All of these examples beg the questions: who, or what, are cities for? Gehl seems to suggest, as does Jane Jacobs, that they create the healthiest, most diverse, lively, sustainable (see David Owen’s Green Metropolis) network of human relations, where the dignity and value of life is reinforced by the urban fabric. Looking at a city like Indianapolis, this would be a hard conclusion to reach, as the structure of the city suggests it’s built either for the sake of individual structures, or for cars.
Another pressing question, then, after establishing that cities must be designed for people is in what ways our structures can reinforce this preference. Some have been alluded to, such as using the sensory abilities of humans to determine building heights, the width of streets and squares, and walkable distances. Others related more to actual buildings, primarily how the ground floor interacts with the people-scape of the sidewalk and street: the edge. As with many characteristics, Gehl provides illustrations and brief descriptive qualities comparing and contrasting features: edges can be Open or Closed (as in visibility through windows); Varied or Uniform (diverse functions and many entrances or single-use megastructures); or Vertical or Horizontal (vertical façade articulation for rhythm and differentiation or long horizontals). He continues, “No single topic has greater impact on the life and attractiveness of city space than active, open and lively edges. When the rhythms of the city’s buildings produce short units, many doors and carefully designed details at ground-floor level, they support life in the city and near buildings. When the city’s edges work, they reinforce city life. Activities can supplement each other, the wealth of experience increases, walking becomes safer and distances seem shorter” (88).
The most exciting examples to achieve this goal are in Stockholm and Melbourne, both of which have adopted an ‘active façade policy,’ Melbourne’s requires “60 percent of street facades in new buildings along major streets [to] be open and inviting” (151). The before and after photos of this policy are equally striking.
Just as useful are guides at the end of the book to guide neighborhoods in assessing their blocks; one in particular stands out that was used to guide Stockholm’s active façade policy assesses streets on the size of its units in number of doors per meter (15-20 per 100 meter is best); the diversity in function; amount of passive units; façade relief; vertical articulation; and details and materials. The results are in five groups and could provide an excellent starting place – along with other resources such as 12 Quality Criteria grouped in Protection, Comfort, and Delight; and contrasts of features To Invite or To Repel.
Cities for People more than affirms what makes great cities: the built-in opportunities for human relationships, health, and flourishing; in short, life.
Brent Aldrich is Art Editor of the Englewood Review of Books.