Jan Gehl at the Gateway Theatre, Richmond February 28, 2008
This lecture was part of the 2008 Lulu series “Art in the City”: a discourse with experts on the value of art in the city.
The people dimension in city planning. When Professor Gehl first graduated, architects were big and arrogant and people were small and insignificant. Modernists thought streets were bad. They designed towers in the grass. Most schools of architecture didn’t talk about people – and many still don’t. They were led astray by Art: it looks good in a magazine but people won’t use it. That was forty years ago, and then after studying it for a long time people started asking him how it should be done, so he started a consulting firm eight years ago: they call themselves “urban quality consultants”.
A city must be lively, attractive, safe, sustainable and healthy.
During the car invasion of the 1950s planners and politicians panicked. They thought that the purpose of life is to have more cars. Cities were designed for cars and parking. This became a universal craziness and it still is around. But fifty years of cheap petrol are coming to an end.
All city planning then was about the capacity of roads and parking. Every city has a department for traffic engineers. Is there a city department for pedestrians and public life? Does anybody know anything about people? His mission has been about making people visible in the city planning process. It is essential to realise how important people are: cities are for people and nothing else.
His firm now works all over the world and everywhere they establish the importance of looking after people. In the new city it is the spaces between the buildings that matter. This public space has to serve three purposes – meeting, market and connection. This was always a matter of a fine balance in the same space, and it is still seen in many cities where economy is not “advanced” i.e. where there are no or few cars. Once moving started to explode it took over everywhere. We have lost the understanding of cities: I wish that had copies of his illustrations of the indignities people have to suffer to negotiate around parked cars. In motorised cities respect for people disappears. He had one picture of the “Naples slalom” – a tricky manoeuvre to get around cars parked on the sidewalk without stepping into traffic.
“People are an endangered species.”
Sydney is typical: all the streets are the same, wall to wall traffic which pushes people to the side. “Traffic is arbitrary” – it fills all the space available. “The amount of asphalt required for car is not in the UN charter of human rights”. In Manhattan, while there are wide streets they have only 25% of the capacity they “should” have, according to the traffic engineers. The car invasion gets worse every day. You can never have enough asphalt. This continues until someone puts their foot down and says “enough”. In Bogota, Columbia it was the Mayor who said we cannot accept this anymore. We need wide sidewalks, bike lanes and rapid buses. There will be no more parking lots.
He showed images of the abandoned city – Meridian Mississippi. There are no pedestrians. The only place you can walk is the mall which is open for exercise only between 8 and 10 am.
He showed an image Main St, Clarksdale Miss (not this one). “The blues were invented here”. In Miami there are no streetlights, as it is assumed that everone has their own headlights. Houston Texas is the city with the fattest people in the world.
He spoke about how professors at Berkeley behaved driving a short distance from home to work, then circling to find a parking spot. They would run at lunchtimes, then drive ten minutes to get home. He had also this archetypal image of the escalator to a San Diego gym.
The reconquered cities: from the 1980s onwards cities started to find a better balance between meeting market and motoring. He has found nine cities including Barcelona, Lyons, Strasbourg, Curitiba – and each has the necessary qualities – lively, attractive, safe, sustainable and healthy. And they did this by putting the emphasis on walking and bicycling.
Each has curbed unrestricted car driving. They have discovered the importance of public life. His book “New City Life” looks at the change in the use of cities. In the 1960s the first street in Copenhagen was made traffic free as a shopping mall. Now we understand that city life is more about recreation than shopping. The shift in emphasis has been from market to meeting. People come downtown to see what is going on. The city is a destination in its own right. We are now an experience oriented society, but due to family fission and smaller homes if you want to see other people, you have to get out of the house. We want the kind of quality we see when we go on holiday in our own city. People leave the underpopulated suburbs to come into city, not seeking out greenery but the company of other people.”Life is too short to go on holidays”.
There is a shift away from suburbs and isolation. People want density. Things happen that are optional. Cities are worth going to because they are lovely. Since 1960 we have seen an increase in traffic calming, pedestrian streets and better public urban spaces.
It has been suggested that cyberspace will become the place to meet but people like to participate too. You might see something on tv, but that will inspire you to visit it to see for yourself.
He spoke about the dimensions of city life
transport dimension – catering for pedestrians – the more you walk the better
social dimension – city as meeting place – people watching is the number 1 attraction (and 2 3 4 5 6) A sidewalk café is for girl watching: this is serious, harmless business as old as mankind.
sustainable dimension – we need need good public realm and public transportation with style, safety and comfort
heath dimension – the more people walk and bike naturally as part of their daily pattern the healthier they will be. This is not something you have to set aside time for at the gym. It must be inviting and pleasant to walk and bike in the city
democratic dimension – ‘open society’. All kinds of groups meet in the city. In a face to face meeting you discover that people who belong to other groups are equally human. Having all groups out in the public realm increases sfatey because it reduce tensions. It is also an important part of freedom of speech and association a place for all kinds of meetings. “You cannot do anything in a shopping centre but shop. Safe cities have lots of people in them, The best lectures are those in crowded lecture theatres: this also works for parties. If you are one of only a few people there, you suspect that there is something better happening somewhere else. This is why all architects fill their drawings with people.”
economic dimension: In Aarhus a highway had been built on a river. It was decided to get rid of the road and open up the river again. The banks of the river have become a popular gathering place and the buildings on those banks are now the most valuable in Denmark. “If you are sweet to people, you are sweet to your economy”. One city decided to copy the example of Lyons. They brought the same architects and designers and found that the improvements made attracted both investment and tourists. The net effect of which was that they had “improved the city at zero cost.”
He also noted the dimension of enjoyment – sheer fun (illustrated with statues that had been capped with traffic cones).
Invitations to the City – more roads = more traffic. “You can never make enough roads”. He told the story of the man who found a skunk in his basement. He tried to encourage it to leave by setting out a trail of breadcrumbs to the woods. Next day he had two skunks in the basement. “Copenhagen has systematically taken lanes away from traffic.” (Please note that this directly contradicts the assertion made by Anthony Perl at the West Vancouver Metro meeting, where he said that only parking space had been reduced.) He went on to show the city of San Francisco taking down the Embarcadero Freeway after the Loma Prieta earthquake. It was so successful “now they take down freeways just for fun”. Cities do not take out traffic because they care about people, they care about security. in Belfast the city centre was closed to traffic to keep out the car and truck bombers. (A similar policy was adopted in the City of London for the same reason after a bomb near Lloyd’s.) All of Lower Manhattan will be pedestrianised as the authorities have decided to cordon off the whole area – for security. “Sometimes we need earthquakes”. In Seoul Korea a freeway has been taken out of the city in order to put back the river, and no measures were put in place to cope with the traffic. It sorted itself out. In London the congestion charge covers an area of 25 sq km. Traffic dropped 18% but if it had been left as roads, traffic speeds woud just increase. It has been decided to give that space to public life not faster traffic and it will also be done in Manhattan. (London also introduced many bus only lanes and is building a huge bike network.)
Better conditions for bicycles. After the oil crisis in the 1970s the city of Copenhagen decided to build a city wide bike network – special lanes, crossings, traffic lights that give cyclists a 6 seconds advantage and a “green wave” for bikes which means that if you ride at a steady 17kph you will not have to stop and restart. If you make it comfortable to walk not to drive, or to ride a bike, people respond. Cycling doubled in 10 years – there are now more bikes than cars in Copenhagen. The current mode share is 36% bike, 27% car, 33% public transport, 5% walk. This is one of the lowest percentages for cars and it is Copenhagen’s intention to become the No 1 bike city in world with a 50% mode share and half the accidents: because when there are more bikes, there are less accidents. Better quality public space means there are more people as the city moves from being a traffic place to a people place.
The research and data collected by Professor Gehl helped politicians to make these changes and courage to go on making more changes. Many more people now walk – four times more people. It used to be said, “We are Danes, not Italians”. It was thought that the climate would have a negative impact on street life but in fact the “good seasons” now last ten months of the year, not two. “Now we more Italian than the Italians”. It was also said that sidewalk cafés would be a health risk – dust in the cappuccino would kill people. This fear proved unfounded. “We have shortened the winter to two months.”
He then turned to Melbourne. “It could be Richmond” In the 1980s the city centre was dead. The City set about making it a real city centre and two reports “Places for People”produced 1994 and 2004 show how it was done. By the use of incentives to developers the number of residents increased from 1,000 to 10,000. (These incentives have now been withdrawn as they are no longer needed). The university was encouraged to relocate some departments to the city centre, which brought students into town. New, good quality public spaces and retention and extensions to the tram system. All sidewalks are high class – with public art, trees for shade, and high quality street furniture. The city is an outdoor art gallery for contemporary art: most of it is on temporary display to provide variety and continuing interest. Light is used as art on structures. 500 trees a year are planted. As a result there are now 40% more pedestrians and a 300% increase in “stationary activities” (like people watching) The city has the ambiance of Paris, a booming economy and has won the world’s most livable city award several times. “You should invite Melbourne’s planner Rob Adams to Richmond”. Melbourne is now going to introduce bike lanes “Copenhagen style” i.e. inside the line of parked cars. New York is going to build 4,000 miles of bike lanes in the next 15 years.
Q, In Vancouver we currently have the notion that density alone will cause these changes to happen
A. You have to be proactive. It has to be wider concept – “clever density” – do not take out the sun and make it windy – no one can see what is going on on the street 50 floors up. Senseless density won’t help – “high rise is the lazy architect’s solution to density” – you need “sensitivity in density”
Q – A planner in charge of beautification for Surrey wanted to know how to encourage the engineers to shut down a road
A – We used to have two types of street (car and pedestrian) now we have eight types including pedestrian priority and “access allowed”. It is not a black and white choice. “Slow traffic is OK too”.
Q – shared space streets –
A – While the plan is to move that way, Gehl likes pedestrian priority better than shared streets. He was against the idea of traffic sign free streets being tried in Holland. He was very critical of that way to doing it – “people should be free of worry”. We need quality in how people feel about it, not just accident statistics.
Q – The current building of infrastructure for the Olympics is a losing battle in getting quality in materials
A – “I will sign the paper”. Look at airports and shopping centres. They can afford marble. We should have that attitude for our public space. We need lovely public spaces. In Melbourne the City designed the chairs and tables to be used for street cafes. If you wanted to put out tables and chairs in the sidewalk you had to rent them from the City. The standard was the same as in Paris.
The questioner responded that we are surrounded by granite, so it should be easier to get better materials than concrete.
Q – “We get rain here. Do we need covered areas?” In one park a covered space gives comfort for people to hang around or even occupy public space.
A – Both Calgary and Minnneaplois decided to build skywalk systems. These are enclosed but completely commercial. We should celebrate the nice days not build protection for the few days when the weather is bad. Norwegians stay out in open markets all winter north of the arctic circle. “I have no firm answers. All climates have wonderful squares. Dress appropriately and leave it up to individuals”.
Q – Can we reduce the need to commute from bedroom communities?
A – In the next ten years we will see changes since gas prices will go up. We will see many new solutions like allowing bikes on the train. “A two hours drive (commute) is to me unimaginable. In the US you have 6 weeks of sitting in traffic: in Denmark we have 6 weeks of holidays.”
Brent Toderian said that he had visited a suburban neighbourhood in Copenhagen that had the worst North American systems. How do you make suburbs more urban?
A – The interest in new cities is only forty years old. The roots of the projects you refer to were in the previous generation. We now have a whole new approach and are making heroic efforts. The blunders of the past will not happen again. The city centre is quite wonderful, it has an urban culture based on leisure and an experience oriented society. New spaces really lift a neighbourhood. We are now moving out of the city centre and change will come to the suburbs in the next ten years.
Q – A White Rock councillor asked what height buildings should be? But he also wanted ideas to help regenerate the waterfront park while they are urbanising the core, as the town centre has grown, the waterfront are always just adds more parking spaces.
A – While the problem is well stated I cannot answer you as I do not know enough about White Rock. In Oslo they are putting their freeway into a tube so that th waterfront can be reopened. they have to determine what kind of spaces will they need. they held a competition to determine that. Then they asked “how do we place the buildings”. Note that this is the reverse of the usual process. Normally the space is what is left over after the buildings have been set down. In the 21st century you start with people, then do you do the places, then the buildings are made to fit the place.
q – gentritfication?
a – There is no smart answer to that. When you improve the area new people move in. This should not stand in the way of improving cities. You also need a social policy. Bogota used transit as social policy providing good transit not more roads for cars improves the lot of the poor.
At the end of the evening Professor Gehl wanted to present a copy of one of his books to the Mayor of Richmond. There was no Mayor to take the book – nor any councillors. Only a rather junior member of the planning staff. It was explained to me that there had been a day long briefing by Prof Gehl of the staff, but again no politicians attended.
It is very much to the credit of this City that we have a program like the Lulu Sweet series. The organiser had worked hard to get Professor Gehl to come. I think that Malcolm Brodie should be heartily ashamed of himself that he could not spare the time to come to this event – and so should every councillor in the city too.
It is also remarkable that not one questioner came from Richmond as far as I could tell
When I look at Richmond, where I have lived for the last ten years, and where I have tried to get some attention paid to these ideas, I feel disheartened. Turning this suburb into a truly urban place is going to be an uphill struggle. It has been pretty depressing so far to see how reactionary most of the engaged public has been. And the absence of any political interest in this lecture is deeply depressing and does not augur well for our future. We may be at the end of the Canada Line, but I do not see us giving up our cars for real culture any time soon.
But as Jan Gehl siad “If the Aussies can do it, you can do it”
Lord knows, we need to.