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The Green Life: Architect Jan Gehl on Urban Planning, Human Scale, and the Bicycle Revolution

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January 29, 2010

Architect Jan Gehl on Urban Planning, Human Scale, and the Bicycle Revolution

Biking Danish architect Jan Gehl is one of the world's preeminent urban planners. Since the 1960s, he has worked to make Copenhagen a cycling- and pedestrian-friendly city. His concepts of human-scale design and the importance he places on public spaces have led city planners the world over to rethink the way they design. In 2007, New York City sought Gehl’s help when improving its bicycling infrastructure, which has paid off with huge increases in cycling. We interviewed Gehl to find out more about how he thinks about urban design.

Q: What does it mean to build on a human scale?

A: You put an emphasis on the people walking and bicycling and also on public life in general. That means you start with the people and end with all the other things. You have motor traffic and buildings as second priorities. If you don’t start with the people side of the story, you can never add the people side after you have made cars happy and placed a number of buildings around a place. You have to start with the people.

So that’s one side of it. The other side is something which takes its point of departure in the human body and human senses. If you go to a place like Venice, which was made for pedestrians, you’ll find what I call 3-miles-an-hour architectural. Everything is detailed and scaled in such a way that you have a glorious time moving at 3 miles per hour.

But also we can talk about 50-miles-an-hour architecture, which would be the scale of maybe suburbs, and that scale is really awful to walk and bicycle in because it's not meant to be negotiated at 3 miles per hour. It’s made for 50 miles per hour.  And these two scales are completely different. And you can see them. All the old cities would have the 3 miles per hour scale, and maybe in the new cities, the planners have been completely confused about scale.

Q: Why are public spaces important?

A: Throughout history, public spaces have had a very important role in day-to-day human life. It has been the meeting place, it’s been the marketplace. Public spaces have provided access to the various things happening in the city.

What has happened in the last 50 years is that the public spaces have been overrun by the motorcar. We have what I call the car invasion, and the city as a meeting place and the city as a marketplace has been sort of squeezed out of many places.

But what we see now is a renaissance of the public space as a meeting place. The increase in the sidewalk-café culture worldwide is a very sure sign of a lot of people wanting to be in public spaces and to have a good pretext for being there for a long time. 

And then because in public spaces you are directly present, you can interact with other people, you can watch them with your own senses as opposed to seeing pictures on TV of what other people have seen here and there. And what’s really interesting is that that's one of the reasons the amount of life in the cities is going up very drastically. A good example would be what happened in Times Square in New York. The moment they provided much better public space to enjoy the places -- I think they had provided 11 times more space for human activities -- it became packed with people all the time. Ever since they were closed to traffic, people took over.

Q: How does bicycling fit in to this view of public spaces?

A: Bicyclists are human beings. And we actually include bicyclists in the term “life in public spaces.” Because you can look at them as somewhat fast but they’re actually not going that much faster than joggers can run. And when you are on a bicycle, you are using your senses to see other people and what’s going on. And people on the sidewalks can easily see bicyclists as individuals, as people. So you cannot say that public life is only on sidewalks, I also think it's in the bike lanes. 

But bikes move just a bit faster and you have to solve a number of problems so that the slower pedestrians and the faster pedal users will not get into conflict with each other. But both of them are people. And a city with a lot of bicyclists is indeed a city with a lot of life.  A city with a lot of cars is a city with a lot of cars, or metal, or speed. Not with people. You can hardly even see people in the cars because of the shiny windows and the speed they move, so from a human-sense point of view they are not present in a space.

Bicyclists bike in a space and a car will be going through a space. We can also say that a car will be going through a landscape and a bicyclist will be biking in a landscape.

--interview by Kyle Boelte

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