Jan Gehl knows how to make cities work for pedestrians. London is his latest targetby Ken Worpole / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
The amazing professor is telling his Edinburgh audience a joke at the expense of “predict and provide” traffic managers around the world. It concerns a man living in a small town in midwest America who finds a skunk in his basement one morning. He asks a neighbour for advice on how to get rid of it. “Easy: lay a trail of breadcrumbs from the basement back out into the woods.” The following morning he has two skunks in his home.
Jan Gehl, professor of architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, is today’s global superstar of urban planning. He advises city authorities in Adelaide, Changsha, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Lyon, Oslo and, most recently, London, on how to bring human activity back into cities dominated by cars. Gehl’s work has the great advantage of being based on more than 40 years of experience, starting with the pedestrianisation of Copenhagen’s main thoroughfare, Strøget, on 17th November 1962. That decision was the beginning of a project which continues to this day – to turn Copenhagen from a car-congested city into the café-culture capital of the world.
When Gehl and his colleagues announced their programme, the Danish newspapers protested: “We are not Italians.” The idea that Danes would leave their cars at home and walk or cycle into town to sit at café tables in the street was considered absurd. Today, more than a third of Copenhagen’s traffic is made up of cyclists, and most of the rest either walk or use public transport. Since the 1960s, the amount of pedestrian space in Copenhagen has risen from 15,800 square metres to over 100,000 today. The city centre now only offers just over 3,000 car parking spaces, mostly on the street. Perhaps the most important cultural change, however, has been the 350 per cent rise in people engaged in “stationary” activities in the city centre; that is to say, standing talking, sitting in a café or on a public bench, alone or in groups, simply watching the world go by.
Gehl’s programme for a new culture of urban design cannot be gainsaid, as he has endless statistics to prove that it works. The cultural revolution achieved in Copenhagen was incremental, and based on a large number of very small, measurable changes. Year by year a small number of car parking spaces were taken away from Copenhagen’s…