While I’m not a designer, I’m fascinated by urban design.
In considering urban planning issues, I often think about the conscious decisions made by humans on a daily basis. The stop at the corner coffee shop. The bike ride to work. Lunching on cafe patios. All these activities are, to some extent, rational, conscious decisions of personal preference made in urban environments. Many choices are based on amenity, expediency and thrift. The sum of these decisions, taken as a whole, make up society itself.But inherent in many of those decisions–since they are made by emotional, often irrational humans–is an aesthetic element. A number of unconscious factors enter our decisions as well. One person chooses a coffee shop they like for its look and feel–or for the people that frequent it; while another person chooses to ride a bicycle down a tree-lined street, instead of driving, favoring the overall emotional and physical experience. Lunch on a cafe patio provides more pleasure than lunch in a dull, gray cubicle, and according to designers, is pleasurable not just for conscious personal preference. Part of the enjoyment of these activities and experiences are their connections to deep-rooted instinct, that evolution has influenced our proclivity for inviting urban environments. It’s through Jan Gehl, founding partner of Copenhagen, Denmark design firm Gehl Architects, that I’m exposed to some of these concepts. They’re things I see personified in New York City’s Highline Park, and in the Boise River Greenbelt.
Gehl’s firm focuses on addressing urban problems with design solutions, often in transportation. In Brighton, U.K., Gehl and his employees redesigned a road to serve as more than just a place for automobiles. In New York City, he was hired by the Department of Transportation to help “Copanhagenize” (a term he uses often) the streets of the Big Apple. Gehl credits Jane Jacobs for his understanding of the importance of human scale.
I was first introduced to Gehl via Gary Hustwit’s documentary “Urbanized,” the third film in a three-part series on design thinking. It’s a fabulous film (available on Netflix) offering a glimpse into the factors contributing to community in urban environments. While Gehl’s work suggests much about his perspective, his comments in this film truly reveal Gehl’s philosophy behind his work, and his rationale for cities.
Early in the film, the screen flashes to images of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, brought into existence in part by the efforts of famous architect Oscar Niemeyer. Brasilia is a sleek, modernist vision of a city. However, endemic to the town is a fundamental flaw: the place is not designed for people. In steps Gehl:
“It looks fantastic from the airplane,” Gehl says of Brasilia, “but if you are down at eye level, on your feet, and going from one place to another, Brasilia is a disaster. Every distance is too wide. Things are not connected. You have to trample for endless miles and miles along completely straight paths. Nobody ever started to think about ‘What would it be to be out in Brasilia between all these monuments?'”
Miles stretch between monolithic constructs erected on radial boulevards in Brasilia, not unlike Washington, D.C., another planned city, designed by Pierre “Peter” Charles L’Enfant. But unlike the District, with its height limits, pocket-sized neighborhoods and walkable streets, Brasilia feels hollow. What’s missing, according to the academics in “Urbanized,” is design for people. People cannot engage with the place in a meaningful way because the built environment has not adequately addressed their needs. Think of a busy four-lane road. On one side stands an elementary school filled with students; on the other, a neighborhood many of those students call home. Without sidewalks, street lights and slow-moving cars, the street is a barrier for anything other than automobiles. To bridge the vast distances between places, the citizens of Brasilia drive their cars, further contributing to the lack of street life. While this isn’t said outright, the academics are clearly suggesting that a place without street life, usable only by automobile, is an alien place for humans.
Gehl provides context, as images of the bicycle-friendly Copenhagen flash on the screen behind him:
“In Copenhagen we have, for 30 or 40 years, had this very distinctive policy to invite people to bicycle as much as possible. There’s a complete network of very good bicycle lanes, city-wide. In what we call the ‘Copenhagen-style bicycle lane,’ we always have the bike lanes next to the sidewalk. Sidewalks are the slow traffic, the bike lanes are a little bit faster, and then there would be parked cars, and then there would be the traffic. This way, you have the parked cars to protect the bicyclists, instead of the bicyclists to protect the parked cars,” said Gehl.
The result? Design for people. Streets usable in many different ways, and, according to Gehl, a populace which actively chooses to ride bikes to work and play. 37% of Copenhagen’s residents ride bikes to work, according to the film. Again, Gehl links this notion of engaging places, including real physical activity, with an evolutionary desire.
“Knowing about Homo sapiens, and the kind of creature he is, has been a very important key to understanding why some places work and some places don’t. Much of it is bound to our senses…It’s the same Homo sapiens all over the world. Cultural circumstances differ, economic circumstances differ, climatic circumstances differ, but basically, we are the same little walking animal,” said Gehl.
It’s been said that this era may be defined by design, (usually in breathless praise for Apple products, and, ironically, architects), but while I don’t think urban design is a panacea, it’s the thinking of Gehl and other designers that I believe contributes to thinking about places in new, innovative ways. I believe you see this in the “community garden” movement–people turning unused land into usable places–and with the “pop-up” arts phenomenon. This creative approach to problem-solving, not specifically the work of designers, may come to help citizens reimagine their urban environments for the better.