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Book Review: Cities for People, by Jan Gehl

Copenhagen's urban-space guru explains the principles, practices, and priorities that make cities more livable - beginning, but not ending, with dethroning King Car

By Bill Millard
January 7, 2011

For anyone wondering how to improve built environments that in some places have become dull enough to border on dystopian, it may help to take a hint from the case that comes first to a lot of people’s minds when they hear the word dystopia: a literary one.


There’s a moment in Orwell’s 1984 when Winston Smith finally gets his hands on a copy of the banned treatise mentioned in whispers as merely “the book,” Emmanuel Goldstein’s subversive explanation of the horrific principles behind “Ingsoc” totalitarianism. Its real title is a poli-sci snooze (The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism), but it lays bare the cynical reasoning behind doublethink, Big Brother, the Inner and Outer Parties, the Thought Police, the perpetual state of war, and everything else that makes the Orwellian Oceania a grim and joyless place to live. One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is Smith’s immediate reaction to it:


The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already. (1984, Plume Centennial ed., p. 205)


Goldstein’s book is fictional (twice over, actually, since it turns out the Inner Party fabricated it for agitprop purposes). But in the real world, Jan Gehl’s new manifesto on human-scaled urbanism is likely to give a lot of readers a reaction much like Smith’s. Foreheads will be slapped. Pages will be dog-eared, margins annotated. “Right! Of course. Couldn’t have said it better myself.”


To readers who have followed the debates over smart growth, pedestrianization, transportation-oriented development, and the broader relations between the health of a culture and the form of its civic spaces – and especially to those who have seen Gehl’s own witty and persuasive presentations at panels and conferences – Cities for People (Island Press, 2010) isn’t saying anything incredibly new. What it adds to Gehl’s well-traveled core message is an accessibly deployed framework of research and a logical, lucid framework for all the telling details and surprising data. The book organizes a set of observations that will strike some readers as obvious, others as radical, but practically all as convincing, revealing how deeply grounded Gehl's system is in common sense. This kind of synthesis is no small task, and Gehl performs it with aplomb.


He also does it without off-putting jargon or specialist assumptions, thus attracting an audience who might not otherwise have been aware of their own stake in these topics. Architects and planners who find some of the points in Cities for People familiar or obvious might note that this is more a book for clients, students, and laypersons than for the working professional. Its comprehensiveness and persuasiveness make the occasional moment of wheel-reinvention (and a notes/bibliography apparatus that’s on the light side by academic standards) more than forgivable. It is designed both to persuade and to be used, particularly in its concluding Toolbox section, succinctly assembling essential design principles as a guide to implementation.


More than nostalgia


What Gehl and his colleagues have been doing in Copenhagen, Melbourne, and now New York is extending and updating observations made a few decades ago by urbanist William H. Whyte, anthropologist Edward T. Hall, and others, quantifying human behavior in built spaces and inferring useful principles that explain why and how people walk, sit, relax, eat, flirt, shop, converse, etc. in certain kinds of spaces – or find it impossible to do those things, and thus avoid the spaces in question. Measurements, beginning with the human body and moving outward to the municipal scale, are the key to Gehlian analysis. From him we learn, for example, why stadium capacity peaks around 100,000: it’s not accidental that Barcelona’s Camp Nou, Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, and American universities’ mammoth football cathedrals are all around the same size. It’s because a viewing distance of about 100 meters (110 yards) is the upper limit of our ability to see meaningful details when we watch human figures in action. At closer distances, we can begin to decode facial expressions and emotions (25 m, 27 yards), communicate socially (1.2-3.7 m, 4-12 feet), or connect intimately (up to 45 cm, 18 inches). Streetscapes that offer varied, eyecatching stimuli every 4 to 5 seconds interest us, and those that don’t bore us; this works out to façades of 5-6 m (16-20 feet) for people moving at average walking speeds. Whenever someone notes that a commercial district full of mom-and-pop storefronts feels human and a featureless big-box store saps the soul, there’s more to those preferences than nostalgia.


These kinds of knowledge were literally built into the civic fabric until the mid-20th century; like Winston Smith, we knew this already. How, Gehl asks, did modern humans forget it? How did so many cities so quickly become grim and joyless places to live? Successful spaces, structures, and transportation modes give primary consideration to human perception, attention, and well-being instead of artificially forcing people to adjust to their own scales and speeds. Yet the latter effect is exactly what happens when built spaces are shaped by and for the automobile. Ascendant economic and political forces discarded many centuries’ worth of design expertise and reshaped cities to favor cars’ movement over pedestrians’ quality of life. Gehl minces no words about this “car invasion,” finding it irredeemably unnatural and urbicidal. No matter what conveniences automobilization generates for some people, it has “confused the understanding of scale” for everyone. We evolved to move, think, react, and interact with each other at single-digit miles per hour, not the 65 mph of the Interstate system or even the 35 mph of a suburban arterial. From our sense of physical safety to our gregarious instincts, the reign of King Car fights our very biology.


Quoting ancient wisdom from the Icelandic Eddic poem Hávamál (“Man is man’s greatest joy”), Gehl offers restorative recommendations for urban environments that advance four social objectives: liveliness, safety, sustainability, and health. His positive remediations follow from his scale-based diagnoses, but they move beyond quantitative factors like population density (he finds “dense city, lively city” too simple a formula, at best “a truth with qualifications”) to emphasize qualitative aspects of design. The Gehlian prescription relies on eye-level aesthetic variety, incorporation of physical activity into daily routines (not just willpower-dependent exercise), attention to edge effects, minimization of barriers (he favors ramps over stairs), building forms that respond to light and microclimates and wind patterns, and above all a critical mass of people who are invited, not forced, to use public space. Encouragingly, he does not confine his praise to older cities or districts; his positive examples, along with well-established cases like Barcelona’s Cerdà plan, include Ralph Erskine’s work in Sweden and England, the Aker Brygge complex in Oslo, Malmö’s BO01 eco-city, Freiburg’s Vauban, and numerous promising cases in the developing world, particularly Latin America. Modern design, in the Gehlian view, need not always lead to the “Brasilia syndrome” in which cities look attractive from aerial perspectives but are catastrophically devoid of eye-level features. And a recoil from car-centered nonplaces need not mandate a one-way ticket on the Luddite Local to Poundbury.


Inherently civilizing


Certain simple components of form and technology, he notes, are inherently civilizing and have earned the right to be promoted: the sidewalk café, the well-scaled plaza, the diverse row of small storefronts, and of course the bicycle. (These, of course, are the instruments of his most direct influence on New York. The 48 hours that Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden spent studying Copenhagen with Gehl in 2007 may ultimately be the most transformative moments for any major city since the Berlin Wall came down.) Along with the obvious green and cardiovascular benefits, bikes are superbly efficient by Gehl’s measurements, providing the best ratio of distance traveled to energy used: three times that of walking and 60 times that of driving. A typical bike path can move five times as many people per hour as a car lane, and a single car-parking space can accommodate ten bikes.


Many cities have grown so accustomed to automotive monoculture that bicycle planning and other acts of reclamation attract ferocious opposition. But Gehl is unfazed by obstructionism: he has seen (and helped) Copenhagen become a world leader in cycling and pedestrian life by constructing the appropriately inviting infrastructure, despite stern early warnings that the Danish climate or culture would make such a dramatic priority shift a long shot. Municipalities would do well to launch official departments of pedestrian life, Gehl suggests, studying human behavior in cities with all the rigor that traffic departments bring to auto movement and parking. He addresses some of the corrective measures that other urbanists and engineers have taken, including variations on Hans Mondermann's woonerf theme and the transit innovations wrought by Jaime Lerner in Curitiba and Enrique Peñalosa in Bogota. (Not every reform attracts his approval. Woonerven, if they remove barriers between pedestrians and vehicles without ensuring that the former have absolute priority, attain their low accident rates merely through constant terrified vigilance; “the price is high,” Gehl observes, “in terms of dignity and quality.”) While eschewing the boosterish tone that sometimes accompanies accounts of early steps toward post-automotive urbanism, he is a resolute optimist about a wide range of placemaking experiments, provided the cardinal principle "Life, space, buildings – in that order" remains in effect.


A gifted interpreter


At one point Gehl makes a personal admission of improbable relevance: when he's not wearing his architect/planner hat, he plays trombone in a jazz band. What this has to do with his architectural ideas should come as no surprise to anyone who's noticed the acoustic properties of different urban spaces, but the connection goes beyond a familiarity with reverberation and volume. The improvisatory joy of jazz is a natural match for the everyday street dance that occurs in neighborhoods he loves, the same complex urban ballet that inspired Jane Jacobs. Urban life is in many ways a matter of rhythms, and the rhythms of human movement and perception have found a gifted interpreter in Gehl. Every city that has implemented his ideas has revived some of its livelier qualities, or discovered them anew. This is not to say that Gehlianism offers solutions for every troublesome aspect of contemporary urbanity.


His perceptive and often droll accounts of strong and weak points in various cities bear a resemblance (probably unintended) to the delightful thumbs-up/thumbs-down aphorisms that one finds in the writings of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown: viva the bike-share program, the café chair, and Siena’s Piazza del Campo! A bas the pushbutton crosswalk signal that forces people to apply humbly for the right to cross the street – virtually on their knees to the majesty of King Car – ensuring that when they finally do move, they’ll move in awkward clumps instead of a natural flow! Each of these judgments appears for sound reasons, and one may find oneself in agreement with nearly all of them, yet in the aggregate they produce an impression that their sheer sensibleness has overwhelmed some forms of dialogue and perhaps certain forms of improvisation. It’s too bad an articulate apologist or even defender of automobility as a force compelling some urbanites to fashion new modes of living, far from the models of beloved (largely but not entirely European) cities – the obvious choice would have been Reyner Banham, had he lived long enough – isn’t present here, at least as an imagined antagonist in Gehl’s pages if not a real-time opponent on a panel.


Gehl would almost certainly win such a debate. We all know more now about the damage the automotive-industrial complex wreaks on every scale, from atmospheric particulates to human bodies to global climate patterns, than nearly anyone did when Banham sang his guarded praises of midcentury Los Angeles. But the fireworks would have been a delight to see and hear, and the discipline of provocation would bring an enlivening sense of dialectic to Gehl’s work. He’s clearly earned his increasing influence, which this masterful book will help spread and cement; his next project, perhaps, might be to invite the forms of theoretical antagonism that could complicate it.


Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Icon, Content, Oculus, The Architect’s Newspaper, LEAF Review, and other publications.

(click on pictures to enlarge)