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Jan Gehl: Cities for People

· 4 min read
Sebastián Romero

Photo: Ursula Bach, Municipality of Copenhagen

"You architects, why don't you really care about people? What you do greatly affects people's lives, yet you don't learn anything about people in school," his wife, a psychologist, said to a young Jan Gehl, just graduated as an architect from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. It was this question that, in the sixties, led him to hit the streets and try to learn everything he hadn't learned in school.

Jane Jacobs in 1961. Photo: Wikipedia

During that same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, Jane Jacobs fought against modernist urban planners who aimed to improve people's lives by building highways and skyscrapers.

People and Buildings

"Architecture is the interaction between form and life. And architecture is good only when this interaction works. The same goes for cities. It's not about buildings and streets; it's about the interaction of life with the physical environment. This is the dimension of architecture and planning that the modernists have overlooked."

This concern for people, Gehl explains, hasn't earned him many friends in the upper echelons of architecture. Rather, they often tell him he should worry more about the form of things. The relationship between people and their physical environment is irrelevant, they say.

Architects' obsession with competing to see who can design the building with the strangest shapes — Gehl calls them "perfume bottles" because of their resemblance to perfume bottles, attempting to compete through form to grab people's attention — combined with globalization, has led architects to produce architecture like a "bird shitting," Gehl says. They come from the other side of the world, fly over, "shit" buildings anywhere, take a nice picture, and quickly move on to the next place to "shit" the next building from the air. Without stopping to see how the buildings they construct affect people's lives.

The Brasilia Syndrome. A city designed only to be seen from the air. Photo: Google Street View

Entire cities have been built to be seen from a helicopter because at eye level, they are ugly and lifeless. This is what he calls the "Brasilia Syndrome." Cities that have forgotten about people. They lost sight of the human dimension. Huge, empty spaces for very few people.

Systematic Research as a Planning Tool

Gehl's message is simple: systematically research how people use the city and then improve what needs to be improved.

For decades, the only things being discussed are ideologies, but no one stops to see how the buildings they construct are affecting the lives of the people who use them.

In line with what Jacobs was saying back in the early sixties, Gehl calls on architects to leave their studios, put aside the plans and models for a while, "look out the window," and observe people.

Architects "rarely know anything about people's lives." That's why he insists on going out into the streets and observing people, as it's the best way to gather information and understand what works and what doesn't.

Information as a Vital Part of the Change Process

"People's infatuation with their cars has decreased. People are starting to think that there are probably other qualities in cities besides making space for cars."

This doesn't mean that overnight we can eliminate all parking lots from the city center. Because if we did, Gehl says, there would be a "revolution."

First, it's necessary to create an attractive public space. People have to see that moving using their own energy or using public transportation is just as good or better than driving their own car. "If using the bicycle is attractive, people ride bikes. If public transportation works well, people use it. [...] People's behavior has to do with the things that invite them to do. The more streets you build, the more traffic you will have. If public space is more attractive, more people will use it."

October 2011. Officials of the new Danish government cycle to formally present themselves at the palace to the Queen. Source

This must be supplemented by educating and informing people. Gehl believes that people's participation in planning is a very good thing. But for people to make good decisions, they first need to have all the information. They must be able to understand properly what their options are and how they will impact their lives. "In my experience, if you show them a better alternative, people understand," adds the Danish architect.

You can read the full interview at the following link

In the following video, Gehl explains in depth the concepts I briefly mentioned.