People Oriented City Planning as Strategy – Liveable cities for the 21st Century
Last night I travelled to London to hear Jan Gehl talk at the RIBA annual LKE Ozolins Lecture, on an approach to planning that most definitely puts humans first. Gehl has been studying and implementing this approach for most if not all of his years as a professional architect. Starting in the 1960s Gehl’s career was born into what he described as a particularly low point in the history of city planning, where planners were accustomed to dropping high rises all over the place.. In those days, architects were big, people were small.
So has anything changed? Well… as it was brought acutely to the forefront of our London based audiences attention – it depends on the city. In what he describes as a paradigm shift each city is stirring to varying degrees to the imperative of climate change and healthy city living. Within this paradigm Gehl highlighted that everyday people now wanted: lively, attractive, safe, sustainable and healthy cities. It is perhaps unsurprising, given their egalitarian, postmodern cultures, that Scandinavian countries and their cities such as Gehl’s place of birth Copenhagen, were early adherents to the demands of this shift. Gehl pointed out that Copenhagen planners have been putting more emphasis on people and planet for almost half a century, starting in 1962 by creating pedestrianized main streets. Today, as Gehl described, the continuous improvements and scientific analysis of what worked and what didn’t work, has made Copenhagen a place where:
- There is more walking,
- More people (four times the number now spending time in the city),
- The perceived good season has been extended from two to ten months – people covering up with blankets in an effort to stay outside and socialise.
- There is a priority for pedestrians and bicyclists with tracks across side streets rather than the fragmented walk ways that can be regularly encountered in London.
- 37% bike into work, 70% continue in winter
- A safe and efficient city wide bicycle transport system.
- Trains and metros welcome bikes.
Instead of the regular London challenges of vehicle congestion, the provision of narrow and often interrupted footways, high level noise
pollution, confusing pedestrian signs and pedestrian crossings, Copenhagen officials instead contend with nicer problems such as bicycle congestion, and too few bike parking places!
Gehl Architects works internationally around the globe with Gehl and his team analysing, devising solutions and building the design capaciites of its workers to ensure these ideas take hold and can be passed on. His approach has worked within a number of cities – from Melbourne, where the city centre has been transformed from once described empty donut to now recognised heart of the city, to Sydney, to Vancouver and Washington (the latter painting bike lanes down the Middle of Pensylvania Ave). Perhaps the biggest surprise for Gehl was the creation of a city wide bike plan in New York and in particular the creation of public spaces replacing traffic routes on Broadway from 2009 to 2011.
There were a number of questions asked at the end the big one for me being: why had London and UK cities in general lagged so far behind other cities? Furthermore why had London failed to implement so much of their own governmental report ‘Towards a Fine City for People 2004’? Gehl suggested it could have something to do with the complicated government structure with London boasting 33 boroughs, each wanting to do there own thing, as opposed to the one mayor presiding over all 8 million New Yorkers. Complex arrangements and competing interests are certainly apart of Londons makeup. There was also a suggestion from the chair that the tax and spend in other cities are more local, giving more discretion over decision making than is currently possible in UK cities. In both cases the real determining factor seems to point towards the degree of power held within our communities.
Whether it be complex government structures or centralised budgetary command and control, the people, in particular the people orientated urban designers have not been empowered to the extent of those in Scandinavia, Melbourne, Sydney and now even New York City. In these cases the pressure that urban innovators put on government has been enough to create significant change. The tipping point seemingly coming about at that moment when government officials finally recognise that they must do something different if they are to confront climate change, mobility, health and the over-use of non-renewable resources. Furthermore the state and the market benefit too! Gehl demonstrated using numerous statistics that when we make cities that put people and environment first, via city-wide bicycle tracks, footpaths, open public squares and the like, we can not only achieve all the benefits already discussed, they also reduce crime through stronger community cohesion, increase economic prosperity and reduce national health costs.
Gehl’s ideas and strategies bring people and environment into a 3-dimensional interactive approach to architecture and planning – a real shift away from the 1960s top down, unimaginative, prescriptive planning techniques. Gehl’s book explores in detail the human psychology and sociology in urban spaces and the interplay between us and our built environment. These methods were really only touched upon in this lecture, but do give many tried and tested solutions, precedent setters and best practice for the next generation of architects and planners to call upon.
While Boris Johnson has provided a successful London bike scheme and there have been people orientated improvements such as those Gehl highlighted – on Mount Street and Elizabeth Street (both in Grovesnor) this is so far the exception not the norm, piecemeal and not comprehensive. The last words by the Chair reminded us that there will be a day of Climate Change protest on Saturday 3rd of December 2011 and we should all turn out. I will take up that call, we all should, and hold in mind perhaps one simple demand – CITIES FOR PEOPLE!
Be sure to check out Jan Gehl’s book ‘Cities for People (2010)’ here.