Give the city back to its people – Q&A with Jan Gehl

We caught up with Jan Gehl, the world-renowned Danish architect and advocate for livable cities at the Habitat 3 Regional Meeting in Prague this week, where he gave a keynote presentation. Gehl has pushed for a long time for the creation of cities that are more livable, sustainable & healthier, planned with people in mind.

People today are asking about creating more sustainable cities, more livable cities, healthier cities. Clearly, something in our cities has gone wrong. Could you tell us what happened in the second half of the 20th century?

Jan Gehl: We’ve had two very dominating paradigms in city planning. We have had the modernistic idea of separating functions – you live here, you work here, you do recreation here, and in between we have freeways. And the other thing has been the invasion by the motorcar and the total obsession with the motorcar.

These two things, modernism and motorism have really been dominating paradigms. They are to me rather technocratic, both of them, and in both cases the people dimension has been completely neglected. The planners and architects were not into the people story, and the motorcars pushed people out, because it was more important that the cars were happy than that the people were happy.

It’s fifty years since Jane Jacobs wrote her first book (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, ed. note), this whole study of what was overlooked and how can we look better after people in city planning. That story is now fifty years old. And we have a lot of evidence, we know exactly what to do.

In the existing cities, this knowledge is used more and more. And there are excellent examples of really great cities now, who have policies where you can really see that every day is better than yesterday. So I was asking, can’t we have more of this knowledge used in the new places we are building in great numbers all over the world. It’s very important when we have this great urbanization, that when we build just as much as we have already, but in ten or twenty years, that we have a better quality of urban quality in these new districts.

So why are we not building the right kind of new areas?

I think it’s a matter of time. This kind of knowledge that is now available, is now generally used in existing cities, it has to be experimented with and used in the new stuff. It’s also a matter of people asking for these kind of qualities, and also protesting. What is going on in the new towns is a leftover from modernism, because that was very technocratic, it was easy to construct with very technocratic measures.

When new urban areas go wrong, when they’re still built with the modernist, motorist paradigm, is it commercial interest, or is it ignorance, or habit that people keep building that way?

Good question. I would normally say that the cheapest thing you can do, of all the investments you can do, is to invest in pedestrians, public space, and bicycles. Compared to investment in trains, in metros and cars, it’s peanuts to look after people. And in many of the new projects it only takes consideration. You have to work harder and think more and have a compassion towards the people who are to live there. So it’s not at all more expensive.

But also I see as a very serious problem that the education of architects and planners is not good enough. They are still doing modernistic teaching and they still don’t tell students anything about people. They get on the other side more and more obsessed with form. If you can make funny shapes then you can make it in the area of architecture. And I think, of course, that this is a very regrettable development.

I showed these high-rises from Addis Ababa. I thought it was really maybe not the major problem, to make some new towers there in funny shapes. I also showed you some of the Dubai stuff, which I normally call perfume bottles. Every architect tries to make another perfume bottle. But the really good architects, they are much more concerned not about the shape of the bottle, but how the bottle lands in the city. And the good architects will ask the question, not what can the city do for my building, but what can my new building do for the city? That’s the question you should ask. I may have stolen that somewhere. (laughs)

Is there a way for scientists that are interested in sustainability, in building better cities, to establish better relationships, better collaborations with city planners and architects? Or is there anything that the architectural or city planning communities needs from the scientific community?

I have many times talked about that. And especially about how architecture is a profession who doesn’t have any research. What happens normally is you have an idea, you make a building, you make some photos of the building, then you run to the next. But there is no tradition to go back and say – did it work? And that is one of the major reasons why modernism has been around for fifty years. Because nobody has really investigated that it didn’t work, people didn’t like it, because they just took pictures.

That is a major problem in the profession of architects, because it’s over towards the arts. But we have to treat architecture also as a profession and as a science. We have to go and check what is being built and make sure if there are errors that we can correct them, so that any time we build anything it is better than yesterday. This gradual improvement of the new stuff has not really happened in fifty years.

So there is a need for quite a bit of research, we call it post-occupancy research, that is going back when people have moved in and started to live there and work there and see how it works.

The last UN Habitat summit happened 20 years ago. When you read what they decided back then, even back then they said we want to build better cities, we want to make our cities more livable. But in the intervening years some places, some cities have even gotten worse. What makes you hopeful that this time it’s going to be different?

Things take time. I have been doing this research for fifty years now. And I have actually seen that the mindsets are changing, that many of the ideas are used. It’s especially when the citizens say that we want a better quality and we think that some of these issues here are important, then they can pressure the politicians.

I have seen many fantastic improvements in cities. We’ve seen it in New York, where Michael Bloomberg put in four thousand kilometres of bicycle lanes. It’s not finished yet, but he started. And then he built fifty public spaces in three, four years – fantastic, rapid change. New York is completely changed because of this, the mindset has changed. They are looking now at the city not as the place where cars shall go and be happy all the time, but as a place where people can meet and where you can have a great time. With your fellow citizens and with your city, and for that you need public spaces.

And the interesting thing in New York is, the moment they changed these places, people came the next day. The same afternoon. And started to occupy them. They’ve been occupied since, by all kinds of things: yoga classes, demonstrations, snowball fights, you name it. Life.

Written by . Published on March 18, 2016. Last edited on April 27, 2016.

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