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Has your relationship with the cities that you know, especially Copenhagen, changed in recent months?
In some ways it’s distant; in other ways it’s not. Because my wife and I are now staying by ourselves and not meeting other people except close family – outdoors and at two-metre distances – it means that we get our groceries through our children, who put them in the garden. At the same time we all sit down with two metres between us, have a cup of coffee and talk about life. So we are visited by various very close people. But every day we go for a long walk and grab some fresh air. I have this little semi-electric car and every day we can go to a new district in the city that we don’t know and go for a long walk. We visit projects that were famous in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and go for a walk to see how these areas have weathered and how they look today. We also go to various new districts to see what’s being put up. We start to make considerations about how the obvious differences in ideology in these [respective decades] can be reflected in what was built. Generally, we are not too happy about much of the new stuff.

What is it about new buildings that you don’t like?
They are more introverted, more privatised. There’s less care for the outdoor areas and more, what I call, hotel housing, where you have a place to sleep and can look out of the window but not much thought has gone into what could happen where you live.

That’s one of the important things we’re going to have to grapple with now: the idea that land was expensive and so apartments had to get smaller; that we would give up our private space to live communally – which all seemed very positive a year ago. But now people find themselves in apartments without balconies on which to take in some sun.
We should underline that the later developments we’re talking about have been made in the past 10 years – and that was way before coronavirus was ever mentioned. In the past we had a lot of nonprofit housing corporations [in Copenhagen]; we made places for no profit with the purpose of being a good place to live your life, for all age groups in all phases of life. And now there has been this shift to where developers are more concerned with putting one flat on top of the other and selling each one separately. They are interested in selling the flats very quickly so they can get the money and make more flats.

As we come out of the other side of the outbreak, would you hope that people begin to think about who owns buildings, who produces them, whether they have a co-operative heart? Will those things become more important?
Already, before the pandemic, there was a strong trend towards more community and against these introverted, privatised types of dwellings. I read recently that there are more housing co-operatives being formed now than for a long, long time. That will be especially appealing for the elderly. I saw a fantastic figure [showing that] many elderly people would give up their house to move to a place where there is less loneliness, more community, more shared meals and shared facilities, and which is closer to other people. This is a strong movement – against privatisation. All of this has nothing to do with epidemics but rather some general things. First the pendulum swings towards privatisation and then people start to react and see that there are so many people out there who are very lonely. As we live longer and the households are smaller, there are more single people in the household. This urge to live a bit closer has been there for a long time and it is visible now.

What will change with this pandemic?
I’ve been thinking about the various epidemics and diseases that have riddled mankind over the past couple of centuries. I just saw a mention about Copenhagen in 1853 during the cholera epidemic, where a person said, “It’s always strange to be in Copenhagen because it’s completely dead, there are no people on the streets, there’s no activity at all.” And I thought, “That’s like it is today.” But it’s difficult to see any long-term effects of the cholera epidemic, the Spanish flu or the polio epidemic now. It’s easier to see the reaction against tuberculosis and the bacteria sicknesses because modernism was a response by architects and planners against tuberculosis. That was why [architects] suddenly said that we should live separately and we should have ventilation; we should have sun in every flat; there should be green space for everyone; and the whole thing should be divided so that you have each function in its own area. All of this was thought out in the 1920s and early 1930s and was influenced by the doctors at that time who knew that cleanliness, running water and ventilation were important to prevent sickness.

Has your relationship with the cities that you know, especially Copenhagen, changed in recent months?
In some ways it’s distant; in other ways it’s not. Because my wife and I are now staying by ourselves and not meeting other people except close family – outdoors and at two-metre distances – it means that we get our groceries through our children, who put them in the garden. At the same time we all sit down with two metres between us, have a cup of coffee and talk about life. So we are visited by various very close people. But every day we go for a long walk and grab some fresh air. I have this little semi-electric car and every day we can go to a new district in the city that we don’t know and go for a long walk. We visit projects that were famous in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and go for a walk to see how these areas have weathered and how they look today. We also go to various new districts to see what’s being put up. We start to make considerations about how the obvious differences in ideology in these [respective decades] can be reflected in what was built. Generally, we are not too happy about much of the new stuff.

What is it about new buildings that you don’t like?
They are more introverted, more privatised. There’s less care for the outdoor areas and more, what I call, hotel housing, where you have a place to sleep and can look out of the window but not much thought has gone into what could happen where you live.

That’s one of the important things we’re going to have to grapple with now: the idea that land was expensive and so apartments had to get smaller; that we would give up our private space to live communally – which all seemed very positive a year ago. But now people find themselves in apartments without balconies on which to take in some sun.
We should underline that the later developments we’re talking about have been made in the past 10 years – and that was way before coronavirus was ever mentioned. In the past we had a lot of nonprofit housing corporations [in Copenhagen]; we made places for no profit with the purpose of being a good place to live your life, for all age groups in all phases of life. And now there has been this shift to where developers are more concerned with putting one flat on top of the other and selling each one separately. They are interested in selling the flats very quickly so they can get the money and make more flats.

As we come out of the other side of the outbreak, would you hope that people begin to think about who owns buildings, who produces them, whether they have a co-operative heart? Will those things become more important?
Already, before the pandemic, there was a strong trend towards more community and against these introverted, privatised types of dwellings. I read recently that there are more housing co-operatives being formed now than for a long, long time. That will be especially appealing for the elderly. I saw a fantastic figure [showing that] many elderly people would give up their house to move to a place where there is less loneliness, more community, more shared meals and shared facilities, and which is closer to other people. This is a strong movement – against privatisation. All of this has nothing to do with epidemics but rather some general things. First the pendulum swings towards privatisation and then people start to react and see that there are so many people out there who are very lonely. As we live longer and the households are smaller, there are more single people in the household. This urge to live a bit closer has been there for a long time and it is visible now.

What will change with this pandemic?
I’ve been thinking about the various epidemics and diseases that have riddled mankind over the past couple of centuries. I just saw a mention about Copenhagen in 1853 during the cholera epidemic, where a person said, “It’s always strange to be in Copenhagen because it’s completely dead, there are no people on the streets, there’s no activity at all.” And I thought, “That’s like it is today.” But it’s difficult to see any long-term effects of the cholera epidemic, the Spanish flu or the polio epidemic now. It’s easier to see the reaction against tuberculosis and the bacteria sicknesses because modernism was a response by architects and planners against tuberculosis. That was why [architects] suddenly said that we should live separately and we should have ventilation; we should have sun in every flat; there should be green space for everyone; and the whole thing should be divided so that you have each function in its own area. All of this was thought out in the 1920s and early 1930s and was influenced by the doctors at that time who knew that cleanliness, running water and ventilation were important to prevent sickness.


About the interviewee: Gehl is an architect, professor and urban-design consultant, who focuses on improving city living by reorienting urban design towards pedestrians, cyclists and public life. His books have been published in more than 40 languages.

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