Jan Gehl: The Livable City

Jan Gehl is an architect based out of Copenhagen. He has a US presence with studios in New York and San Francisco. I read about him via the Cycling Embassy of Denmark’s newsletter and found him fascinating.  I wanted to share with you a little of what I’ve learned.

The livable city, Pittsburgh

America 2016.  The livable city, Pittsburgh.  Mixed use leads to street level vibrancy.  All are welcome here.  All are naturally drawn here.

From virtually the same spot looking the other way. The Hot Metal Bridge is a link in a bicycle freeway to downtown Pittsburgh.

From virtually the same spot looking the other way.   During WWII, 15% of America’s steel capacity crossed the Hot Metal Bridge.  Today it is a link in a bicycle freeway to downtown Pittsburgh.

US Steel Homestead Works.  By Stupich, Martin Related names:  Worthington [pump manufacturer] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

US Steel Homestead Works. Before the area above was a community, it was a steel making center.  By Stupich, Martin

Mr. Gehl’s mission is to make cities more livable. I think this is important since global population continues to grow. All of the best real estate on the planet is already developed, so whether we like it or not we’re all going to live in closer proximity to one another tomorrow than we do today.

Mr. Gehl is a true believer in the power of bicycles and pedestrians to transform place. In order for this to work, there should be a certain degree of density and here is where Gehl argues most passionately.  Density doesn’t have to be a pile of ugly gulag-built boxes stacked one atop another.  That was the model for US public housing in the 1960s and it was an abject failure.   Density can and should be beautiful.  It can even include single family homes.

Cabrini Green, Chicago. Density for the sake of density was an abject failure here.

Cabrini Green, Chicago. Density for the sake of density was an abject failure here.

Hemmed in by rivers and hills, Pittsburgh has no choice but to develop densely.

Hemmed in by rivers and hills, Pittsburgh has no choice but to develop densely.

Even older neighborhoods have endured in PGH.

Even older neighborhoods have endured against all odds in PGH.

Large highways that ring urban downtowns act as barriers to development. They take a lot of land, lowering the bike and walkability of surrounding neighborhoods.

Large highways that ring urban downtowns act as barriers to continuity in urban spaces. They take a lot of land, lowering the bike and walkability of surrounding neighborhoods.  When we build highways like this, we’re asking the city to subsidize suburban lifestyles.  Increasingly, cities are pushing back.

One reason that Gehl’s perspective is so interesting is that he challenges the standard American mindset that Europeans have always walked or bicycled and just naturally prefer these things because, well, they’re different than we are. It’s simply not true. Most of Europe has had the same car challenges as we have. The difference is that they recognized the sustainability problem sooner than we did, and so they have a head start in terms of doing something about it.

Mr. Gehl talks a lot about sustainability. He mentions the strong preference that many Danes (and by proxy other Europeans) have for a house with a fenced yard, two cars and a dog for the children to play with. In other words, he suggests that the American Dream is really a universal dream and is steeped in the relative room to roam and peace and quiet that suburbia promises. The challenge is that this model is not sustainable.  Mr. Gehl says:

“Suburbs are built on the principle of cheap petrol. If there is less petrol, or not so cheap petrol, the suburbs have a problem. Currently oil has fallen in prize (price), but it the prize (price) will increase again. I am sure of it because it’s a limited resource, and there is a hefty demand on it”.

I’ve heard the same argument from many other people and I have come to realize that it is valid. Without cheap oil suburbia would not exist. It’s that simple. So what happens to the suburbs when cheap oil goes away (as I believe it will) is food for thought.

Mr. Gehl believes that cities compete with suburbs for residents and that you can reframe the choice if you build in a way that creates opportunities for pockets of space and for peace in the heart of a densely settled space.  If you can offer these amenities, then people will invariably choose the more densely developed space because of the other advantages it offers…advantages like the ability to move around easily on foot or a bicycle.

I’ve seen this for myself in many places across the United States.  When Jan and I were in Pittsburgh in April, for example, we rented bikes and rode all the way downtown from our trailside hotel in Homestead.  What was once a dirty US Steel Mill is now a vibrant mixed use, transit and trail connected community.   It didn’t just happen.  It was planned and brought to life in a way that was elegant and natural. I have no doubt that it is better than what was there before.

Those of us who bike sometimes lament the lack of progress we see in integrating cycling more fully into American culture but it is happening by fits and starts. We need to take comfort in the knowledge that it is no easier in Denmark or Holland or anywhere else than it is here, but it is happening all the same.

We proponents of active transportation have to stay the course. We will have the inevitable setbacks along the way, but we can be confident in the knowledge that history is on our side and we will prevail in the end. There are powerful, brilliant people working to help achieve what we want.  Sometimes they’re visible but more often they’re not.  Jan Gehl is one of these people. He knows what he’s talking about and I’m glad he’s on our side.

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