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Review of Cities for People by Jan Gehl


Review of Cities for People by Jan Gehl

The cover of Cities for People by Jan Gehl.

from amazon.com

Review of Cities for People by Jan Gehl

Cities for People by Jan Gehl (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2010) is an outstanding summation of the life work of Gehl, a Danish architect and professor. In his view, a city is best viewed at eye level and human-powered speed - the city that not only suits the needs of pedestrians the best but also make for a pleasant pedestrian experience will be a successful city. When we design cities for automobiles, or build buildings just for the sake of building, then are moving away from what makes cities really work.

While density is important because density allows for a large enough concentration of pedestrians to allow for vibrant street life, it is necessary but not sufficient. Everyone is aware of wind-swept apartment towers devoid of any existence of humanity. Gehl explains that towers do not build street life because there can be no contact between the street and a building above the fifth floor, and by far the greatest connection is on the first floor.

To be sure many cities are adopting zoning codes requiring the creation of "interesting" ground floor uses to attract more street life. Unfortunately they have yet (in North America) to reduce the automobile dominance that has more of an impact in preventing street life from forming.

Throughout the book Gehl deploys an astounding amount of imagery to drive his points home. He also shares many interesting statistics. For example, the number of outside cafe chairs found in central Melbourne has increased from 1,940 in 1993 to 12,570 in 2009 - an increase that reflects the city's successful attempts to increase street life. The books extremely warm tone helps persuade the reader to such an extent that I was left wondering at the end why all cities do not follow his advice.

What does Cities for People have to do with transit? Transit professionals often forget that all passengers, unless they have boarded a vehicle at a park and ride lot , are pedestrians when they walk to and from the bus stop. A more pleasant walking experience no doubt has a positive impact on transit ridership, although there are curiously no specific studies on this topic that I am familiar with. In addition, with few exceptions the busiest local transit services are the lines that traverse streets filled with life. Since local bus routes have an average speed similar to bicycles, especially in dense inner city areas, they provide a good vantage point upon which to view the city. In fact, transit consultant Jarrett Walker has a vision of buses in the future being like extensions of the sidewalk, a state reached through the adoption of coaches almost entirely made of glass operating at very high frequencies.

At the end of the book Gehl provides a helpful toolbox filled with interventions that cities can undertake to make themselves better for people. Five principles summarize the interventions: 1) carefully locate the city's functions to ensure shorter distances between them and a critical mass of people and events; 2) integrate various functions in cities to ensure versatility, wealth of experience, social sustainability and a feeling of security in individual city districts; 3) design city space so it is inviting and safe for pedestrian and bicycling traffic; 4) open up the edges between the city and buildings so that life inside buildings and outside in city spaces can work together; 5) work to strengthen the invitations to invite longer stays in city space because a few people spending much time in a place provide the same sense of lively space as many people spending only a short time. For Gehl, inviting people to spend more time [in a city] is the simplest and most effective method available for reinforcing life in cities. Many of these goals are also the goals of transit-oriented development .

The carrots offered to achieve the goals of Cities for People are making walking and bus riding more pleasant; the stick is to redesign the city away from the car. For several decades the city of Copenhagen has stealthily reduced the number of on-street parking spaces by a very small amount each year (~1%) while simultaneously increasing the number of pedestrian-only streets. Reducing congestion caused by traffic is a great benefit to local bus routes, which suffer fewer delays as a result. London bus ridership increased by 14% soon after and 45% several years after the city congestion charge (now eight pounds (~$12) per day) was introduced.

In sum, Cities for People is an extraordinary book filled with ways we can restore vitality to our urban areas. While not about transit, its prescriptions to improve pedestrian and cycling cannot help but also improve transit.

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