Posted by: VPSN | January 31, 2011

Jan Gehl: cars and effect

Jan GehlPhoto by Gene Driskell

Last week Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl gave a presentation to a capacity audience at the Vancouver Playhouse.  VPSN Mapping Co-Coordinator Ryan Betts was on hand to hear what he had to say and filed the following report on the evening’s proceedings.

Jan Gehl designs Cities for People. In a field dominated by the sweeping sculptural works of starchitect icons such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, Gehl instead practices a slow and iterative approach to intervening in urban life – and, in particular, ‘life between buildings.’ His efforts focus on the threshold between buildings and the street, where our daily interactions take place.  This is scale where emphasis isn’t on grand, detached architectural schemes, but an urbanism that is about creating and sustaining the “dignity” of everyday life.

In his words, “cities are expanded by adding small units and [at] good human scale.”  To Gehl, the good city is one that is lively, attractive, safe, sustainable and healthy.

One of the most well respected and accomplished architects and urban designers of our day, Gehl has been practicing for over 50 years. After cutting his teeth in Copenhagen, he was influential in transforming Melbourne from a cultural desert nicknamed “the dougnut” – for the lack of anything happening in the center of town – into the world’s most livable city. More recently, New York City engaged him to help in expanding their bike lanes and transforming their downtown core. Now, while  on a tour to promote his new book, he turned his attention to Vancouver.  He kicked things off by offering his take on how urban design has forgotten about the human scale and what must be done to bring people back into focus.

Speed kills (details): of mile-high perfume bottles and birdshit architecture

First, Gehl provided a little bit of background.

In the early 20th century, Modernism – led by icons such as Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus directors – envisioned utopian cities of vaulted towers and large swaths of greenspace. These visions were no doubt closely related to the speed of technical advance and the speed of urban growth accompanying industrial revolution. Then, with the post-WWII surge in the popularity of the automobile, the ground speed of cities rocketed from a 5km/hr walk to a 60km/hr drive. It was life in the fast lane.

“Speed, it seems to me, provides the one genuinely modern pleasure”

– Aldous Huxley, 1949

Speed, speed, and more speed. But where are all the people?

Speed “had a great impact on the structure of our urban landscape.” Tranquil green spaces were supplanted by byzantine freeway bypasses and sprawling parking lots. Architects insisted that city skylines look beautiful from the freeway and enticing from the air. The concrete jungle was booming, and early urban critics such as Jane Jacobs predicted the demise of street life at the hands of these arterial freeway visions.

Brasilia was the poster child of Modernism’s failings. Built for the car and designed to look like a noble eagle from the air, it was a lifeless industrial park at eye level. “If you visit Brasilia, it is not great at all,” Gehl mused, “to be happy in Brasilia, you need a helicopter.” In it’s attempt to “make the cars happy” it had forgotten all about what makes a city tick.

These cities were designed by moving scale models of buildings around, and lost touch with the human scale. Like trying to perform eye surgery with space lasers, this detached process resulted in …

“Birdshit architecture”

Gehl recounted his first experience with Dubai. Wandering around, the buildings began to remind him of his wife’s perfume shelf. Just as the designers of his wife’s perfume bottles competed for attention with distinct and seductive shapes, so did the architects of Dubai’s buildings. Complete indulgence of form, with no interest in function and day to day use. He coined “birdshit architecture” to describe this process of premium architects being flown in to drop their buildings onto a city with no regard for their impact on public life.

Scale, people

This is Gehl’s primary thesis: the design of cities has lost touch with the human scale. Renderings may be littered with depictions of “unspecified public life” – scale people – but they are rarely grounded in reality. They are ornamental. Form comes first; a building at eye level is an after thought. As Gehl wisely reminds us, “units are getting bigger and bigger – but people are still slow and small.” And this demands a new approach.

A new paradigm: cities for people

From a half-century of experimenting with the automobile, we now know what works and what doesn’t. Gehl reminds that this is only natural: “first we shape the cities – then they shape us.” Cars are necessary, but certainly not the most significant part of a healthy city. Cities must shift their focus towards interactions between people; they should be lively, attractive, safe, healthy, and sustainable.

To Gehl, the success of a building happens where it’s base meets the street: “every architecture school should have a department that is dedicated to designing the ground floors of buildings.” A new school of urban design needs to turn away from the detached processes the make Brasilias and Dubais, and towards a human centered approach. Gehl points towards success stories like the Potato Rows in Copenhagen. Though bland from the air, they “have everything at people scale”. Gehl points out that when people enjoy themselves at that scale, they tend to “forget it looks like shit” at the city scale. It’s also worth mentioning that the Potato Rows boast the highest property values in the city.  So, how do we get there?

“Good public transportation and a good public realm are brothers and sisters.”

To overcome dependency on the car we need a healthy public transportation system. In turn, if we are to encourage adoption of public transport we need to create a safe and enjoyable public realm where people are “invited to move by [their] own force.”  But Gehl encourages us to think about this not as an abstract platitude, but a foundation for good urban policy.  “In the [good] city everything will be done to invite people to walk and bicycle as much as possible in their daily doings.”  The notion of ‘invitation” is key here: the spaces we create for walking and cycling need to be captivating, enjoyable… and yes, fun.

How do we get that safe and enjoyable public realm?

“the moment we do anything inviting, people come out in numbers”

Gehl notes “there is nothing that is more interesting than other people.” Echoing Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street”, Gehl likened the city to movies, noting that watching other people is “our greatest joy.”

To encourage the convivial component of public space, Gehl has identified a checklist of 12 qualities that public spaces should aspire to.  These, he clusters under the categories of “Protection”, “Comfort” and “Delight”:


  • Protection against traffic and accidents – feeling safe
  • Protection against crime and violence – feeling secure
  • Protection against unpleasant sensory experiences (rain, snow, pollution, noise, etc.)


  • Opportunities to walk (room for walking, good surfaces, etc)
  • Opportunities to stand/stay
  • Opportunities to sit
  • Opportunities to see (reasonable viewing distances, interesting views…)
  • Opportunities to talk and listen
  • Opportunities for play and exercise


  • Scale (buildings and spaces designed to human scale)
  • Opportunities to enjoy the positive aspects of climate
  • Positive sensory experiences (good design, materials, trees, plants, water…)

(excerpted from Jan Gehl. Cities for People, p.239)

These traits and the ways to measure and design for them are described at length in his book and at a high level in this video.  They resonate well and made sense on an experiential level.  If you want to undertake an interesting exercise keep this checklist handy the next time you go on a stroll around your neighbourhood.

And moving through public space? To Gehl, the bottom line is that the design of our cities must invite people to participate and “move by their own force.” In the case of Vancouver, the architect applauds the commitment to prioritizing walking, cycling, transit above the automobile. These, in turn, are facilitated by land-use that supports density and compactness versus diffusion and urban sprawl.  This, however, came with a cautionary note: density and green buildings on their own do not equal a healthy city.

“The tower is a lazy architect’s solution. You can achieve the same density with much lower height.”

This begs the question, since Vancouver is going to continue to grow over the next few decades and centuries is it time for us to start thinking more about how to Copenhagenize the city?



  1. Jan Gehl is awesome. Wish we could clone him and then every city could have their own.

    I really appreciated his point about the shift from traditional, incremental city-building humans did for hundreds of years to the larger scale stuff that started happening with modernism and how we were lost as to how to do it right because we had never built on that scale before, we had to traditions to tell us how to do it well. So the architects came in and started making stuff up and we’ve been struggling ever since.

    re: towers/copenhagen scale. I would suggest that the mid-rise form of the Olympic village is an attempt to explore non-tower, high density forms…. so looks like we’re already thinking about it!

  2. Ryan – Excellent summary of an entertaining evening with Mr. Gehl.

    I think it is important to point out that many statements Gehl made are pertinent to the current redevelopment direction and debate in Vancouver. People should not be caught up in redesigning the city skyline. We should be focussed on the ground plane. Who cares what the downtown buildings look like from a window at City Hall? The buildings, streets and public spaces are for the people who inhabit the buildings and it should be designed for people and their use, function and comfort.
    You forgot to mention that Gehl noted that the Landscape Architects were the “heroes” of the design profession who have paid the most attention to the human scale within modern cities.

    Gehl also commented:

    “Every city I know of has a department of traffic planners. No city in the world has a department for pedestrians.”

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