Monday, November 01, 2010

Book Review: Cities for People

Cities for People by Jan Gehl
Island Press, 2010
Hardcover, 288 pages

In 1971 Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl articulated the ideas that he would build upon for the rest of his career in the book Life Between Buildings. In response to modernism's emphasis on objects (buildings) over spaces (streets and plazas) and its bird's-eye-view planning, Gehl argues for the prioritization of the design of public space as a supporter of social life. It's a hard position to argue against, but one that is a difficult sell against the entrenched modernist principles of architecture and planning. Or in other words, Gehl needs to continue articulating and spreading his ideas, and in this his fifth major book he does so clearly, with an abundance of illustrations and examples of the good and bad in today's cities.

What Gehl is fighting against can be described in one word: cars. This isn't to say that he proposes their outright removal from city streets, but that public spaces stop catering to four-wheel automobiles and instead reorient themselves to pedestrians and bicyclists. His term for this is "invitation"; since the middle of the 20th century cities have invited more cars by giving them more space on roads and in parking lots and garages. But now cities are giving invitations to pedestrians and bicyclists through the closure of some streets to cars and adding bike lanes. These are cases of space shifting from cars to people on foot and bikes, what traffic engineers and others argue against, saying that less roads means more traffic jams. But the opposite is true, for two interrelated reasons: cars will find their way without those extra lanes, and people will use other means of transportation when those invitiations are prioritized. So the traffic that comes with more roads and lanes is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it's not as easy to say the same in the case of pedestrians or bikes; design must enter the picture to make respectively quality spaces and safe routes for non-automotive city users.

Gehl documents his arguments with photographs and statistics. The first tend to bounce back and forth between examples of the good and bad, such as the "soft" and "hard" edges of facades, ones that invite or don't invite people to walk by or linger. The data of the second is rooted in the systematic observations of William H. Whyte, and Gehl most importantly shows that quantity (number of people using a space) is not as important as time (how long people use a space), something still quanitifiable but more difficultly so. Sometimes the arguments seem like they are strictly against modern architecture, promoting its traditional counterpart. But unlike academics and practitioners who draw that line and stay on one side, Gehl moves back and forth fairly easily because he focuses on the "life between buildings" and not on the style of those buildings. Classical buildings can create spaces just as devoid of life as those created by a modern aesthetic, if their formal rigidity lacks consideration of public use. If anything the examples here prize the vernacular and the idiosyncratic, fitting from a man living and working in Copenhagen where the two splendidly co-exist.