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Seeking answers to urban issues with Jan Gehl at UIA World Congress of Architects

STIR spoke with Jan Gehl, architect & urban planner, who, together with Rob Adams, pondered on their past urban design interventions as part of 'Cities For People - 50 Years Later.'

by Almas SadiquePublished on : Jul 29, 2023

Nostalgia, a term first coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in 1688 to describe the 'suffering evoked by the desire to return to one's place of origin,' has, over the years, come to be redefined as an emotion that not only ameliorates our moods and augments one’s confidence in themselves but also roots us—to communities and places connected with these past memories. However, what really makes an experience worth harking back to? Perhaps, Winnie the Pooh’s visceral intimation—in the words, “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”—can shed some light on this. The ‘something’ here is more often than not, the quality of our interpersonal relationships and the activities done within these social constructs.

However, what if we are unable to experience these relationships? What will ensue when backtracking one’s thoughts to the foregone era reveals a blank slate? With the current economy driving people to reside in capsule homes and work in poorly ventilated offices, with meagre chances for leisure or serendipitous expeditions in the left-over alleys alongside privatised lands, this situation has already become a reality in our cities. The onslaught of virtual mediums that come with the promise of delivering multitudinous experiences further reduces opportunities for real-life interactions. In the face of such challenging circumstances, it is imperative to reconfigure urban spaces with the intention of inviting people outwards, lest we reach a point where these oppidan globules become vessels for life, albeit, not living.

This is precisely the mission that Jan Gehl—an architect, retired professor of Urban Design, Royal Danish Academy, and Founding Partner, Gehl—has been working to fulfil for the past six decades. First ushered into this arena as a result of the discussions he had with his wife, a behavioural psychologist, Ingrid Gehl, where she inquired about “why they didn’t teach you anything about people while you were in architecture school,” Jan Gehl embarked on the journey of sitting, observing and understanding how people used spaces in cities. Having moved through more than 200 cities and written various books, Gehl has one key advice to share: “Only architecture that considers human scale and interaction is successful architecture. First life, then spaces, then buildings - the other way around never works.”

Jan Gehl has worked in the realm of urban planning for more than fifty years | UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 | Jan Gehl | STIRworld
Jan Gehl has worked in the realm of urban planning for more than fifty years Image: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects

The Danish architect and urban planner, now 86, was invited to the recently concluded UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 in Copenhagen, Denmark, to share "more than 50 years of experience in designing cities for people." As part of the conversation Cities For People - 50 Years Later, Gehl reiterated his journey and looked back on some shared experiences with his long-time friend and fellow urban designer Rob Adams, who was also part of the panel. Against the overarching theme of 'Leave No One Behind' at UIA World Congress of Architects—which also witnessed an apology by German architect Anna Heringer for the havoc wrecked by rich countries on the environment—Gehl’s redolent lessons, conveyed in the form of a short presentation, struck a reverberating chord.

The programme, Cities For People - 50 Years Later, began with Master of Ceremonies, Connie Hedegaard inviting Camilla Van Deurs, City Architect in Copenhagen, to the stage. After introducing the agenda of the event and delineating the importance of “life between buildings and the importance of building cities for people,” Deurs welcomed Jan Gehl and Rob Adams to the stage. The first few minutes of the event were spent talking about both Gehl and Adams’s journey to and through Melbourne, Australia, a place where the former worked as a professor and the latter has spent 40 years shaping the city in the role of the City Architect and Design Director. Looking back at his brief stint in the Australian city, Gehl remarked, “In 1976, I was invited to Melbourne as a visiting professor. It was known as a conservative place in the West. However, I had a wonderful time with the students. We studied the importance of front yards, of soft edges in cities, and we studied residential streets all over Melbourne. It was a fantastic experience, the best students I have ever had. I fell in love with Australia and consider myself half-Australian.”

Jan Gehl in conversation with Camilla Van Deurs and Rob Adams | UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 | Jan Gehl | STIRworld
Jan Gehl in conversation with Camilla Van Deurs and Rob Adams Image: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects

Talking about his journey as an architect and designer, Adams, who hails from Zimbabwe and studied architecture at Cape Town University, shared, “In our fourth year of college, we could travel for six months but we had to write a report on it. Because I had never been out of Africa, I decided to write a report on town planning in Scandinavia and the Hill Towns of Italy. Well, I had to see the continent!” Adams also visited Copenhagen for the first time during this trip. “It was this trip that turned me towards urban design. When you look at how cities are being designed, some of the early ones in Scandinavia weren’t brilliant, and I felt that I wouldn’t want to live there. Then, I went down to Italy, and suddenly I discovered people. You relaxed, you sat, you sketched, you had coffee, and so, in 1975, I went back and studied urban design at Oxford Brooks and one of the first books I read was Space Between the Buildings, and that’s where the love affair starts,” elucidates Adams, talking about his first encounter with Gehl’s work. He further went on to appreciate Gehl’s contribution, in not only studying it and presenting measures for better urban life in Melbourne, but also for going out and promoting it as an example of these measures well implemented. “When Jan Gehl says that Swanson Street carries more pedestrians than Russel Street in London, it means a lot. Jan has been the greatest advocate for Melbourne and the transformation done there, which we thought was small,” he added.

Moving forward from this bitty conversation, Gehl gave a presentation about his life, his work, his books, and his learnings in the past 50 years. Projecting an image of a child, Gehl spoke, “I decided that if I ever was going to speak at UIA, I’d begin with this, because wherever we come from, we all work for the same client, this little walking creature, which has the same senses all over the world, the same biological history. It moves at a slow speed and is very interested in other people, and that’s what unites us in UIA that we have many different stories to tell.”

In a short presentation, Jan Gehl traced his professional journey and some of his learnings over the past few decades | UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 | Jan Gehl | STIRworld
In a short presentation, Jan Gehl traced his professional journey and some of his learnings over the past few decades Image: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects

Pondering, perhaps for the umpteenth time, on his training as an architect, the impact of his conversations with his wife, Ingrid Gehl, about the psychology of spaces, and his turnabout to theoretical explorations as a way of learning and discovering more about urban spaces, he shared, “I was trained in the 50s, when we learned to be good modernists and that the buildings were everything, and what is in between was nothing. We were told about the importance of placing and making a building, a space that people would be immensely happy to move into a nice modern flat with running water and a toilet that they will be happy ever after. And the conclusion there was that what really mattered was not how the buildings were, but what kind of patterns were used on the buildings and how aesthetic the facade looked, so, what was really important for people was just the aesthetic of the structure and not the way it served people and influenced their lives.”

Later, upon going back to architecture school in order to understand the presence of human life in urban spaces, Gehl discovered that “they did not teach anything about form and life because nothing was known.” Starting from the bottom, Gehl sat and observed people in 200 cities around the world. “ I sat down to watch how people used the buildings and the cities and based on that I summarised it in a number of books and I realised especially now when I am older that really what matters in life is if you can manage to change the way people think, change their mindset, and I realised that seven books in 41 languages have had an influence on the mindset of our profession and I am very proud about that now in my mature or ripe age,” Gehl enthused.

What you count, you care for! – Jan Gehl

Speaking about Copenhagen, Gehl shared that it was the first city in the world where the life in the city was documented just as carefully as traffic is documented by traffic engineers. “We have a saying: What you count, you care for! In Copenhagen, we started to count the people and found out where the people were, where they like to go, and where they didn’t, all this we pioneered in Copenhagen and I realise that it came to have quite an influence in the development of the city,” he shared. The car parking in the streets of Copenhagen was slowly reduced—by two or three per cent each other—by the city’s traffic engineer so that nobody would notice. “So, all the squares in Copenhagen, one by one, were turned into people places, all the waterfront streets which were nice places to park the cars were turned into people places. It was a long process. We were able to prove that the more good quality space you provide for people in the city, the more they came out to enjoy the city and each other. This had an influence on the policy of Copenhagen and we had a little quote from the Mayor of Planning, City of Copenhagen, Bente Frost: "Without the Public Life research from the School of Architecture, we politicians would never have dared to make Copenhagen the most livable city in the world,” Gehl pronounced.

Gehl also explained the various phases in which the policies and measures were implemented in the city of Copenhagen, Phase 1 from 1960 to 1980, Phase 2 from 1980 to 2000, Phase 3 from 2000 to 2010, and Phase 4 from 2010 until now. These phases intended to provide cultural spaces in the city outdoors as well as delineate spaces that would encourage mobility as opposed to sitting around. Currently, measures are being undertaken to adapt the city to cater to climate change. Gehl also talked about cities such as Melbourne, Munich and Vienna, which have repeatedly been rated as some of the most livable cities in the world by Monocle.

Rob Adams spoke about the changes made in Melbourne’s urban spaces in the past forty years  | UIA World Congress of Architects 2023 | Jan Gehl | STIRworld
Rob Adams spoke about the changes made in Melbourne’s urban spaces in the past forty years Image: Courtesy of UIA World Congress of Architects

Taking the mic from Gehl, Adams talked about 40 years of transformation in Melbourne. He talked about the different measures undertaken to repurpose the city, some of which included developing the local character of the city, repopulating the downtown area, activating spaces for pedestrian movement by taking space away from cars, adapting the urban landscapes for climate change, and greening the buildings, among other steps. These changes were made in small stacks, incrementally. “When we got to 1992, one of the people working with me said, Rob, nobody is ever going to know what we have done here because it is like warming up a bath. We then decided to call Jan Gehl to come and help us count so we care for it. Jan then came down and we started to record the changes that were happening in Melbourne. The numbers found here were a game changer,” Adams shared.

You will make mistakes, I have made mistakes, the best thing you could do is not try and hide those mistakes because we can help you. So, the only mistake you will make is if you don’t tell us that you have made a mistake. You need to be brave enough to speak about your mistakes. – Rob Adams

These lessons by Gehl and Adams were concluded by a brief dialogue between the planners, moderated by Camilla Van Deurs. She invited them to share some mistakes that they have made in their careers, a few things that they could have done differently and better, some observations about cities in recent times, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a few thoughts on what needs to change in our urban spaces in the times to come. “Some of my projects have been successful, while others have seen no progress. What can really make an initiative successful is the mayor of a city and the city architect. I think my worst case is London. We did a fantastic study, there was a very good mayor called Ken Livingstone. He lifted the study and promised that it would be implemented. Then they elected Boris Johnson as the mayor and nothing happened. If the politics is slow in a place, these plans and projects can go stale, but if the politicians have a vision, too, we can move forward well,” Gehl shared. Adding to this, Adams responded, “When I was asked in 1985 if I’d stay on in Melbourne and make the strategy work, I said that it would happen on one condition, if the City Architect’s office is in the government. Only then you can hire the best people to come and work on the projects. Also, the trouble with working on projects is that you make mistakes, and so the one thing that I said to my staff when they joined is: ‘You will make mistakes, I’ve made mistakes, the best thing you could do is not try and hide those mistakes because we can help you. So, the only mistake you will make is if you don’t tell us that you have made a mistake,’ and we have made plenty, but what I like about Melbourne is that the politicians there allow you to make mistakes.”

Post the event, STIR Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Amit Gupta, established a brief dialogue with Jan Gehl to understand his point of view on the theme of UIA World Congress of Architects 2023, differences in his experiences as an architect and urban planner across the globe, and his thoughts on what’s NEXT. Excerpts from the conversation can be viewed by clicking on the banner video.

The UIA World Congress 2023 programme featured talks, panel discussions and presentations by influential and innovative creative practices. STIR as an official Media Partner, brings you the highlights of the congress through a series of interviews, visits and conversations.

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