This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Jan Gehl on Why Tall Buildings Aren’t Necessarily Bad for Street Life."
Jan Gehl, the great Danish urbanist, has much in common with Jane Jacobs. For the better part of a half-century now, his focus has been on the development of people-oriented cities. The author of a number of books, including Life Between Buildings, Cities for People, Public Spaces—Public Life, and most recently, How to Study Public Life, Gehl and his colleagues have also served as consultants for the cities of Copenhagen, London, Melbourne, Sydney, New York and Moscow. Gehl Architects currently has offices in Copenhagen, New York and San Francisco. I spoke to Gehl about Jacobs, the folly of modernist city planning, and New York City’s durable urban form.
Martin C Pedersen: Do you remember when you first read "Death & Life"?
Jan Gehl: I graduated in 1960 and spent a few years doing standard architecture work. Then I got married to a psychologist and started to get interested in the borderland between architecture and the social sciences. And I took a special interest in what people did in public spaces and how the form of those spaces influenced the life of the people who used them. I received a grant to go to Italy for a half-year in 1965, to study Italian squares: how they worked, why they worked, which ones worked, which ones didn’t. After that I was invited by the school of architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, to continue these studies on a research fellowship. That resulted in a book I wrote called Life Between Buildings. It was during these studies that I came across her book.
MCP: Did it inform your work, or was it too much from an American perspective. What was your response to that book?
JG: I can remember my enormous surprise that the first chapter was on sidewalk safety, because that was not an issue in this part of Europe at that time. I only learned to know fear in 1972, when I visited North America for the first time. But her book was highly inspiring, especially in relation to my research. My wife and I had started to study how the built form influenced people’s behavior. We were incensed to see how traffic was ruining the cities and how insensitive architects and planners were putting up suburbs and modernistic residential areas in concrete blocks. We looked at that and thought: there’s something wrong here, something must have been overlooked. And what was overlooked was how all this influenced people’s lives. This became my subject of study. Jane was studying the same thing.
I can also tell you another thing: in 1962, a year after her book came out, the city council in Copenhagen closed one kilometer of the main street and turned it into a car-free street. They were reacting to the motor car invasion. And they didn’t know a thing about Jane Jacobs. They just thought that the city was deteriorating with all this traffic and they had to do something.
MCP: Did you ever meet Jacobs?
JG: Oh, yes. I was just writing today about my relationship with her, because some people are writing a book about my life. I lived in Toronto in 1972/73, teaching at the university. Jane was living down on Albany Avenue, a few blocks away. But I didn’t meet her that year, because we were strictly told by the school of architecture that she was not to be disturbed. She hated local academics who interrupted her work. So I taught Jacobs while in Toronto, but I never approached her. Also, my books had not yet appeared in English. At some point later I sent a couple of books of mine, in English, to Jane, and we soon had a nice correspondence. She was very kind in following my books. We exchanged books and letters. I once got a great letter from her. I’d busted my leg badly and was in a wheelchair. Jane heard about it through some people who had seen me in Copenhagen. She wrote me this two-page letter about busted knees and “how lucky I was that it was a ‘mechanical’ failure and not a medical failure, because mechanical things can be mended.” She hoped that I would soon be fresh again and that I could come to Toronto and together we could do something for the city. That handwritten letter is now framed in my office. I met her personally, rather late, during a visit to Toronto, on her porch. We discussed New Urbanism. Whether that was good for mankind or not so good for mankind. Whether it was good, or whether it was a somewhat hollow marketing gimmick.
MCP: What do you two conclude?
JG: I can distinctly remember that we thought that New Urbanist principles were quite good. And they were especially applicable to infill in existing urban areas, where public transportation was good, and where the city services were nearby. But in many of the new built New Urbanist developments—while those might look like the good old days, and might be called walkable—there would be three cars hidden behind the porch, somewhere, because all of the pre-conditions for people-oriented cities would not be available in American suburbs. You could not dream up a streetcar and light rail, so many of these new settlements were somewhat isolated in the deep sea of suburbia.
MCP: I found a great quote from you on your website the reads: “First life, then spaces, then buildings.” Can you explain that progression?
JG: Maybe I shall start with the modernist movement. Let’s take Brasilia as an example. That city looks fantastic from an airplane. It’s a big eagle. The head of the eagle is the Parliament. The wings are the residential units. The neck is the various ministries for the administration. It’s as if Brasilia was conceived from an airplane, where they just moved around the various pieces and volumes on the model until they created a nice composition. There was no one on the ground, looking at how the spaces worked between these volumes. In the old cities, we have spaces; in the modernistic cities, we have left-over spaces. They put down the buildings first. Then they asked landscape architects to tidy up, and then they looked out the window to see if there were any people enjoying these leftover spaces, only to discover that there were none. I call this the Brasilia Syndrome.
In my book, Cities For People, I point out that in the old urban settlements, they always did it the other way around. First, you’d have a path and human activity, then some sheds along the path. Over the centuries, these sheds turned into buildings and streets. So it starts with life, with people moving towards the river, towards wherever they’re going, and then next it’s the spaces that human life requires, and then the buildings were built in relation to these spaces. This way we have streets, formed by the feet, and town squares, based on what the eye can see. Everything was built on the feet and the eye, until the modernists started to fly around and drop their buildings. That’s still a major problem in city planning. I call them the “bird-shit architects,” who fly around and plunk down high rise buildings at random. In a process like this, the spaces between these buildings will invariably be left-over spaces, instead of people-spaces.
MCP: You must go crazy when you visit a city like New York and see the high rise buildings there. Those buildings aren’t being built to the people-scale, are they?
JG: I’m not so critical about New York, because they have this very firm grid-pattern. Even the newer buildings are lined up on good streets. If you stand in front of the Empire State Building, you can’t really guess how tall it is, because it meets the street in a friendly way. It all depends on how these big buildings land on the ground and the spaces they create. As you may know, I have been a consultant to New York on the transformation of Times Square and Herald Square, so I’ve come to appreciate the city and I'm not so worried. It’s not so important how high the building is, or how much it looks like a perfume bottle, it’s more important how it interacts with the city. Never ask what the city can do for your building, always ask what your building can do for the city.
MCP: I also found another interesting quote that relates to our site’s mission: “Public life in good quality spaces is an important part of a democratic life.” What do you mean by that?
JG: It is my viewpoint that man is a social animal. If we want to really punish people, we isolate them from other people. Throughout the history of mankind, people have gathered together with other people, and the spaces where we’ve met have always been important in our lives. And even today, with the advent of our digital tools, public space is as popular as ever, because it’s where we meet our fellow citizens. The First Amendment in your Constitution includes the right to address your fellow citizens in a public forum. We also see that whenever a dictator takes over, the first thing he does is forbid people from gathering. That’s dangerous for his dictatorship. When Franco died and democracy returned to Spain, the first thing they did in Barcelona was build two hundred public spaces, so that people could meet each other and celebrate the freedom to speak in the public realm.
MCP: Here in the United States, true public space is getting rarer and rarer. Often it’s actually privately-owned public space.
JG: I’ve traveled a lot in the United States and seen all of these developments. But I have also seen the opposite. Cities, and city centers, which were largely abandoned, getting revitalized. We’ve seen this in America, and we’ve certainly have seen it in places like Melbourne. In Copenhagen, where I live, the city has an official policy: We will be the best city in the world, for people. And these other things are implied: that we shall walk more, visit our parks and squares; we shall do this because it’s good for the climate, good for the city, good for our health, and good for democracy, if you meet your fellow citizens as part of your day-to-day life. That’s the official policy, and they’ve been quite successful in following it and developing a great city for people. In Copenhagen, you see a lot of children in the streets, because it’s a nice city to be a child in.
MCP: It’s a nice city to be an adult in as well.
JG: Yes, but that follows.