The celebrated Danish architect Jan Gehl believes that drawing the focus of a city’s infrastructure away from the obsession with concrete and traffic systems and towards the needs of its inhabitants makes for a better quality of life.
Name: Jan Gehl
Employer: Gehl Architects
Job: Founding partner
It’s no overstatement to say that Jan Gehl has had more impact on more cities than any other person in the past decade. From Amman to Zürich, via New York, Riga, Cape Town, Muscat, Melbourne and Wellington, the Danish urban-planning pioneer has worked with around 70 cities since setting up his firm Gehl Architects in 2000. He has devoted his entire career since finishing his studies at the Danish School of Architecture to reclaiming city streets for pedestrians and bicycles, in the belief that attracting people to public spaces is what brings a city to life.
Gehl taught architecture alongside the father of Scandinavian modernism, Arne Jacobsen, graduating in 1960 when modernist urban planning ideology, combined with the boom of the car industry, were rendering cities unrecognisable. Though progress was at the heart of the modernist ideology, cities were designed as machines to serve a workforce dedicated to manufacturing the future.
Together with his psychologist wife, Gehl held informal discussion groups about the disparity between the modernist ideal and the quality of life for the urban dweller. Following a trip to Italy in 1971, where Gehl studied how the population moved around urban spaces, he forged his driving principle: that people had been removed from the equation of modernist urban planning and that the city’s inhabitants should come first.
After 50 years, five books and lectures in 90 cities, Gehl is still devoted to transforming hostile and underused urban environments into livable cities. At 73 he’s busier than ever and, unlike the streets he tirelessly works to reclaim, shows no sign of slowing down. Monocle met Gehl at his office in Copenhagen on the eve of his latest book launch, Cities for People.
Monocle: In the most basic terms, how do you describe what you do?
Jan Gehl: I’m a “people architect” working to humanise cities. My goal is to make people visible in cities.
M: What reaction did your first book, ‘Life Between Buildings’ (1971), receive?
JG: It was controversial given it challenged the prevailing modernist ideology of the time but people felt it made sense too. In 1968, I spent every Tuesday studying people’s behaviour in Strøget, Copenhagen’s first pedestrianised street. Combined with my observations from Italy, I realised human behaviour is entirely predictable in public spaces and determined by the nature of their built environment. People congregate around other people, cling to bollards, stand in niches or sit down if there’s a bench. It’s common sense but nobody had thought to say it before. My message was that people had to come first in urban planning.
M: You used photographs and illustrations to great, often humorous effect, which made your theories in ‘Life Between Buildings’ remarkably intelligible. Is this why it’s had such universal, constant appeal?
JG: I tried to find the simplest language to explain my ideas. It’s selling better than ever. It’s in 20 languages, on its sixth version in English and Danish. Early on, it was published in Chinese and Bengali, suggesting it’s a book about homo sapiens and human behaviour. It’s not peculiar to a Scandinavian or even western way of life.
M: What does your latest book, ‘Cities for People’, add to the subject?
JG: It’s the same subject but seen after 40 years of teaching, travelling, experiencing and implementing my ideas.
M: What’s different in cities 40 years on?
JG: For 40 years, development and construction was constant. The general view was that my theories were too romantic. The past 20 years, though, have seen a gradual shift and there’s now a tailwind behind human city planning. It took the modernists a while to construct enough, and for people to settle, to realise that maybe the ideal didn’t hold true. Over the past 20 years, people have realised they’ve been pushed out of public spaces by traffic. The biggest development has been the surge in ordinary citizens saying things need to change.
M: How did you make the transition from academic and theorist to practitioner?
JG: I started Gehl Architects in 2000 with the aim of translating my theories into a consultancy-based practice. It started in Copenhagen where my street research, first in 1968 then 1986, 1996 and 2006, was used by the city council to formulate its new urban-planning policies. Mayor Bente Frost wrote to me saying, “If you hadn’t made these studies, we politicians would not have dared to make Copenhagen the nicest city in the world.”
M: Does the success story of Copenhagen act as the best advertisement to other cities that your ideas work?
JG: Definitely. The more cities I work with, the greater the proof that small changes make big differences and there’s something contagious, particularly where cities have a “rival” mentality. In Australia I’ve worked almost everywhere.
M: What does your process involve?
JG: It starts with a lecture. I explain what I’ve achieved elsewhere and say what could be possible in that city. Soon after, I get a call from the city council requesting a proposal and costing. We then work with the city-planning department and students on the ground to analyse how people are (and aren’t) using public space and what can be done to improve the situation. We then propose our findings to the council. I have two defining principles: we don’t work to make money – we never accept a project just to increase our annual turnover and we won’t accept a project if we don’t think we can help improve the quality of life.
M: Have you ever been disappointed?
M: Why do people ever turn down your proposals?
JG: Usually influential businessmen and retailers are nervous that if traffic patterns change then business declines. There can also be complicated bureaucratic set-ups where too many people are involved, with too many conflicting interests. Cities with these problems make any change very difficult to implement.
M: Is there a common factor in the cities where your plans have worked?
JG: I always find someone with authority and a singular vision who works tirelessly. Sometimes it’s an individual such as Mayor Bloomberg in New York; sometimes it’s cooperative forward-thinkers working well together – like in Portland, Oregon, where congressman Blumenauer worked with mayor Sam Adams, traffic engineers and street architects.
M: Does improving the quality of urban life have tangible links to the health and well-being of its inhabitants?
JG: I’m an advocate that natural exercise has obvious health benefits. Daily natural exercise raises life expectancy, and I don’t mean fitness centres, which aren’t an adequate solution. Introducing people- oriented transport infrastructures to Third World cities provides opportunities that have immeasurable benefits. In Bogotá, former mayor Enrique Peñalosa invested his transport budget in the 80 per cent of the population that don’t have a car; he promoted cycling and increased public spaces. His policy decreed that to have a better life you need to be more mobile. He created good cycle lanes, a fast, cheap bus network, large pavements and 900 parks. He also bought 50 copies of Life Between Buildings and put one in every library in Bogotá.
M: Is it expensive to make your proposals a reality?
JG: It’s incredibly cheap compared with building a transport network of roads or a metro system. [Improvements to] pedestrian and cycle routes are the cheapest changes you can make to raise the quality of life in a city. It’s proven to boost the economy, too. In Melbourne from 1990 to 2005 – before, during and after the period when I consulted there – annual turnover, employment rates and real estate value increased dramatically. The council put this down to the growing number of people spending time in the city and the increased length of time, and consequently money, they spent there.
M: If you could do one single thing to improve significantly the quality of life in cities, what would it be?
JG: I’d make the Human Rights committee of the UN pass a law that every city should treat its people as well as it treats its cars.
M: It’s said that by 2050, 75 per cent of the global population will be living in cities – do you see the future of the city as closer to Copenhagen or Dubai?
JG: I’m confident we’ll all rely far more on public transport in the future. We can’t organise these huge developing cities if we don’t build them around good public transport and pedestrian infrastructures to mobilise their inhabitants. Cars will not be the future – it sounds unreal, but there isn’t enough space.
M: What city has the greatest quality of life, in your opinion?
JG: Copenhagen, definitely. I don’t get in my car for two weeks sometimes because I can walk or cycle anywhere. And I’m 73.
“Our work is the first step in achieving progressive, sustainable cities on so many levels. People are starting to regard their fellow citizens differently too, meeting people in new public spaces regardless of background or ethnicity.”
Camilla Richter-Friis van Deurs
“Developers as well as politicians are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of urban quality as a marketing device and a catalyst for economic growth too.”
Man about town
Jan Gehl’s CV
1936 Born in Rønne, Denmark
1960 Graduates from the School of Architecture, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (RDAoFA), Copenhagen
1971 Publishes Life Between Buildings. Appointed lecturer of Urban Design at RDAoFA
2000 Establishes Gehl Architects – Urban Quality Consultants, Copenhagen
2003 Appointed director of the Centre for Public Space Research, RDAoFA
2010 Publishes Cities for People
Mexico City: Consulted on the Bicycle Mobility Strategy to introduce 300km of new bicycle lanes over four and a half years.
Christchurch, New Zealand: Provided an analysis of the traffic and public space usage with the aim of boosting the city centre’s population.
Guangzhou, China: Collaborated with the Institute for Transport & Development Policy to plan a people-oriented transport system and create new public spaces along the Bus Rapid Transit network.
Muscat: Overseeing the design and construction of two public-space projects in the city.
New York: Since 2007, has doubled the number of bicycle lanes – increasing the number of cycling commuters – and reclaimed 45,000 sq m of public space.