At 80 years old, Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl shares his ideas on how to build a better future for global cities. Gehl has spent more than 50 years in academia and the professional world becoming a different, and unconventional, architect. Upon graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Denmark in 1960, he felt ready to put into practice what he had learned from the modernist school. It wasn’t until he met his wife, the psychologist Ingrid Mundt, however, that everything changed. Gehl and Mundt organized weekly meetings with colleagues in sociology, psychology and architecture to identify opportunities for joint research, when Gehl came up with a simple but vital insight that defined the rest of his career: Urban planning should create cities for people at the human scale. Instead of prioritizing form, architecture must create the best habitat for people.
In 1965, Gehl and his wife traveled to Italy to investigate the interaction of people with public spaces. They studied cities by counting the number of people walking, noting their movements and their habits. “My wife and I realized that the great gap between architects and sociologists was that no one was on the streets observing how the format of cities was impacting people,” he said at the Frontiers of Thought event in Porto Alegre.
Gehl’s consulting firm, Gehl Architects, founded in 2000, has already completed projects in New York, Melbourne, Sydney, Moscow, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and many other places. In addition to having a successful business, the architect has published several books, among them Life Between Buildings, How to Study Public Life and Cities for People, already translated in 32 languages. “They told me I could continue to criticize and write books, but I should also go to the cities and show what should be done,” he said.
In Cities for People, Gehl formulated 12 criteria for the creation of public spaces, including space to walk, sit, things to see, aesthetic quality and protection from traffic. The Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, is one of the places Gehl identifies as perfect, as it meets all 12 criteria. On the other hand, the worst urban form is exemplified in Brasilia. The architect even coined the term “Brasilia Syndrome” to criticize modern practices that epitomize the “worst” that can be done in a city: streets and avenues created only for cars, low density and what he calls “bird shit architecture.”
WRI Brasil Sustainable Cities met Jan Gehl on his way through Porto Alegre and discussed challenges in Brazilian cities: active transport, bicycles, density and people-centered infrastructure. The team asked him the following questions:
What are the main challenges in Brazil for building better people-oriented cities?
The challenge in Brazil, in my opinion, is the same challenge as anywhere else. Around the world, we have a growing population, particularly in cities. This urban shift is a good thing—we can live in a much more sustainable way in cities than in rural areas. In the countryside, services are more expensive, there is a greater demand for resources and for mobility—one must travel miles for any singular need. So in cities, we can have a more sustainable lifestyle.
As a result, it is very important that we rethink the way we organize cities. I know that many cities already direct much of their agendas to build more sustainable cities, which means getting rid of cars as quickly and efficiently as possible. The role of automobiles is outdated; they are made for specific needs a hundred years ago. We now know that the bigger cities are, the more unnecessary it is to have individual cars as a means of transportation. It is interesting that, in 2009, global cars-use reached its all-time peak, even in America, Australia and Canada. In my view, it is a good thing that we reconsider how we move because the current prevailing view of mobility is about cheap oil—its endless supply and other resources. But neither resources nor oil are infinite, and both are very dangerous and damaging to the climate.
In my opinion, we need to make smarter neighborhoods and city centers, based on the idea of increased walking and cycling. Many cities have decided to do this. In my city, Copenhagen, 50 percent of people go to work or school on a bicycle. This was not so ten or twenty years ago—it has gone up and up. With more infrastructure, the safer it becomes and the more people cycle. It’s good for the climate, good for you, good for the economy, good for pollution and good for noise. It’s actually quite good.
In Brazil, and in many other places, people still ask for wider streets and complain about bike paths that take road space from motorized vehicles. Is it possible to change this?
Asking for wider streets is just completely stupid. We know, based on examples from all over the world, that the wider the streets and the more streets you have, the more traffic, the more fat people and the more pollution you get. That is a “no-no” road. In smart cities and countries, they narrow the roads, limit the number of streets, and they do everything to promote other forms of mobility—to promote public transport, cycling and walking as much as possible. We need to develop much smarter modes of public transportation because the old buses that still circulate in many places are not 21st century technology.
We really need to think of future cities as pearls on a string. The string should be a very fast, smart and secure public transportation system. Then we will have neighborhoods as pearls on a string, where most people are within walking or cycling distance from transit stations. There you have fantastic neighborhoods where you can work, live, where your children can grow up and the aging population can get even older.
One way to accommodate more people in less space is to build high-rise buildings, which goes against your idea of human-scale development. How can we find a balance for this?
What is different about Paris? Barcelona? Both have high densities, but their buildings are only six or seven stories. I sometimes say that lazy architects respond to density with towers. But if the same architect works harder, he can create the same density with shorter structures. The quality of life at the top of a tower and the quality of life below are very different. On top, you are completely isolated; the only things you can see are airplanes coming and going from the airport. Down below, you are part of the city. These two lives are completely different. I really think that tall buildings are outdated, and by studying the density issue closely, we can build much better cities.
Looking at Porto Alegre, we see the sad example of developers who erect high-rises everywhere. They are what I call “bird shit architects” [Gehl uses a bottle to demonstrate the analogy. According to him, these architects simply look at the city from above and blindly place tall buildings. See the explanation in the video]. They look from above without any insight into what quality of life should be in the city.
How does shape of a city affect people’s lives? What is the role of architecture in today’s society?
In fact, I see the big cities of the future made by a large number of villages and neighborhoods where one can be a child, have fun and go to school; where you can be old. Doctors say you need to walk a lot, so you should be on the street and not sitting at home watching television. For this, you need a very nice neighborhood, where you love to walk; where you have reasons to go to places: a library, a cultural center or anywhere else. You need to have a good quality of life, whether you are young or old, but quality of life and cars cannot exist together; we are sure of that. We have lived this model for 50 years; it does not work.
How can cities already built outside the human scale be rethought and rehabilitated?
My own city, Copenhagen, has two very strong city strategies. One is: “We will be the best city in the world for people,” we will make a fantastic city for walking, for all regions and for any age. We will also do our best for community living, so people can meet naturally in squares and parks.
The other strategy is that we will be the best biking city in the world. We know that if we construct more streets, we will have more cars, more traffic. If you provide better conditions for pedestrians and public life, ten years later, you will have more pedestrians and more life on the streets. If you offer better conditions for bicycles, ten years later, you will have more cyclists. So it’s a question of what strategy you have. In a city like this (Porto Alegre), you can easily establish strategies that favor people and bicycles instead of just having strategies that favor cars, traffic and automobiles.
Is Brazil uniquely guilty of the “Brasilia Syndrome,” or are other countries having the same problems?
Brazil is no different from anywhere else. In all the countries where I worked for 30 years, they always started by saying: “You need to understand that it is different here—we have different climate, different culture, we have a different tradition; we love our cars more than other places. That’s how we are, and we cannot be changed.” In the end, they changed, and no one remembers who said “this can never be done.” I heard this in New York, especially. “The Big Apple cannot be changed. You can never come to New York with European ideas.” Then it changed. In Moscow: “This can never be done in Moscow.” It was done; it happened. What are you waiting for, Brazil?
When given the choice, everyone—rich, poor, young or old—would choose to live in a good, healthy habitat. That desire comes from within.
This piece is a transcription of an interview with Jan Gehl and does not necessarily reflect the views of WRI