Jan Gehl’s legacy has spanned many decades, from the release of Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space in 1987 to last year’s Cities for People. Gehl has published limitless articles, made numerous public speeches and featured in countless editorial pieces. He is most noted for successfully integrating pedestrian and bicycle access within the auto-dominated urban environment.
In his presentation to Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Gehl discusses the concepts in his book, Cities for People. He also examines the history of modern city planning, starting in the 1960s when the field became more professionalized and more problematic. Gehl initially studied during the same period as Le Corbusier; they were trained to be modernists. Due to the wars, it was not until the 1960s when these concepts came into play. Planners started to work at a coarse scale and arrange objects from an aerial perspective, not from a historical context. The automobile invaded cities and traffic planning became more sophisticated and dominated the urban form.
There are three scales for development: city plan, site plan and at the people level. However, most of our modern architecture is best seen from the sky or highway, not at eye level. Gehl calls this the “Brasilia Syndrome” where buildings are dropped from the sky with no relation to the existing urban fabric. These designs occur at a grand scale but are devoid of pedestrian life and utterly hideous when viewed from the human scale.
During this period, architecture is seen as art but Gehl believes good architecture falls between life and form. He describes Dubai’s skyline as a row of perfume bottles designed individually and lacking interaction. Like many skylines, Dubai’s is striking – but at ground level, a pedestrian’s nightmare. Yet, traffic is over represented in the planning process, “all cities have Traffic Departments and perfect statistics concerning traffic and parking.... the cars are very visible and ever present in the planning process.” But, what about the people?
It’s as if, planning and design are done from airplanes, not from the ground up, and the free space just hangs. Gehl imitates architects and how schematics are always heavily populated with sketches of people sitting on crowded benches, those lingering in porticos, and people floating en masse down the boulevards adjacent to their project. Gehl refutes the notion that “if it looks good, it will be good,” because often, after construction, the designs lead to sterility and are devoid of people. People are very sensitive to the quality of their urban environment.
Gehl acknowledges that we are entering another paradigm shift where lively, safe, sustainable, healthy cities are demanded – a movement he helped inspire. Among the many crises we face today, Gehl mentions the growing health concerns related to the design of the built environment and that healthy cities create healthy people. Designs are beginning to consider the human scale for the pedestrian and bicyclist. Focus is placed on sustainability and livability – putting people first. Gehl quotes a 1,000-year-old Eddic poem by Hávamál, “man is man’s greatest joy,” which exemplifies our greatest desire for each other. “We know more about the panda bears in China…” than we know about our own urban environment and its effects on human behavior and health. We must focus and work from the ground up in order to truly create "cities for people".