Saturday, December 12, 2009

Jan Gehl: Making healthy cities

Cities of the 21st century should be lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities. Jan Gehl tells us how all of these qualities can be achieved through the policy of making walking and cycling the preferred mode of movement in the city.

Jan Gehl responded to the Ecotopedia enquete in an interview conducted in Copenhagen on 16th July 2008.

…What are the three qualities that should characterize a sustainable city?

To me, a sustainable city would be a very people-friendly city. It would be a city with good public spaces and a city that is rather compact. It would be a city that really invites people to walk and bicycle as much as possible. A good walking and cycling environment with a good public realm is also a good environment for public transport, so there is an important connection here as well. Strengthening public transportation will be essential in the future, in order to become less dependent on private cars and also in order for the city to become more people-friendly.

A further point and quality to emphasize is the bicycle. We have had the bicycle around for a good 100 years now, and in certain countries and cultures, bicycles are a widespread form of transportation. This goes for places like Holland and Denmark. Due to a welcoming infrastructure the number of cyclists have increased tremendously in Denmark for example. In Copenhagen, bicycling accounts for 36 % of all commuting to and from work. Many cities around the world could, to a much higher degree create more inviting circumstances for cyclists. We can see this in the US and Australia and in other places too, that people begin to become aware of the many positive aspects of cycling in the city.

A further, definitive quality to stress is that we need to make sure that cities become greener and that they have a substantial amount of vegetation, which can clean the air and help cool the city. Certainly, a sustainable city would be quite green. I am also aware that a sustainable city ought to have many green buildings as well. But, green buildings alone do not create a sustainable city. You could place an endless number of green buildings in Dubai, for example and yet it would hardly ever become a sustainable city, the way it looks now. It would only be a collection of sustainable buildings.
…What are the three challenges that top the to-do list in cities around the world?

 It is difficult to rate challenges and say that one is more important than the other. But, I would certainly like to mention some of the insights from the work of Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy in Australia. They point out for example, that a citizen in Atlanta, USA, consumes 1.000 units of energy as compared to the average citizen in for example Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, who uses only 1 unit. Certainly, a crucial challenge is to find out new ways to reduce the senseless consumption of energy that characterizes many cities.
Another challenge is the rapid growth of cities in the third world. Today, there are a number of cities we all talk about, like Tokyo, New York and London, but really the fastest growing cities can be found in Asia and Africa. Here you find cities that grow from 5 to 10 to 15 to 25 million inhabitants in a very short time and within a very foreseeable future. I really see this as a major challenge; that we find new ways of moving about, that new ways of building cities be introduced in these places in such a way, and this is important, that these cities do not replicate the errors committed by the big western cities.

I feel that a separate substantial challenge is the alarming rate at which the cities of China expand. The Chinese economy is growing extremely fast. The rapid growth of Chinese cities in the wake of the economic boom is so massive that it almost constitutes its own threat to the sustainability of the planet. As far as I can see, many of the worst characteristics of western modernist cities are being replicated in the planning of fast growing Chinese cities. The kind of ‘new towns’ the Chinese are building look very much like the housing areas we now see being demolished in many places in both western and eastern Europe. Some of the worst models are being used in China to deal with the rapid growth of cities. Also, the transportation systems from the US seem to be the model by which the Chinese develop and plan their cities, where they build up a strong dependence on cars, whereas bicycles are being abolished in certain parts of Beijing and Shanghai. This, I have to say, is a recipe for disaster, and I certainly see this as a major challenge for the sustainability of cities in the world. 

What are the three most promising initiatives that would make living in cities more sustainable? 

Talking about initiatives from around the world, I think I would like to point to Bogota in Colombia. This is a city of 6 or 7 or 8 million people – no one really knows – in a country marked by civil conflict and disorder. However, over some very interesting years around the beginning of the 21st century, the mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa, managed to carry out a number of rather interesting interventions. They are to some extent sustainable, but they do also have a wider social connotation. He pointed out, that only 20 % of the inhabitants used private cars, but that almost all public investments went into car infrastructure. He wanted to reverse this and stated that he wanted to let the public investments go to the 80 % who did not have a car. He said, that a way to develop the economy of a poor city would be to make the poorest part of the population more mobile and make it easier for them to get around in the city. He improved the sidewalks and made the city more walkable. He made a great effort to create bicycle lanes and develop a bicycle culture. Every Sunday, they close 120 kilometres of the Bogota streets and invite everybody to come out and do a ‘cyclovia’ and almost 1 ½ million of the 6 or 7 million inhabitants join this remarkable festival of bicycling. He also introduced a rapid bus system, the TransMilenio, with dedicated bus lanes and special traffic lights that turn green when the bus approaches, allowing the bus to travel around the city very fast. This cheap and efficient bus system allows the poor to travel to where the jobs are and thus through mobilization a very important social task is also taken care of.

Other interesting projects could, for example, be the bicycle culture that has developed in Holland and Denmark and which is now being imported to many other parts of the world. In Melbourne, they have decided to introduce a ‘Copenhagen-style’ bicycle system within the next 10 years. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has created the New York City Transport Plan, where 6.000 kilometres of new bicycle lanes will be introduced, combined with a reduction of car lanes in the most congested areas. The plan involves cutting down on car transport and making it easier to get around New York on a bicycle. No place in the world seems to be a more logical choice than New York: it is such a dense city, it is very flat, the climate is generally quite nice, and the streets are generally very wide, so there is ample room for bike lanes and trees.

A third group of initiatives I could point to are the things we have seen with rental bikes in Paris, for example. Here you don’t have to own a bicycle yourself as the city or a private company offers the use of a bicycle to residents and tourists alike. It has to go hand in hand with a biking infrastructure, of course. It has had quite an impact on the notion of bicycling in a city such as Paris, and we know that this is an initiative that many cities around the world plan to introduce. This could mark the beginning of a century of bicycling which in itself would be a tremendous achievement, where good health and less dependency on fossil fuels go hand in hand to create the sustainable city of the future.

Sustainable cities of the 21st century should be lively cities, safe cities, sustainable cities and healthy cities. All of these qualities can be achieved, more or less, through one policy. If we are friendly with the people and make cities that people would like to use, would like to walk and cycle in, we will get lively cities. We get safe cities, when more people use the public spaces. These modes of using the city with more walking and cycling also make our cities more sustainable with less use of fossil fuels and less energy consumption. And finally, if you do a lot of the moving around in the city using your own energy, the whole society will become healthier. By making cities more people-friendly, we also create cities that are livelier, safer, more sustainable and healthier.

About Jan Gehl

Jan Gehl is Professor of Urban Design at the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. In 1960, he earned his BA and MA in Architecture from the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and began practicing as an architect. In 1966, he received a 5-year research grant from his former school to study the form and use of public space. This work spawned his first book, Life between Buildings. He has worked at the school since 1971 as Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and now, Professor of Urban Design. In 1998, the new Center for Public Space Research was established at the School of Architecture with Jan Gehl as the director. He is also the founding partner of Gehl Architects – Urban Quality Consultants. His research on public spaces and public life began in Copenhagen, but was quickly applied to many other cities in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. His ideas and approach to design for public spaces incorporates the cutting edge of technology without losing sight of what best supports and enhances people’s experience of everyday life in the public realm. As partner of Gehl Architects, Jan Gehl has served as a consultant to city councils and city planning departments across Europe, North America, Australia, Japan, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia.

Most important publications:
Life between Buildings, first published in 1971
Public Spaces- Public Life (with Lars Gemzøe) 1996
New Urban Spaces (with Lars Gemzøe) 2001