Featured: Cities for People – Jan Gehl

January 6, 2012 — Leave a comment


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Not surprisingly, this is where it gets difficult in a city like Indianapolis: for so long we’ve been building 60 km/h spaces that even the thought of walking or biking in it seems intolerable. The walk I made for a couple of months last winter to catch the bus is typical: cut through a body shop/liquor store loading dock, across a church’s four massive parking lots, jump over a ditch for a retention pond, cut through a huge mega-complex of identical assisted living facilities, dentists’ offices, and ranch houses, run across a five-lane, 40 mph street, and then the option to continue on unplowed sidewalks or walk in the ditch along another road with no sidewalk or shoulder. In this environment, there is nothing lively, safe, sustainable, or healthy. On this point, Gehl writes, “if at any time planners had been asked to design cities that would make life difficult and discourage people from being outdoors, it could hardly have been done more effectively than was the case for all the cities developed in the 20th century on this ideological basis” (56).

To pass the time on that dreadful walk, I read Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Surely, this environment was the death. I mention this because Death and Life, published in 1961, represents for Gehl the decisive pushback against modernist architecture and automobile preference. In fact, many of Gehl’s chapters build upon and flesh out in illustrations many of Jacobs’s basic fundamentals about healthy cities.

Ideas common to Gehl and Jacobs include the compact and diverse city, the human scale and walking, mixed primary uses of blocks, the safety of well-used pedestrian streets, and, maybe above all, the opportunity unique to cities of contact and relationship with a broad, diverse amount of other people. And the best way to encourage these relationships is not just to add more people or quantities of ‘open spaces,’ but to focus instead on the quality of the smallest spaces such that people will be attracted to coming and staying. Gehl writes: “life in the city can be influenced quantitatively by inviting more people to come or qualitatively by inviting them to stay longer and slowing down traffic. It is almost always simpler and more effective to increase quality and thus the desire to spend time…

Working with time and quality rather than numbers and quantity also generally improves city quality for the benefit of everyone every day of the year” (73).

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