Featured: Cities for People – Jan Gehl

January 6, 2012 — Leave a comment


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I’d rather dwell on a more hopeful urban vision, though, which starts with people and their health and flourishing, or, as Jan Gehl’s new book calls it Cities for People. Gehl started working as an architect in Copenhagen right around 1960, when many cities worldwide were demolishing buildings for the hell of it (“urban renewal”) and acquiescing to automobile traffic; he, meanwhile, was developing the starts of Copenhagen’s now-enviable bicycle network – the finest in the world – and further practicing an architecture designed foremost for people. There’s so much to learn in this book, and Gehl is so committed to the human scale that he surprised me many times. Additionally, Cities for People has excellent illustrations and resources to apply to any neighborhood, and relates so well to other books about cities, that I hope to recommend many of these as well.

At the heart of Gehl’s argument is that people – pedestrians, walkers – are the users for whom city space must be designed in order to create “lively, safe, sustainable, and healthy” cities. This would seem self-evident: of course cities are for people, what else? But when viewed in light of the actual shape of our cities (such as Indianapolis), and city development practice of the past 60 years, it becomes more apparent that the welfare of people in cities has been given little care. To make the case for human-scaled cities, Gehl begins with thorough characteristics of humans:

“Our sensory apparatus and systems for interpreting sensory impressions are adapted to walking. When we walk at our usual speed of four to five km/h (2.5 – 3 mph), we have time to see what is happening in front of us and where to place our foot on the path ahead. If we meet other people, we can see them from a distance of 100 meters 9110 yards)… When running at 10 – 12 km/h (6 – 7 mph), we can still perceive and process sensory impressions and thus gain an acceptable level of control over the situation… It is interesting that the running experience largely corresponds to cycling at an ordinary speed of 15 – 20 km/h (9 – 12 mph). As cyclists we are also in good sensory contact with our surroundings and other people” (43).

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