Monday, September 22, 2014

Re-Gehl: Architect Jan Gehl's talk in Budapest, part II

Last week at the Toldi Mozi, I had the privilege to hear a presentation by Jan Gehl, the Danish architect and leading light behind the livable-cities movement and the worldwide utility cycling explosion. I posted about it here, but there were a enough remaining notes to do a continuation. Here's the rest of what he said.

And, of course, Gehl’s home town of Copenhagen has also provided him with loads of inspiration on urban design, most notably from the Strøget, the city’s central high street that was made car free in 1962. Very controversial at the time, the project became a huge success, and Gehl’s reports and research on it helped fuel the city’s now famous approach to bike- and pedestrian-friendly city design.

Although now known as a masterstroke of socially conscious planning, Gehl pointed out that the Strøget project was at first seen as a commercial venture. It was modeled on a successful shopping street in Kiel, Germany. “Shopping was the impetus,” he said. “But we found that it stimulated other things, as well: meetings and conversations and play – along with a little bit of shopping.”

Disneyland and resort hotels are excellent examples of urban design. They pay attention to the details. If they don't, people won't come." -- Jan Gehl.

A big lesson here seemed to be that if a northern city like Copenhagen could adapt Mediterranean street life, anybody could. “I see these bicycles coming up in many unexpected places,” Gehl noted. His firm was recently tasked with designing cycling systems in places as different as Greenland and Singapore. Presumably, Greenland’s weather is the least of its challenges. But in Singapore, 35-degree average temperatures and constant high humidity don’t make it an obvious choice for a big cycling network. But to Gehl’s thinking, cars make less sense given that the island is just 50 km long, 26 km wide and home to 5.4 million people. “Imagine, you’re in a big Mercedes. As soon as you get it up to full speed, you run into the water!” Gehl’s prescription for Singapore is a dense public transport network and ample bikeways with protection from the sun and rain. Because of the island’s high density, average bike trips will be just 2 kilometres, which is practical even in a tropical climate, Gehl said.

Although Gehl’s been happy to share his ideas with people, not everyone takes them up. He did a consultancy with the City of London several years ago in which he offered a design for a comprehensive cycling network. Today, they’re “still talking about it in committee meetings,” Gehl sniffed.

In New York, by contrast, many of his ideas were taken up and implemented with impressive speed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “He wanted to build a thousand miles of bike lanes in four years, before his term would end.” (Bloomberg succeeded in building approximately 400 miles of bikeways, still far more than Copenhagen has.) A big difference, of course, is the power that the mayor has in New York's city charter. For an even more extreme example of a “doer” type of city, Gehl gave the example of Moscow. Gehl gave a consultancy there, and: “I come back a year later and – whoops! – in a huge parking lot, no more parked cars – and in another place – whoops! – a bunch of park benches. Instant livable city! That's a very efficient democracy!"

Gehl was joking, of course. But he firmly believes that, whatever might be said about the process, those particular changes in Moscow were big improvements to city life.

Gehl observed that cities achieve such transformations in different ways. Sometimes it's from a visionary leader (The mayoral double act of Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa in Bogota is a famous examples) and sometimes it's from the ground up, as a popular movement (I'd say Budapest's Critical Mass is a good example here). And sometimes "it's a mix”. The technical challenges aren’t the big ones, though. “People have to have a change of heart,” Gehl said.

Once that happens, Gehl recommends following a couple of real-life examples accessible to anyone: “Disneyland and resort hotels." This sounds like another of Gehl's punchlines. But as with the others, he also has a serious point.

“These places are very careful in the details and the scaling of things to attract people,” Gehl said. “They have to be. If they don’t pay attention to the details, people won’t come.”

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