Jan Gehl: quality urban design

Jan Gehl, architect, design consultant and founding partner of Gehl Architects.

Jan Gehl, architect, design consultant and founding partner of Gehl Architects.

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.

New Road, in Brighton.

New Road, in Brighton.

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:

Modern design in Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil.

Modern design in Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil.

“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.

Danish citizens take to the streets, on bikes, en masse.

Danish citizens take to the streets, on bikes, en masse.

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.

A public plaza in Denmark, modern day.

A public plaza in Denmark, modern day.

“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.

10 thoughts on “Jan Gehl: quality urban design

  1. Great read. Should we “Copenhagenize” Boise? How would we do that through appropriate transference? What does planning need to be careful of when taking a design-centric approach to urban problems, if anything?

    • Dr. Ashley, thanks for the comment. I don’t think we should “copenhagenize” Boise writ large–I’m concerned about any type of urban planning theory that suggests all that’s required for functional places is the right kind of brick pavers and bicycles. I think that’s a narrow focus, and doesn’t take into account the local constituency. What’s the difference between the aesthetic of Brasilia and that of the New Road by Gehl’s firm? Really, just an updated style, albeit one that at least considers people. I think planning ought to consider design options, but empower informed choice for the public: provide multiple different options, some of them automobile-focused, maybe, for the public to have an active role in the creation of their environment. I don’t think planners should be too advocate-focused. I think that’s where New Urbanists encounter friction. .

  2. I’ve come to realize that most of America’s cities have grown away from their peripatetic roots and are now simply “peripathetic” — as if the incessant rush to expand (and the monied interests’ needs of predictability for their return-on-investment) actually required our communities to be forced through an automobile-driven autoclave, to sterilize away anything that might introduce unpredictability. From this perspective, Gehl’s work to build fora for unplanned exchanges (to carefully graft back onto our corporate bodies the organs that assist in community-making) is a valiant effort.

    Another person whose work you may appreciate is David Engwicht — an Australian who became enthralled with understanding the nature of communities after his own neighborhood was threatened by a proposed Highway development. While visiting Boise in 1999, Engwicht told the crowd, “Cities are an invention to maximize exchange – goods, culture, friendship, ideas and knowledge – and minimize travel.” And from that one visit was born the Pace Car program, the idea that volunteers could mark their own automobiles as “pace cars” (window stickers, bumper stickers) and would NEVER travel faster than the posted speed limit — a novel idea that caught on and has now been adopted in a number of U.S. cities.

    Engwicht is far more than just a champion for slowing down traffic, he saves his biggest advocacy for Place Making. Here’s a link to a good presentation Engwicht made back in 2010 — the premise of which is, “place making is about experience not design.”

    He has observed that, even in our most public of spaces, Americans are obsessed with “movement” — all at the expense of creating wonderful spaces to actually be in. Something to keep in mind as we launch into our Greenbelt Survey.

  3. Not sure I agree that our daily decisions about where to take our coffee, “taken as a whole, make up society itself.” On the contrary, I think society often dictates to us where we take our coffee, particularly on the Boise State campus, for example, and this is the problem that Gehl seeks to solve with his human scale eye.

    Copenhagenize the SUB!

    • But Nathaniel, in this market economy, doesn’t demand (or the promise of demand) drive most of the change in our spatial environment? David Eberle asked a group of students, “Who builds our city?” to which he answered “developers,” not private citizens. Wouldn’t where we choose to take our coffee necessarily inform the real estate market, and the location of coffee shops?

      • Former Eagle Mayor, Nancy Merrill, would often repeat the one story from her father that I appreciated. When asked, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” he always gave the same answer, “The rooster.”

        In this case, if we could summon coffee from thin air (or make our demand for coffee physically manifest like some Scarlet Letter “C”) — then yes, perhaps the market would respond by building us a coffee shop where we, coffee-starved, consumers were congregating. But developers are notorious for their lack of clairvoyance — or, even public sensitivity.

        Eberle is partially correct — to the extent that developers have been given many of the key seats in the stakeholder process when public plans are put together — hello rooster. Usually foreshadowing development intent by co-locating their own land-interests with favorable zoning language — cock-a-doodle-do.

        A good case in point is the old River Street / Myrtle Street Redevelopment Plan. In the back of the plan document are several fold-out 11×17 maps of the area. One showed the names of the land owners, while another showed the proposed zoning designations. If you ever get a hand on one of these, you’ll notice that all the most development permissive C-5DD zones perfectly coincide with the S-16 land ownership.

        Gehl might advocate for an inversion of the typical “housing” of certain commercial exchanges, pushing some to the out-of-doors — or to interior edge areas that could be opened up to adjacent pedestrian ways.

  4. In his book Spaces of Hope, Harvey criticized the spatial determinism that smart growth policies may create the problems it is supposed to remedy if they simply rely on better design to promote more progressive, responsible, and sustainable urban landscapes without fundamentally addressing the social, political, and economic forces.

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