Friday, 2 September 2011

Welcome to the 21st century

Jan Gehl graduated in 1960, in the heyday of modernism, when Corbusier and his followers were talking about pre-planned and widely-spaced tower blocks set within gardens - the Vertical Garden City. This startlingly new approach sought the elimination of disorder, congestion, and the small scale. In Jan Gehl's opinion, this represented the all-time lowpoint of urban planning.

A voice was raised against this style of urban planning. Jane Jacobs, who in 1961 wrote the very influential book, The Desert Life of Great American Cities, fought from one street to the next with New York City master-planner and builder, Robert Moses. He had a plan for a Trans-Manhattan Freeway, and in order to see the plan through, he wanted to demolish the derelict and old-fashioned buildings in Greenwich Village and SoHo, plus a few other districts, and replace them with state-of-the-art high-rise buildings for families. In a fury at her efforts to thwart his grand designs, she recalled him saying, 'There is nobody against this - NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of ... a bunch of MOTHERS!' He then stomped out.

In 1933 European town planners met in Athens and signed a famous charter on urban planning, which basically went like this: you must never, ever put together workplaces, residences, recreation and communication in the same place; always keep them separate. Sixty-five years later, in 1998, European town planners met again in Athens to sign a second charter on urban planning, which said, in short, you must never, ever separate workplaces, residences, recreation and communication. It took sixty-five years to achieve this turnaround, but now the tailwind is very strong for this humanistic style of town planning, and which Jane Jacobs so elegantly pointed to in the early '60s.

So anyway, Jan Gehl graduated at around this time, and he was looking forward to designing all these high-rise buildings, surrounded by grass and ornamental planting and so on, and then he got married. From that day on, the train of his thoughts were changed once and for all. His wife practised as a psychologist, and she and her friends would ask him, 'Why are architects not interested in people?' Gehl had no answer. He recalled that they didn't study people much in the School of Architecture. Architects were then, and still are now, mostly concerned with form, he points out. 

Good architecture, Gehl says, is the interaction of life and form. Circular staircases, for example, were designed as a defensive strategy for the knights and villagers living in a castle. By curving a staircase in a descending counter-clockwise direction, the defending knights could use the full breadth of their swords to cut down on their attackers.

Being sweet to pedestrians and cyclists similarly encourages the interaction of life and form. Moreover, it allows cities to realise five very important goals, which all cities have on their agenda. They want a lively city, they want an attractive city, they want a safe city, they want a sustainable city, and they want a city inviting a healthy lifestyle. The point is that if you make a people-friendly city, it will be lively, and attractive, and so on. Thus, with just a single stone, you can kill five birds! (Gehl is sorry that so many birds get killed by the way, but so much for cliché.)

As our lives are more and more privatised, as we have smaller and smaller households, as we live longer and longer, in more and more isolated residential areas, as we have more and more leisure time, it becomes increasingly important that we have a lively, active public realm where we can meet our fellow citizens. 

By making a city for people, the scale becomes much smaller. Other people gather around, the streets become safer places, noise and air pollution is diminished, public transport gets better, and our physical and mental well-being is improved. Not bad, is it?

Jan Gehl proposes his one-stone-five-birds philosophy as a way of focusing attention on a simple 'Healthy City' policy, and suggests that everything should be done to invite people to walk and to bicycle as much as possible in the course of their day-to-day lives.

It's very important to note the emphasis on the word invite. Because you have to be really serious about it, you see. If the preferred routes Mr Daniels describes were nice and inviting to cyclists, so that cycling to the Olympics was, like, er, you know, a no-brainer, then the people of London really could have done their bit to help make this the greenest-ever Olympics. It's not that far away, after all.

But TfL don't give a monkey's stuff about cycling. It's not on their agenda. Walking fares only marginally better. I was in Camden yesterday, when some numb-nut honked his horn at a chap who was crossing the road in front of him, in a way that told everybody else in Camden he was coming through.

Actually, that's one thing that really, really gets me about motorists. If they're behind you, and they want to attract your attention, they can't just gently bib their horn, can they? No, they have to honk it. Scares me out of my skin, it does.

Image courtesy of a taxi-driver

Just as I was about to snap, a TfL-registered taxi-driver honked his horn. Oh, and doesn't the path on the left look really safe? Great if you're walking on your own.

The one I was planning to take

Jan Gehl asks the question, why walk? Well, because that's what we're made to do! We're made to walk; we're made to be on our feet. And as we walk, we can talk. That's what some of the people in these pictures are doing. Walking and talking.

Whilst we are walking, we have time to watch and be watched. Indeed, Jan Gehl says that it is other people actually that are the number one attraction in any city. (As I think about it, I suppose there must be any number of street performers and market-traders who would agree with him.) 

You have a fantastic mobility when you are walking. You can stop and chat, or you can sit and watch, or you can browse, or scurry; you can even learn a thing or two (throughout history the public realm has always been an important place to go and find something out). And you can walk and walk as well, of course. Sometimes I have walked quite a long way in order to get home.

This brings us neatly onto the bicycle. For journeys under five miles, the bicycle really ought to be the obvious choice for lots and lots of people living in cities. It is incredibly energy-efficient. On one potato, you can travel a certain distance by bike, let's say. You'd need three potatoes if you were travelling the same distance on foot, and sixty potatoes if you were doing it by car. A person riding a bicycle moves along more efficiently than a salmon swimming in a lake. Okay, I made that last one up, but really, is it any wonder that many people regard the bicycle as the greatest invention of all time?

You can stop at any moment, you know. That's brill, that is. And what about what that Mr Boff said? It's the best way to get around, was it? Or did he say the easiest way to get around? Or both? Oh, I can't remember. These politicians say this and they say that, and it's so difficult to keep up, I find.

What else? Well, it's good for you of course, but you knew that already. 

Obesity rate

Another benefit, suggested by Enrique Peñalosa, is that it makes the city more egalitarian. As he explained, the guy on the $30 bike is encouraged to feel just as important as the guy in the $30 000 car.

It is said, often with some pride, that Britain has defied all foreign invaders for nearly a thousand years. But the mass-produced car began its conquest in the 1920s, and by the mid-1950s it was becoming master of all that it surveyed, since which time resistance has mostly been limited to the fringes. Nowadays it is the dominant force in many of our towns and cities. 

For too long now, we have been concerned to increase the capacity of the roads in the naïve belief that this will smooth the traffic flow. It's as if everybody in the nation is trained as traffic engineers; certainly most of us have grown to think like them. We have to keep the cars happy, don't we? Everyone knows that.

My cartographer, who is a very enlightened fellow, simply could not understand why his local authority have installed width restrictions close to a junction where there is a mini-roundabout. The traffic has to squeeze through now, so everything gets all clogged up. HGVs never used the route much - it's right in the middle of suburbia - so really, what on earth did the council think they were playing at? When I suggested that maybe we should be trying to make it more difficult for cars to get around, it took him a moment to realise that I was actually being serious.

What is interesting about Copenhagen, Gehl suggests, compared to a city like Brisbane, say, is that in Brisbane they have about 2% of people commuting to work by bike. They are mostly young men, aged between about 25 and 35, and they are dressed to take part in the Tour de France

In Brisbane, as in many other cities, cycling is an extreme sport, with these crazy cyclists thinking they should be allowed to go 40km/h. Not so in Copenhagen. In Copenhagen, the majority of cyclists are women. Consequently, a more leisurely pace is encouraged: they have these green waves, even, so that if you keep to between about 17km/h and 20km/h, you can just sail along without any interruptions to the flow of your journey. Smooth.

In 2009 Jan Gehl said that 36% go to work in Copenhagen by bike, 27% by car, 32% by public transport and 5% by foot. He also said that cycling numbers had doubled over the last ten years. But Wikipedia said that the modal share of cycling was 36% in 2004, and Soren Elle was saying at roughly the same time that cycling numbers had doubled over the last twenty years, so I don't know what the hell is going on with some of these statistics. What is not in doubt, however, is Copenhagen's commitment to ensure that the invitation to people should be so strong that by 2015 everyone walks 20% more and 50% of all commutes are made by bike. Thus it is that they have embarked on the process of doubling the width of some cycle lanes.

Are there any other cities in the world that have adopted the one-stone-five-birds philosophy? Yes, of course there are. You are invited to Melbourne, which has now been voted the most liveable city in the world. Or what about New York? Mayor Michael Bloomberg is urging cities to set clear targets in tackling climate change and to fill the 'vacuum of leadership' surrounding the issue. 'We must be bolder,' he said. 'We must be more collaborative, and we must be more determined. Our cities have demonstrated that we are prepared to boldly confront climate change. As Mayors, we know that we don't have the luxury of simply talking about change without delivering it.'

'The very best that we can do in city planning,' Jan Gehl concluded, 'would be to have a holistic policy where we try to make it people-friendly so we can achieve more [of] the goals in one operation and move peacefully amongst each other on foot or on bicycle in our cities. That is, as far as I can see, the most sure way to better increase the possibility for better health in the population in the 21st century. Welcome to the 21st century.'

This posting is based heavily on two lectures that Jan Gehl gave in 2009, one in Copenhagen entitled A City for People, and the other in Toronto entitled Treating People Sweetly. For more news about what's going on in New York, refer to this presentation from Copenhagen, about seven minutes in. What is it they say? If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere.