Car is no longer king and people come first, says Danish thinker, Jan Gehl

By Alex Gillis

In 1960, the life of Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and urban-design professor, suddenly changed. That year he obtained a degree in architecture and met his future wife, a psychologist, who challenged him and his friends: “Why are you architects not interested in people? Why doesn’t the school of architecture teach you anything about human beings and life?”

In a flash, Gehl realized she was right. He’d studied the architecture of buildings without putting people first, without designing structures for life between buildings. This educational approach was part of a trend, called modernism, that was sweeping the world at the time, a trend that jettisoned thousands of years of experience about great public spaces and that put cars before people.


“I realized there was a huge gap between what city planners were creating and what people needed in public spaces,” he said. “We were a car nation,” he said of Copenhagen and Denmark, where he still lives. It was just as bad in North American cities, when uncontrolled development led to malls, highways and suburban sprawl. “Nothing was known about people back then,” he said. “The sense of human scale was lost or utterly confused.”

Last month, at Montreal’s Théâtre Plaza, Gehl spoke about the principles to build inclusive cities on a human scale, emphasizing the value of observing people’s connection to space to incorporate protection, comfort and enjoyment in public spaces. He was a guest speaker at an event organized by the Relève en urbanisme (Ordre des urbanistes du Québec), in collaboration with Montreal’s Urban Ecology Centre and the McConnell Foundation’s Cities for People initiative.

“We’ve seen the most wonderful examples of cities completely being re-conquered for the people after fifty years of invasion by traffic,” Gehl said.

Being conscious of how to build inclusive Canadian cities that function on a human scale is important, partly because populations are flowing back into cities after decades of migration to suburbs, and partly because Canadian cities stand to benefit from major infrastructure spending over the next decade. Also, the status quo isn’t pretty. With the dominance of cars between 1960 and 2010, pollution skyrocketed, city infrastructure became overburdened, public transit deteriorated, people became more sedentary and ill, and neighbours became more disconnected from one another, leading to more social problems in cities around the world. Gehl said that 2010 was the pinnacle of car use in many cities and that there’s been more hope in the past six or seven years. “We’re witnessing the end of the dominance of the car,” he said.

He has been part of the solution. After his wife challenged him, he went back to architecture school for a PhD and, in 1971, published a groundbreaking book, Life between buildings: Using public space, which helped to educate city leaders around the world for the next 50 years. His research was eye opening, full of detailed evidence about how and why people sit, stand, walk and use public spaces in hundreds of ways. His books, including Cities for People (2010) and How to Study Public Life (2013), have helped to inspire a worldwide movement of change.

“Jan Gehl’s work has affected thousands, if not millions, of urban dwellers,” said Jayne Engle, program director of the Cities for People. Cities for People is focused on why we need to build cities on a human scale that are lively, safe, sustainable and healthy. How to Study Public Life explains how to do it, and provides innovative methods and tools for transformative city change.


The good news

“We’ve seen the most wonderful examples of cities completely being re-conquered for the people after fifty years invasion by traffic,” Gehl said.

“We’ve worked with Melbourne since 1985,” he said, citing one example. “It witnessed a miracle. It’s a city of 3.5 million, going on five million, a city very much like Toronto, but the weather is much better down there,” he joked. He said that Melbourne is by far the most liveable city in the southern hemisphere, with dramatic growth in housing units and cafes, an increase in the number of people staying in downtown public spaces, and a quality of life that ranks high on many liveability indexes.

Similar initiatives took place in other Australian cities that are comparable to Vancouver, Montreal or Halifax. Sydney, for instance, greatly expanded its light-rail and bike-lane networks and increased areas for pedestrians, launched an ambitious tree-growth strategy and became a leader in green office buildings, reducing carbon emissions in the process.

In New York, more than 35,000 square metres of public space around Broadway was closed to cars and returned to pedestrians.

New York also went through a renaissance, starting in 2007 when the mayor announced that he’d make the city the most sustainable metropolis in the world. “Within two weeks of that declaration, his staff were in Copenhagen to study how they could do it,” Gehl said, highlighting the importance of strong political will. Copenhagen had been a pioneer in slowly transforming itself from traffic congested in the 1960s to a world-leader in public transit, bike lanes, pedestrian areas and low carbon emissions in the transportation system, energy sector and almost every other part of the city.

In New York, more than 35,000 square metres of public space around Broadway was closed to cars and returned to pedestrians. In the process, transport times for car traffic improved by 17 per cent, and pedestrian injuries due to vehicles fell by 35 per cent.

Gehl said that such dramatic changes occurred in large and fast-growing cities. “People say we need to build a lot more towers for rising populations, but I would say, ‘What’s wrong with Paris? It’s got a very high density, it’s got seven-story buildings, and it’s got glorious public spaces in between. To me, that would be a much better model than Dubai, which contains a lot of towers and no city.”

A few Canadian cities are on track to building city centres that are more inclusive and “humanized,” as Gehl puts it. Speaking about his life in Toronto in 1972, Gehl said, “I remember way back then, they talked a lot about changes in public spaces and parks. We’ve been waiting ever since. Now, it appears a new wind is blowing and things will happen.” Recently, the city renovated Berczy, Grange, Canoe Landing and many other parks, and opened more bike lanes and pilot projects that prioritize public transit and pedestrians.

“Montreal also demonstrates human-scale projects: more pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods, bicycle lanes, urban gardens, public parks and more opportunities for people to enjoy car-free lifestyles,” said Jayne Engle, director of Cities for People.


City of reconciliation

Perhaps the most dramatic changes are taking place in Winnipeg, a city of “reconciliation,” as Mayor Brian Bowman calls it.

“The term reconciliation is about acknowledging the truth – sometimes painful, historic truths – and trying to find ways to reconcile a dark history with a brighter future, and doing so in an inclusive manner.” In the past, Canadian media have reported on racism and violence against Indigenous people in Winnipeg.

“Do people feel like they have the opportunities that Canada presents to them? Do they have the ability to be mobile in our community? Do they have the ability to speak their minds in a free and open democracy?”

Bowman, who self-identifies as Métis, wants his city to be more inviting and inclusive. “When we talk about an inclusive city, you can look at it through so many different lenses – religious, cultural, linguistic and economic,” he said. He looks at the basics. “Do people feel like they have the opportunities that Canada presents to them? Do they have the ability to be mobile in our community? Do they have the ability to speak their minds in a free and open democracy?”

He points to the recently launched Indigenous Accord, a living document that invites people to strengthen relationships with First Nations, Métis and Inuit governments, organizations, and individuals, and represents the city’s commitment to implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

Inclusive also means reclaiming streets for pedestrians, cyclists and people with physical challenges. The city designed its first ‘woonerf’, a Dutch word for ‘living street’, a cobble-stoned, curbless road for bikes, cars and pedestrians. And Winnipeg is completing the Southwest Transitway, a high-speed roadway for buses that’s physically separated from streets, allowing speedy travel to and from downtown.

Winnipeg’s historic intersection of Portage and Main


And downtown, a $3.5 million project is increasing walkability, safety and connectivity at Winnipeg’s historic intersection of Portage and Main, which has been dominated by cars for 40 years. “My vision is that Portage and Main is open to pedestrians, especially people with physical disabilities,” Bowman said. “As constructed now, the intersection is much more cumbersome to cross for those with physical disabilities.”

It’s projects like these that warm the heart of Jan Gehl. He thinks that 50 years of research is finally becoming common sense. “It’s like finding out that you should put insulation in the walls,” he explained. “The moment you realize it, you do it. It’s the same thing with the human dimension of city planning and architecture. The moment you know about it, you teach it to children and use it in cities for people. We’re homo sapiens, all of us.”

Alex Gillis

Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist and author who’s written for many of Canada’s mainstream publications. He’s also worked with community- and international-development organizations.


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