1. CITIES: Danish architect ‘reconquers’ urban areas for bikers and hikers (02/17/2009)
Robin Bravender, E&E reporter
Danish architect Jan Gehl has a simple solution for improving public health, cleaning cities’ air and battling climate change: Redesign cities to accommodate people, not cars.
And while his approach may be simple, it is one that has been shunned in recent decades as modern society raced to replace open-air markets, downtown stores and public transport systems with sprawling supermarkets and ever-larger shopping malls surrounded by a moonscape of free parking.
But that was then. Now, with climate change looming as one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns and with the recognition that the era of cheap gasoline may soon come to a close, the 72-year-old architect’s ideas are steadily gaining traction, through a movement that he calls “reconquering” cities.
ClimateWire looks at Copenhagen’s influence on urban transportation. Part one of a two-part series.
“There’s a strong wind blowing now with sustainability,” he said, as public officials aim to tackle looming public health and climate issues that are fed by urban gridlocks.
Gehl does own a car, but he said he uses it mostly to shuttle grandchildren to and from his children’s homes. He takes the bus to work every day in Copenhagen. “My wife doesn’t like me in my advanced age to bicycle,” he said.
The retired professor has spent much of his professional life preaching the value of making cities more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. Gehl came upon architecture rather accidentally, he said. He intended to be an engineer, but became interested in buildings when he was 15 years old and helped his father build a summer cottage, he said. He realized that designing buildings and urban settings is a profession “where you can do an enormous amount for mankind,” he said.
Soon after he completed architecture school in 1960, Gehl married the psychologist Ingrid Mundt. She and her friends wondered why architects didn’t take human psychology into account in their designs, he said. They began to work together on projects that studied the intersection between psychology, architecture and urban planning.
Gehl’s work is credited with inspiring a series of gradual changes that have made Copenhagen one of the most bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly cities in the world. The changes include creating isolated lanes for bicyclists and establishing car-free pedestrian areas.
He has written and co-authored a host of urban planning books that have now been published in multiple languages. “Life Between Buildings” came out in Bengali this year, which Gehl acclaimed as a major achievement in spreading his ideas to cultures across the globe.
Influence upon Melbourne, Cape Town and New York
Traces of his work can be found in Melbourne, Australia; Stockholm; Cape Town, South Africa; Seattle; and New York. Those and other cities have called on Gehl to help them lure people outside of buildings and automobiles and provide enticing public spaces full of sidewalk cafes, safe bicycle lanes and convenient places to sit and people-watch.
“He is seminal for city planners and urban planners,” said Anne Schopf, design partner at Seattle-based Mahlum Architects. She nominated Gehl as an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.
Architect Jan Gehl. Photo by Robin Bravender.
Gehl began his work as an architect in 1960, when he was 23. He recalls this period as the “heyday of modernism,” when cities were seen as bad and Americans and Europeans were racing away from the cities and into the suburbs.
With nudges from his wife, Gehl set out to attack the isolationism of suburban life, questioning how people could live happily without ever having to leave their houses or their cars and interact with others.
For decades, he has urged cities to move away from the automobile era by widening sidewalks, building bike lanes inside of parking lanes to separate bicyclists from oncoming traffic and building more public benches for resting and watching passersby.
At first it was like pedaling uphill, but now the recognition of the negative consequences of those decades is beginning to grow, Gehl says, and citizens are pushing back against putting a higher priority on cars than on public spaces.
A mission to restore the ‘people dimension’ in cities
“Public life, or life in the city, was taken for granted,” Gehl said in a recent interview. And society is starting to suffer the consequences of isolating people in single-passenger automobiles and eliminating public spaces, he says.
The easygoing architect can easily be described as a “people person.” During a recent visit to Washington, he wandered the streets of the quaint Georgetown neighborhood, marveling at the heavy pedestrian traffic and snapping photos of mothers with strollers and shoppers walking on the streets.
“The greatest interest in people’s lives are other people,” he said.
Through his work, Gehl hopes to restore that “people dimension,” which he says was lost when urban populations moved to suburbs in droves.
Now, cities around the globe are eager to get his advice as suburban populations flock back into cities and demand has increased for more pedestrian-friendly urban areas.
“He’s actually getting a lot more traction now,” Schopf said, noting that more than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas.
Downtowns used to be dead zones, but that is changing with a growing recognition that cities need to invest in public open spaces, she said.
“I think that’s why it’s a ripe time for Gehl to really be populating his ideas, his very simple principles, throughout the world.”
Tackling a job for Superman: making New York bicycle-friendly
One of the major projects Gehl has taken on is a project with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to make the city more friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians.
“New York is maybe the most amazing place I’ve been working,” Gehl said, because officials there couldn’t wait to get projects off the ground.
The New York Transportation Department has incorporated Gehl’s ideas in its “World Class Streets” plan to revamp the city’s public spaces. The plan includes constructing a fully separated bike lane on Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue, creating public spaces and a bike lane on Broadway Boulevard between Times Square and Herald Square, installing 5,000 new bicycle racks on city sidewalks and improving pedestrian safety around hundreds of schools.
City officials were inspired by Gehl’s work after seeing the strong bicycling culture in Copenhagen, where about a third of commuters bicycle to work, said Rick Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, who has worked on the project.
Unlike streets in American cities, Copenhagen offers vibrant commercial districts with special lanes for bicyclists in which they aren’t at risk of being slammed by car doors, Bell said. There is a sense that pedestrians come first and cars can wait, he added, something that officials in New York — which is notorious for its chronic congestion — are hoping to replicate.