Jan Gehl on American Cities and Walkability
Fast Company recently posted a Q and A with Danish urban designer Jan Gehl. Mr. Gehl, the author of the book, "Life Between Buildings," as well as a new book titled "Cities for People," is an expert at building cities at a people-centered scale. In this article he laments the lack of attention paid to the details of eye-level city life. Planners, he says, have been too busy looking at the big picture, and architects have been worrying too much about individual buildings. " We know more about the habitat of panda bears and mountain gorillas than we do about cities at eye-level," he says. Mr. Gehl seems hopeful about the future of American cities, if not a little perplexed as to why it has taken America so long to get on board. Copenhagen, the home of Mr. Gehl, has been working to make itself more friendly to pedestrians since 1962, according to the article. At the end of the article attention is given to the Chinese new cities, where planners shun bicycling as antiquated--and in some cases place an outright ban on biking in the city. With many cities in developing countries repeating the same mistakes that have already been made in Europe and America, the question is whether they will have to go through the same car-oriented design life cycle or whether they can skip ahead a few steps.
What needs to change here in America, as well as developing countries like China, is the public perception. With energy prices sure to rise over the coming decades, it seems almost certain that whoever is best prepared for the post-petroleum era will come out on top both in terms of economics as well as livability. While educating planners and studying the eye-level qualities of great streets is half the battle, the other half is in communicating a vision to the public and getting people on board. Too often good design is dismissed as being "European," expensive, impractical, and so on. To be honest, I don't blame people who say they would never walk to the grocery store, because in nearly every case this involves endless stretches of barren sidewalks (if a person is lucky enough to have sidewalks on the way to the store at all), a death defying romp through a Frogger-esque parking lot or two, blocks that seem to stretch for miles and that front used car dealerships and gas stations, and other very uncomfortable pedestrian environments. Perhaps the best way to get America's collective feet wet on the idea of walkable urbanism is to create small, temporary improvements and showcase them. Montreal has the practice of creating temporary sidewalk cafes in on-street parking spaces down to a science. San Francisco's Pavement to Parks program turns underutilized paved space into public parks. Granted, these are cities where you hardly need to make an argument for good urbanism, but why not try these and other strategies in places like Phoenix and Houston?
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