Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Jan Gehl: Cities for People

Renowned architect, planner and cycling supporter delivered the 2011 Arthur Erickson Lecture recently at the Vancouver Playhouse.

As Jan Gehl began his talk entitled “Cities for People” it was clear from his opening remarks that architects, planners and politicians have a long way to go to fix cities that have embraced the automobile for over sixty years.

“Traffic planners make room for traffic- they make cars happy.” Transportation planning and the architecture that supports the movement of vehicles at 60 km/hr require large spaces and huge signage, erasing detail and people from the street. For too long, Gehl asserts, cities have been planned not from eye level but from an “airplane perspective.” What looks great on a map or plan has little connection to what we experience as pedestrians and cyclists. We all suffer as a result.

It is “people culture” that needs to drive how city spaces are organized which means slowing our streets down to accommodate movement at 5 km/hr. The “lively city” is one that is attractive, safe, sustainable and healthy- a city that invites people into the public realm rather than chasing them away.

For Gehl, change in how cities are developed is often piecemeal or arrives in half-measures and yet there are success stories we can all embrace. In terms of cycling infrastructure, New York City is working at a rapid-fire pace to improve what has long been a horrific environment for cyclists. Where bicycles have traditionally been used to protect parked cars, parked cars are now protecting bicycles with curbside bike lanes.

And Copenhagen, of course, now boasts a staggering statistic. 36% of all commuter traffic is done by bike. An additional boost to cycling advocacy is a tidy fact promoted on the City of Copenhagen website. A person choosing to cycle adds 25¢ per cycled kilometer to societal health and wellbeing while driving costs society 10¢ per kilometer driven.

But an underlying message of Jan Gehl’s is that constructing new bike lanes is not enough. A complete shift in how we view our cities must take place, one that involves the development of dynamic streetscapes that integrate a whole range of activity- cycling, walking, playing and interacting. In closing his talk Gehl ponders whether we might need a Department of Public Life to lead the re-design of our cities and streets. In the meantime, we can all do our part by behaving like the people we are and slowing the city down.

For more on Jan Gehl’s ideas you might want to get your hands on his book, “Cities for the People” (Island Press, 2010).

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