant who helped turn Copenhagen into one of the world’s most desirable cities, disagrees. According to Gehl, we lack knowledge of what actually makes cities livable. “We know more about the appropriate conditions for mountain gorillas than we know about what makes a good urban habitat for homo sapiens,” he says.

Gehl delivered a studia generalia lecture in Helsinki in October as part of Aalto PRO’s longest running program, YTK:n Pitkä kurssi – Expertise in Urban Planning, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. The event was organized to honor the publication of the Finnish translation of Gehl’s Cities for People (Ihmisten kaupunki), the first of his many books translated to Finnish.

Modernism marked the end of the human scale

Jan Gehl graduated from the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (RDAFA) in 1960. “It was the all-time low point of city planning. We were trained to be good modernists,” he bemoans.

Everything we knew about good cities was thrown out. Cities became collections of objects with separate functions.”

Before the Second World War, Gehl says, cities all over the world were made for people. The focus was on spaces that were logical for the human body. Cities were built on the human scale and streets adapted to the speed of walkers.

Modernism destroyed all this, Gehl says. “Everything we knew about good cities was thrown out. Cities became collections of objects with separate functions. In a modernist city, you live here, work there, and run from the subway station to work and back as fast as you can.”

According to Gehl, modernism marked the end of concern for people and for the human scale. Architects got confused by space and started to design big, tall, freestanding buildings. The area between the buildings became leftover space reserved for parking one’s car.

Another dominant factor in modernist cities, Gehl says, is car invasion. “The car is the king. Modernist cities are adapted to the speed of cars, and the architecture reflects this.”

Marriage of architecture and psychology

After his graduation, Gehl spent a few years practicing architecture. His turning point was getting married to a psychologist.

“My wife and I associated with lots of other architects, psychologists, and sociologists and had many discussions about why architects and city planners were not interested in people.”

Gehl and his wife Ingrid set out to study the relationship between architecture and psychology and how city planning and architecture influence the quality of life for people. His first book, Life Between Buildings, was published in Danish in 1971. In it, he makes a case for a systematic approach for improving city life by documenting urban spaces, making gradual improvements, and then documenting the spaces again.

Real-time observation is the key.”

According to Gehl, cities tend to be good at collecting traffic data, but they know next to nothing about how people use the cities. He suggests documenting things such as the flow of pedestrians, the number of park benches and the amount of time people spend sitting on them. Real-time observation is key.

“It’s not rocket science, it’s seeing what’s happening around you, how people move about.”

Gehl’s academic career culminated in his appointment in 2003 as Professor and Director of the Centre for Public Space Research at RDAFA, a position he held until his retirement from the university in 2006. Besides academia, Gehl has been active in architectural practice, co-founding Gehl Architects with Helle Søholt in 2000, and working as a consultant for international projects that have taken him across the globe to cities as diverse as Moscow, Melbourne, New York, and Brighton & Hove.

Urban revival is a systematic process

City planning is a lengthy process and things change slowly. Maybe that’s why it’s taken Gehl, too, 50 years of evangelizing to turn the tide. Now, he says, there are finally noticeable signs of a distinct paradigm shift. The call is for lively and livable cities that are also healthy, sustainable, and good for the elderly.

“People are interested in other people. They need spaces to meet and spend time in. A good public realm is a crucial factor for good public transportation, and the more people walk and bike in the city, the better it is both for the climate and for the health of the individuals. ‘The sitting syndrome’ is now a major health concern, and the World Health Organization strongly recommends city planning aimed at inviting people to walk and bike.”

A good public realm is a crucial factor for good public transportation.”

As an example of a successful urban revival project, Gehl mentions Melbourne.

“In 1985, the Melbourne city center was deserted. Since then, they’ve made a great effort to revitalize the city by, for example, widening all the sidewalks, bringing in high-quality urban furniture, planting trees, and putting up nice façades for people to rest their eyes on when walking by. Now, it’s by far the best city in the southern hemisphere. It’s like Paris, except the weather is much nicer,” Gehl laughs.

Copenhagen prioritizes people and bikes

The city that’s made the biggest effort in putting people first is, of course, Copenhagen, right on Gehl’s home turf. It all started with pedestrianizing Strøget, the Danish capital’s main street, in 1962. Since then, the city has progressed by leaps and bounds in its effort to increase livability. From 1980 to 2000, the focus was on establishing car-free squares and sidewalk cafés for people to meet in. After 2000, the focus has increasingly been on various activity parks or “playgrounds” for people of all ages.

For the past decade, the emphasis has been on climate adaptation.”

For the past decade, the emphasis has been on climate adaptation, such as integrating stormwater management into the urban planning process. Instead of battling the problem of flooding in densely populated areas by increasing the size of the sewer and stormwater network, Copenhagen has transformed a neighborhood of 50,000 square meters into a showcase for climate adaptation technology with bike paths acting as storm water channels, urban gardens and green roofs delaying the water, and canals diverting excess water into the harbor.

Furthermore, Copenhagen has given a priority for pedestrians and bicyclists by reducing the number of lanes reserved for cars and building continuous sidewalks and bicycle tracks instead. “My granddaughter can now walk to school, because she can stay on the sidewalk from door to door,” Gehl says.

Biking in Copenhagen is a phenomenon in itself. The network of bicycle lanes covers the entire city, and the aim is to make biking always faster than taking the car. There are special trash bins that are tilted to one side so that bikers can discard their trash on the go. Next to traffic lights, there are railings for cyclists to lean on while waiting for the light to change. And when it snows, bicycle lanes are always ploughed first.


Jan Gehl, Ihmisten kaupunki, Rakennustieto 2018
Translated by Tytti Viinikainen, Jani Päivänen, Heidi Hammarsten, and Paula Tuurnala

More information about Aalto PRO's YTK:n Pitkä kurssi – Expertise in Urban Planning program which focuses on the field of community planning and urban research.

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