Jan Gehl – Cities for People

by | Oct 6 2016

Jan Gehl – Architect, Urban Planner, Visionary and Humanist

Jan Gehl is an experienced architect and urban planner from Copenhagen with a very special view on his environment. Today he has become something of a patron for pedestrians and cyclists.

He gained fame with a number of projects but the most famous is probably his quite recent work in New York. In 2009 he and his team converted Times Square and Harold and Greeley Square into pedestrian zones[1] – in front of the amazed eyes of the world. In March 2015 he visited Bremen to launch the German edition of his book, and Bremenize was there to record the event. Bremen, a cycling city, has much to learn from his globally recognised views.

The human dimension in city planning: Transport as key point

In his book “Cities for People”[2] he turns the view of his architect colleagues upside down, asking them to change their perspective, from the usual bird’s eye view to the view of the human being on the ground. “For decades the human dimension has been overlooked (…) In addition, dominant planning ideologies – modernism in particular – have specifically put a low priority on public space, pedestrianism and the role of city space as a meeting place for urban dwellers. (..) market forces and related architectural trends have gradually shifted focus from the interrelations and common spaces of the city to individual buildings, which in the process have become increasingly more isolated, introverted and dismissive.”[3] So he asks them to let the human dimension guide their work, and concentrate on social life in cities instead of individual buildings.

A key factor for his human-dimension-city is sustainable transport, since “burgeoning car traffic was effectively squeezing the rest of urban life out of urban space.”[4] And he points out clearly that a new focus of urban development on his human dimensional sense is a bargain compared to recent urban investments.

The actual situation we have come to he describes with alarming words: “Limited space, obstacles, noise pollution, risk of accident and generally disgraceful conditions are typical for city dwellers in most of the world’s cities.”[5] If we just remember all the people dying of fine dust in our cities, all the residential streets that are heaving with parked cars and have no space for public life, or the amount of traffic collisions with heavily injured or even dead people, we realize how right he is.

The 60s: Planless access for millions of cars into our cities

The fall of mankind Gehl sees in the erection of huge settlements with high rise buildings (in Germany most of them were built in the 60s and 70s). At the same time urban planners allowed millions of cars without any plan into our cities, and today in Bremen we have large areas with illegally parked cars, still driving far too fast in narrow roads. Car owners developed their own illegal niches and traffic wardens just let them get on with it. At the end this behaviour is looked at as custom and practice – a fatal situation for social life.

Gehl denounces this clearly and calls for another way of thinking and acting. “Cities must urge urban planners and architects to reinforce pedestrianism as an integrated city policy to develop lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities. It is equally urgent to strengthen the social function of city space as a meeting place that contributes toward the aims of social sustainability and an open and democratic society.”[6]

Green mobility with “Copenhagen-style bicycle lanes”

First priority should be – according to Jan Gehl – the needs of pedestrians and cyclists and the quality of city life in general, when it comes to building projects. “The sustainable city is strengthened generally if a large part of the transport system can take place as ‘green mobility’, that is travel by foot, bike or public transport. These forms of transport provide marked benefits to the economy and the environment, reduce resource consumption, limit emissions, and decrease noise levels.”[7]

To put another stress on his ideas, Gehl explains in detail how cycling infrastructure is built in Copenhagen: “In Copenhagen, a cohesive network for bicycles comprising all parts of the city has gradually been established. Traffic is so quiet on small side streets and residential streets in 15 and 30 km per hour/9 and 19 mph zones that a special cycle network is not necessary, but all major streets have one. On most streets, the network consists of bicycle paths along the sidewalks, typically using the curbstones as dividers toward the sidewalk, as well as parking and driving lanes. In some places bike lanes are not delimited by curbstones, but rather marked with painted stripes inside a row of parked cars, so that the cars protect the bicycles from motorized traffic. In fact, this system is known as ‘Copenhagen-style bicycle lanes’.”[8]

More space for the bike, less so for the car

In Copenhagen there are also green bicycle routes. “However, the main principle of bicycle policy is for bicycles to have room on ordinary streets, where just like the others in traffic, their owners have errands in shops, residences and offices. The principle is for bicycle traffic to be safe from door to door throughout the city.”[9]

Non-Copenhagen planners like in Bremen argue against the one-to-one comparison with Copenhagen and its “Copenhagen-style bicycle lanes”, that there is not enough space to redistribute public space from the car to the bicycle. But this begs the question: “Not enough space for whom and for what?” Gehl’s answer is clear: In Copenhagen “room for this comprehensive bicycle network has been largely gained by down-sizing car traffic. Parking space and driving lanes have been gradually reduced. (…). Most of the city’s major four-lane streets have been converted to two-lane streets with two bicycle paths, two sidewalks and a broad median strip intended to make it safer for pedestrians to cross the street. Roadside trees have been planted and traffic is two-way as before.”[10] Clearly such changes are possible, without bringing armageddon to motorists.

Don’t plan streets from the centre of the road

In Copenhagen no reasonable traffic planner would install a bicycle street with the intention of saving parking space (s. Our post: parkallee-no-stars-for-the-cunning-plan). In the Danish capital streets are obviously planned from the outside to the centre: First there will be space for pedestrians, then for cyclists, and the rest is distributed to motorised traffic. Also Copenhagen planners don’t seem to be tortured by the question: How do I manage to get all these cars through our city? Quite the contrary, in Copenhagen the main question is how to reduce car traffic.

And Bremen, the bicycle city? What do we do here?

A poor city like Bremen, with a financially broke public sector could adopt many of these tips to improve the Bremen people’s quality of life in a cheap and sustainable way like a survival package. But is it happening?

Are we down-sizing the space for car traffic? Do we convert residential streets with heaving car parking into streets without cars? Do we take two lanes on most four-lane streets away and hand them over to the bicycle? Do we inhibit parking on public places? Do we convert busy shopping streets like “Ostertorsteinweg” or “Vor dem Steintor” into pedestrian zones?

Does Bremen listen to the Copenhagen recommendations? It seems not. We travel to Copenhagen, enjoy its wonderful cycling world and travel home telling ourselves that we cannot do that at home. Such an attitude might be more understandable in cities that are far behind Copenhagen like Marseille or Newcastle.  But Bremen has all the prerequisites for aspiring towards a Copenhagen-type level of cycling. We still own a coherent, 700 km long system of cycle paths, we have a 25% bicycle modal share, our citizens are extremely bicycle friendly, we have a vibrant car-sharing scheme, and we have an excellent public transport system at our disposal. So what is hindering the Copenhagenizing of Bremen?

Recent policy developments suggest a significant contrast between the two cities’ attitides to safety. In Copenhagen safety is always defined as objective and subjective safety alike. The idea that objective safety concerns trump all others is rejected.[11] Rather than trying to educate its citizens into cycling on the road, Copenhagen invites them to cycle with attractive, and therefore subjectively safe, infrastructure. Bremen seems to prefer to send its cyclists on the road.[12]

Bremen also does not dare to effectively approach the negative effects of the daily car invasion. The latest transport plan from 2014 (Verkehrsentwicklungsplan 2025, VEP) is dominated by a culture of consensus instead of clear measures to reduce a means of transport that is a general danger to our health and environment. Bicycles and pedestrians do not get a general and clear priority like in Copenhagen.

Jan Gehl’s visit to Bremen left us with a string of comments about diverse issues in Bremen – the role of the tram in our pedestrian zone, the fly-over in front of the main station, or the Rembertiring and the way it invites cars. It is now up to us to confront these and the many other transport issues that face us.


[1] http://gehlpeople.com/cases/new-york-usa/

[2] Gehl, Jan: Cities for People, Washington/Covelo/London 2010

[3] See Gehl: Cities 2010, p.3

[4] See Gehl: Cities 2010, p.3

[5] See Gehl: Cities 2010, p.3

[6] See Gehl: Cities 2010, p.6

[7] See Gehl: Cities 2010, p.7

[8] See Gehl: Cities 2010, p. 183

[9] See Gehl: Cities 2010, p. 185

[10] See Gehl: Cities 2010, p. 185

[11] Cycling Embassy of Denmark (ed.): Collection of cycle concepts 2012, p. 50 ff

[12] http://www.bauumwelt.bremen.de/verkehr/radverkehr-14567#Radweg and http://www.bauumwelt.bremen.de/verkehr/detail.php?gsid=bremen213.c.22053.de




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