In 2010, Danish architect and urban design thinker Jan Gehl compiled his profession’s key urban design principles and convictions in the well-received book “Cities for People”. I like the way he describes how the planning and development of urban spaces should be done and I can easily underwrite most of his statements/conclusions about how cities can be supportive or detrimental to urban dwellers’ lives.
Underscoring the importance of quality urban space and a human dimension of cities; correcting an often wrong perception by practitioners of the relation between human senses and dimensions in cities (human scale versus car scale); and proposing numerous solutions for achieving a lively, safe, sustainable, and healthy city – Gehl makes valid points against modernist planning theory and practice. For him, city planning and development should combine “life, space, buildings”, and prioritize them in that order. His “city at eye level” contributes to a people-centered perspective on how urban space can truly function. Nevertheless, I think one can formulate a critique against his propositions by putting them to a reality check and discussing their implementation side – because, even a good book should not be spared a critical discussion.
I will not go into the details of Gehl’s book (see for instance here, here, and here), but will jump right to one critical question: How does the implementation of Gehl’s “Cities for People” look like on the ground?
One of the Danish architect’s suggestion is to think about the development of a particular areal by identifying how people are moving through this space and to identify where critical public spaces are located. This approach is quite feasible and should indeed inform strategic and spatial planning. Following this broader perspective of spatial outlining, Gehl focuses on the importance of how buildings along identified paths (roads, alleys, etc.) and around identified places (market places, squares, etc.) should be designed to create an inviting urban space. A space that offers the right scale for urban dwellers to overlook it and to enjoy walking/biking through it, meeting people and staying in it, and basically making it into a diverse and dynamic place. In order to achieve such place development, Gehl calls architects and planners to pay attention to the soft edges – for instance, designing buildings in a way that makes them interesting at eye level, appealing/inviting, rich in detail, contributing to the spatial character of the place, and providing a backdrop/secured wall that can support urban dwellers waiting, looking around, or taking a break. This is an aspect where I think Gehl’s conceptual paradigms conflict with common situations in urban development practice.
Gehl wants professionals to pay attention to the details – the small scale. However, urban planning is not solely characterized by planners, designers, and architects thinking about how a certain building or public square shall look like. Urban development is bound to multiple systems that impact on, overpower, support, or maybe even destroy quality urban space. These systems can be found in the political sphere of local rivaling interests. They are apparent in the land market and an often capitalist economy in general. And they also play out with regard to public administration and its capacities and capabilities in urban planning and management.
The book assembles a broad array of actual examples where Gehl’s urban design principles have been put into practice. There are also great city cases where dedicated leaders have transformed their cities (or actually: only some parts of their cities) into more livable places. But I do not see Gehl’s small scale requirements for “cities for people” playing out ideally in the usual urban setting.
The first point I have mentioned concerns the political sphere. Gehl is very supportive of participatory urban planning processes. From project experience, one can probably confirm that residents have a certain tendency to favor livable urban spaces. But I think (too) high expectations of local stakeholders’ “pro cities for people” attitude can be disappointed in fierce public debates about how a space is to be developed and how a space has to look like. Praising Gehl’s urban design recommendations, I still see the risk of professionals’ “superior knowledge” (and logical reasoning) clashing with politicians’ interests and common people’s understanding of urban development (also see here). If Gehl’s ideal city is so straightforwardly logic and good and beneficial, then why has it not spread throughout the world?! Because there is or should be no rule of the professional. And all the logic aside, “people” are incredibly difficult to deal with in urban planning processes.
The second point that challenges the implementation side of Gehl’s propositions concerns the market. Urban development is in most cases not very strongly in the hands of governments. Land speculation, real estate investments, and demand-driven space development have increasingly characterized how our cities look like, how they evolve, and how far governments’ strategic and spatial plans can infiltrate practical urban development (also see here). One would hope that an architect or designer by his/her professional education and work ethic would strive for building designs that are in line with the well-articulated principles of Gehl. But the “real practice” is – unfortunately – more dull and harsh. There are project budgets, there are investment interests (beyond a building’s role in a particular space), and there are intricate client-service provider relationships. The result may be buildings that become visual icons, but that do not contribute to a quality urban space. Or buildings that function well internally, but do not offer soft edges on the outside to foster dynamic public uses. Or buildings that run against all of Gehl’s recommendations, but still somehow “sell”.
This is directly linked to my third point: public administrations’ capacities and capabilities. A possible objection to my argument about other systems’ impact on Gehl’s “cities for people” would be a reference to urban development policies (buildings codes, land use plans, design standards, etc.). Here, the power of governments requires scrutiny, as a widely dominant neoliberal governance setting has stripped many cities (as well as state and national governments) off the powers to write and enforce laws and policies that can guide how urban spaces are developed beneficial to the general public. Even in the ideal case where such regulations would inform and affect building designs, the small scale opens up countless spots in a city that would require the attention of an ill-equipped local administration (also see here). How many urban planners, designers, construction inspectors, etc. would a city administration need to exercise the necessary control over private sector urban development activities? Gehl’s experience might be primarily based on projects implemented in well-endowed, rather stable, and/or small/medium-sized cities. His propositions could be better realized on a smaller scale, however, governments in smaller cities often lack the staff and/or in-house expertise to do so. And on the larger scale – such as in highly dynamic mega-cities, metropolitan regions, and agglomerations with fuzzy boundaries – the implementation of Gehl’s principles might go beyond a government’s ability to handle the detail and complexity of the human city’s “small scale”.
A possible conclusion from this critique could be that cities will already do better when they focus on key public spaces where Gehl’s “cities for people” recommendations are most crucial. If I think about the government and governance situation in our cities – from cash-strapped communities in Germany to overburdened local governments in the Philippines – I cannot imagine a significant rise of “cities for people”. In support of Gehl, I have to remark that his book was probably never intended to specifically address this implementation question. Therefore, my critique is not so much a critique against Gehl’s book than a critical questioning of how urban development professionals would be capable of actually implementing Gehl’s urban design principles and recommendations on a variety of scales/levels. His book reminds these professionals to take their responsibilities towards people (more) serious. As Gehl notes, an incremental improvement and a certain degree of more human-scale city development would already be a positive contribution to urban dwellers’ lives and move against and beyond modernist planning’s extraordinary failures across the globe.