Original article published for The Danish Architecture Centre.
The history of global architecture is replete with examples of monumental constructions. As a civilisation, we often tend to be endeared by that which is mammoth, gargantuan and high-rise; we are a society driven by affection towards that which manifests itself on a grand scale. This is true of the Pyramids of Giza as it is for today’s vast, unending skyscraper skylines of Dubai, New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
However, whilst the architectural feats required to raise grand structures such as skyscrapers several hundred feet above ground warrant adulation, there are many who argue that there is an essential element that is often omitted from narratives of this sort. In hisTED talk held at Copenhagen’s Black Diamond Library in November last year, Danish architect Jan Gehl discussed the need for pedestrian-driven cities that put people at the centre of the town planning narrative. The TED talk reflects some of the construction philosophies that have been at the heart of Jan Gehl’s work over the last forty years.
Jan Gehl at TEDxKEA. TEDxKEA Credit: Daniela De Lorenzo 2015
The Human Scale
According to Gehl, one of the most important elements in the construction of habitats for humanity is what he calls, the human scale – the construction of structures and habitats with humans at the centre of the narrative. Now, whilst this may seem like a given, Gehl argues that modernist (post 1960) architecture and town planning has in fact, eliminated the human scale from the equation, in its bid to build for the modern man.
If we look at the cities before 1960, they were built in small instalments – typically around two building blocks- the street and the square.”/Jan Gehl
These buildings blocks were based on the movement of the feet in the case of the street and the eye in the case of the square. In other words, the old cities were built for and took their departure in, the body. However, with the expansion of the world and the compatibility between mass production and modernism, the human, scale and in essence the way in which people moved on streets and within squares was forgotten.
For Gehl, what followed was a series of cities and construction projects that looked spectacular from the air but lacked essential functionality at the street level. Combined with the increasing role of the car in society, what followed was a prioritization of vehicle transport over people and pedestrians. Gehl had other plans for his city planning endeavours, however.
It is needless to say that Gehl is most well known for his groundbreaking work on Copenhagen’s pedestrian street, Strøget. At 1.1 km in length, this is Europe’s second longest pedestrian streets after Bordeaux’s Rue Sainte-Catherine and a major tourist attraction. Strøget’s development was also a cornerstone for Copenhagen’s prioritization of bike and pedestrian traffic. However, whilst the street is revered today, this wasn’t always the case. Rioting motorists and death threats to the mayor of Copenhagen in 1962, Alfred Wassard, at the time the idea of a pedestrian-free street was conceived, threatened to derail the project entirely.
None of the cities had any knowledge about how their cities were being used by people but they knew everything about how the traffic used the city…. This gave a fantastic imbalance”
/Jan Gehl, TEDxKEA
Copenhagen’s pedestrian street in the early 1960´s. Credit: Københavns Stadsarkiv
Gehl was responsible for making recommendations to the mayor at the time, and started studying Strøget in 1962. Upon his recommendations, the street was pedestrianized the very same year on a trial basis. In 1964, this was made permanent. Removing car traffic from this area of the city was a priority in Gehl’s planning narrative at the time. However, Gehl’s subsequent policies and practicies have also had other focus areas embedded within their narratives (such as encouraging the use of bikes)
Copenhagen’s pedestrian street, Strøget, today. Credit: Visit Denmark 2015
Gehl’s Influence Globally
Strøget founded the basis of Copenhagen’s pedestrian-friendly city planning policies, as we know them today. However, Gehl’s influence on humanistic planning also extends to the planning policies of other nations.
For instance, in 2007, Gehl was influential in re-mapping New York’s streets in a more pedestrian-friendly manner. Through his advice to the department of transportation, numerous city planning policies in the area have been made in in the interest of pedestrian-friendly urban architecture. Similarly, Gehl’s work has also been influential in Australia and New Zealand, where he has prepared public life studies for the city centres of Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Hobart.
Times Square, pedestrian plaza pre Gehl intervention. Credit: Gehl Architechts, 2010
Times Square, pedestrian plaza postGehl intervention. Credit Gehl Architechts, 2013
Today, the town planning policies of numerous cities the world over are increasingly concerned with placing pedestrians at the centre of the architectural narrative. This is nothing new in the history of construction, as pre 60´s architectural traditions dictate, so essentially, what is needed, according to Gehl, is a return to some of the architectural paradigms that defined the way we built cities in the past. This, he argues, creates intimacy and interaction; it creates a human scale that places people at the epicentre of the city and the life around it.