Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: Cities for People

Danish architect Jan Gehl has become something of a living legend in the urban design field. Founding partner of Gehl Architects, he was a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and has taught and lectured throughout the world. His most famous book to date is Life Between Buildings (1987). Cities for People is his latest book and a culmination of everything he knows about designing people friendly streets and cities. While Gehl has mainly worked in Scandinavia and England, he was instrumental in the transformation of Melbourne, Australia into a more pedestrian friendly city and over the past couple of years he completed his highest profile project yet, the pedestrianization of Times Square in New York. Apart from his day job, he is at present a consultant to NYC for all things urbanism. 

In many ways this book is a handbook for how to design people and bicycle friendly cities. Based on years of experience, especially from Copenhagen, Gehl provides numerous examples of good and bad urban typologies from the perspective of pedestrians. If you're looking for a general city design manual, look elsewhere. For many it isn't difficult to identify a street they do or don't like, but Gehl's examples show us why. Quite plainly he brings a lot of common sense to the urban debate. Among all the lecturing and pretentiousness of some architects like Rem Koolhaas, Gehl offers genuine suggestions for fixing the many genuine problems our cities face today. 

The book is divided into several sections each dealing with a different aspect of cities, such as "Senses and Scale" and "Developing cities". A separate review should really be written dependent on the reader's experience with urban design, as those already familiar with the subject can pick up a few good tips but much of it will already be common knowledge. Who should really read this book are those not entirely certain what makes an enjoyable city fit for people rather than cars. I can certainly think of at least a few people who find it very difficult to imagine a world without cars, so used are they to having a car available at their every whim. Gehl clearly and convincingly makes the case for cities where the human dimension is first and foremost the most important, citing examples how precisely cars and modernist planning have destroyed our cities. 

I do think Gehl could have gotten his message across far more strongly had he demanded a higher quality graphic layout. Not only is the cover unconvincing, but inside the book is rather poorly designed and paragraphs frequently interrupted by mini titles. In fact, just about every paragraph is labelled, certainly confusing me as to whether the reader is meant to read the title or not. Eventually I ignored them, as they interrupted the flow of an argument. For a popular book meant to sell in the millions, this lack of care is odd. 

Some of the book's best points are related to pedestrian obstacles, such as intersections, crossing signals, and the like. Having grown up in car cities where such a system is the norm, it's easy to start accepting these obstacle courses as a normal part of life, but Gehl rightly presents this as unacceptable and counterproductive to a pedestrian friendly city. In London, the present mayor Boris Johnson made it a priority to pander to motorists (despite being a bicyclist himself) and lengthened the waiting periods at many pedestrian crossings. It could be very frustrating, as this negatively impacted on my walk to university, where lights which once turned immediately now required a wait of a minute or two. Of course, all this did is endanger walkers by encouraging them to cross busy streets whenever a gap opened up, and further emphasizing the hierarchical organization of our streets, where pedestrians are often treated as the lowest priority. 

I agree wholeheartedly that greater emphasis must be placed on designing lively city spaces, and that too much attention has been lavished strictly on buildings in recent years (though not necessarily on quality architecture). However, Gehl can at times stray a bit too far towards the opposite extreme, ignoring architecture altogether. Several of his examples of well-designed urban projects are, to put it mildly, disappointing. We see a development in Amsterdam, granted full of people in the photo, but surrounded by abominable buildings, obviously designed with little or no care as to their architectural quality. Or a new project in Melbourne just as empty as any he criticizes. These are not places anyone would willingly go, no matter how brilliant the urban design. Often the book gives the impression that Gehl is advertising the cities and projects he himself has been involved with. He is right to deride modern planning and architects, but the two go hand in hand. One cannot have an urban space rivaling the squares of old without excellent planning and beautiful architecture.  

If the key test for a book is how deeply it makes the reader consider and reconsider things they both knew or thought they knew, and new things, then Cities for People passes with flying colors. Even with some of the repetition, it kept me on my toes, and I found myself pausing to consider how certain flawed aspects of cities have influenced my life. Gehl is obviously a passionate man, eager to see cities change for the better and knowing exactly how that can happen without demanding any particularly radical changes. Already in Copenhagen most of his suggestions have been commonplace for decades to the benefit, not detriment, of the city and its inhabitants. Sure Gehl sort of skims over the developing world, allocating just a few pages, but perhaps he rightly believes that first the Western world must fix its own problems before lecturing others. In that he would be right, for although there are many great cities in Europe and the US, the problems are likewise great.