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Jan Gehl on American Cities and Walkability | Congress for the New Urbanism

Jan Gehl on American Cities and Walkability

Luke Hogan's picture

Fast Company recently posted a Q and A with Danish urban designer Jan Gehl. Mr. Gehl, the author of the book, "Life Between Buildings," as well as a new book titled "Cities for People," is an expert at building cities at a people-centered scale. In this article he laments the lack of attention paid to the details of eye-level city life. Planners, he says, have been too busy looking at the big picture, and architects have been worrying too much about individual buildings. " We know more about the habitat of panda bears and mountain gorillas than we do about cities at eye-level," he says. Mr. Gehl seems hopeful about the future of American cities, if not a little perplexed as to why it has taken America so long to get on board. Copenhagen, the home of Mr. Gehl, has been working to make itself more friendly to pedestrians since 1962, according to the article. At the end of the article attention is given to the Chinese new cities, where planners shun bicycling as antiquated--and in some cases place an outright ban on biking in the city. With many cities in developing countries repeating the same mistakes that have already been made in Europe and America, the question is whether they will have to go through the same car-oriented design life cycle or whether they can skip ahead a few steps. 

What needs to change here in America, as well as developing countries like China, is the public perception. With energy prices sure to rise over the coming decades, it seems almost certain that whoever is best prepared for the post-petroleum era will come out on top both in terms of economics as well as livability. While educating planners and studying the eye-level qualities of great streets is half the battle, the other half is in communicating a vision to the public and getting people on board. Too often good design is dismissed as being "European," expensive, impractical, and so on. To be honest, I don't blame people who say they would never walk to the grocery store, because in nearly every case this involves endless stretches of barren sidewalks (if a person is lucky enough to have sidewalks on the way to the store at all), a death defying romp through a Frogger-esque parking lot or two, blocks that seem to stretch for miles and that front used car dealerships and gas stations, and other very uncomfortable pedestrian environments. Perhaps the best way to get America's collective feet wet on the idea of walkable urbanism is to create small, temporary improvements and showcase them. Montreal has the practice of creating temporary sidewalk cafes in on-street parking spaces down to a science. San Francisco's Pavement to Parks program turns underutilized paved space into public parks. Granted, these are cities where you hardly need to make an argument for good urbanism, but why not try these and other strategies in places like Phoenix and Houston? 

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It's all connected!

It's all connected!

Copenhagen

In 1947 my father studied at Lund University in Sweden just across the Kattegut from Denmark. He had a Bell and Howell 8 mm. movie camera and filmed some street scenes in Copenhagen( I will have to go dig through his files and find them). The city had trams then and judging from the many pedestrians was quite walkable. There were also bikes evident, although maybe not so many as today. Luke you mention that Gehl says efforts to make Copenhagen more walkable began in 1962. Much damage must have been done in the 50's and well into the 1970s. For one thing all of the vast streetcar network was removed which turned what had been modest automobile lane capacity on streets shared with trams into huge auto dominated arterials. Now bike lanes, walkways and public parks are reoccupying excess lane capacity thanks to Gehl and his successors in the government. There is much to learn from Copenhagen, but remember that Copenhagen went through its own post WWII flirtation with excessive highway building and sprawl. Fortunately planners like Jan Gehl and activist citizens took the city in a more urban direction.

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