Jan Gehl challenged London’s planners to become more like New York, Melbourne or Copenhagen and to become more pedestrian-focused as well as liveable

Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban designer
Jan Gehl throws down gauntlet to Londons planners

The Hackney Empire in London’s East End, home to stand up and Christmas pantomime, was the unlikely setting for a sell-out performance by Jan Gehl, the Danish architect and Copenhagen-based urban design consultant whose career has been focused on changing city design in favour of the pedestrian and the cyclist. He was in London to talk about the film The Human Scale and to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the publication of Towards a fine city for people, a project commissioned by Transport for London and Central London Partnership and designed to transform public spaces in the capital.

A film about transport and people

The Human Scale reviews cities in which Gehl and his practice had adopted their people-focused approach to public space, cycling, pedestrianisation and traffic control. Gehl’s home city Copenhagen, three times voted the world’s most liveable, is the model for his approach.

In Melbourne the film looks at the way in which opening up dark service roads and alleyways laid the foundations for 200 new cafés, all of which help to serve a densifying city.  In New York the focus is on creating safe cycle paths, which are separated from the highway by planting, but in Dhaka, his recipe for city living is being ignored, as the solution to congested highways has been to ban the pedal rickshaw and increase space for car parking.

The most interesting example is Christchurch in New Zealand. There the effects of the massive earthquake mean that the whole of the city needs to be rebuilt. Property developers who remain anxious to rebuild to the height of their former buildings have resisted a popular movement for a low-rise city-centre focused on the needs of pedestrians. The conflict is currently being resolved by the national government in favour of the developers.

Why don’t architects take an interest in people?

Following the screening of the film, Gehl gave a presentation in which he declared Copenhagen was the best city in the world, and challenged London to catch up and become more liveable. He asked what the scale was for measuring human happiness in the city? And what happens when the places that make a city human, the side streets and the corner meeting places, disappear?

Gehl’s research across the world has shown the way in which cars push out pedestrians. More roads always equal more traffic. In New York, the massive expressways built by Robert Moses had increased space for traffic. Gehl argued that we have destroyed the human living environment and need to rekindle the idea of public space.

He wants to know why architects don’t take an interest in people. His greatest criticism is reserved for the modernist approach pioneered by Le Corbusier in  which cities are bad but buildings are good – as long as there is room for cars and parking.

Warming to this theme, he said that traffic planners had become the most powerful people in the city. And the reason for this was that research into traffic was generally research into traffic movements without any measurement of the pedestrian experience.  To challenge this, he had set new targets which included the way in which pedestrians moved through space. He had looked at how people walked, at the ways in which they negotiated pavements, corners and public spaces. By creating a framework for analysis which was not focused on cars, he had been able to evaluate the performance of a city with reference to its pedestrians instead of to its cars. Much of what he recommends is inspired by Italian cities like Siena, although, when trying to explain this approach to a New York taxi driver, the response was: ‘You cannot implement European culture in New York City.’

Children are a sign of liveability

Gehl champions liveable cities. ‘Many children in a city is a sure sign of liveability’, he says.  He argues that every city needs to be liveable and lively.  They need to be places in which public space is increasingly important, where people can meet, where they can be healthy and where they can avoid stress.

It is the cities that do the most for people that are the most liveable.  Gehl was scathing about London. He mocked the recently published plan to build elevated cycleways across the city, currently being promoted by Exterior Architecture, Foster + Partners and Space Syntax. The correct approach, he argues, is to make space for cyclists by removing the cars from the streets, not by placing cyclists above the cars. A liveable city is one in which pedestrians and cyclists can move easily from one place to another and not have their use of the city determined by motorists.

A ten-year failure

Gehl’s criticism of London lay in its failure to address many of the conclusions of the ten-year-old report. The report set out ‘to act as a catalyst for change, demonstrating to key decision makers how London’s public space could be transformed.’  In particular it looked at Oxford Street, Oxford Circus, Euston Road, Charing Cross Road, Regent Street, Tottenham Court Road, New Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Waterloo Station, Lower Marsh, Hungerford Footbridges and Victoria Embankment Gardens.

The then Commissioner for Transport for London, Bob Kiley, said in the introduction, ‘The Mayor has a vision to make London one of the world’s most walking friendly cities in the world by 2015’.  It is fascinating to consider what has been achieved in this period.  Oxford Circus has a Japanese-style ‘X’ pedestrian crossing but Oxford Street remains overcrowded and, as Gehl pointed out, dominated by empty buses.  Euston Road is a highway dominated by traffic and a huge underpass; Trafalgar Square has been partially pedestrianised but is still surrounded by fast traffic on three sides; Waterloo Station has a 15-year old masterplan but remains a frightening mixture of poorly-lit subways and speeding cars; and although Hungerford Bridge has been successfully rebuilt, the ambitious plans to transform Parliament Square and Victoria Embankment have been cancelled.

During this period New York has created a massive cycle network, pedestrianised Times Square and humanised Broadway.  It has also built the East River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High-Line. Melbourne now protects its cyclists with a network of cycle lanes and just last week the socialist mayoral candidate for Paris proposed the removal of cars from Avenue Foch and the creation of a new park connecting it to the Bois de Boulogne.

Gehl has been an architect for forty years. He admitted that the turning point in his career was ‘getting married to a psychologist’. His understanding of the ways in which people need to walk, saunter, meander and meet in the heart of the city is at once obvious and, because so rarely understood, a significant insight that ought to push London as well as many other cities to think closely about the way in which it looks after not only its streets but also the people who use them.

The end of the beginning

Following the event, Nigel Hughill from Grosvenor, Jan Gehl and Pat Brown (who had commissioned the report when director of Central London Partnership), took questions. Brown was concerned that the accusation that London had been overtaken by New York and Melbourne was unfair. She thought that London ‘was at the end of the beginning’.

And although this was not mentioned, one of the most significant and pedestrian-friendly success stories in London is the Legible London signage and mapping system installed throughout the capital and boosted by the Olympics. This was commissioned by Central London Partnership and TFL and remains a model of integrated cartography, signage and graphic design.


The Human Scale
Written and Directed by 
Andreas M. Dalsgaard
Available to purchase here.

Towards a fine city for people, 2004
Published by Transport for London and Central London Partnership
Available to download here.


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