June 26, 2015 3:05 pm
Meet the architects who are transforming our traffic-clogged streets by studying how we experience a city
ost of us have feigned expertise on city planning at some point. Our criticisms are obvious — gridlocked traffic, hazardous potholes, soulless developments. And the solutions seem commonsensical — restrict rush-hour deliveries, invest in infrastructure, value the public realm — yet cities prove difficult to change. Battling the traffic as a cycling commuter, I constantly question whether our cities have been designed for cars or humans? Could they survive and thrive without cars?
Danish-born Jan Gehl is a special kind of architect. His conventional training was turned on its head when in 1960 he met his future wife, a psychologist, and came to question why “it is easier for architects to study form than life”. Gehl spent the next 40 years researching, surveying and amassing theories on urbanism and humans — until he was challenged to practise what he preached. With co-founder Helle Søholt, he set up Gehl Architects. Today, their theories have been applied to cities from Shanghai to San Francisco. And their philosophy is informed by the needs of humans rather than buildings, transport or politics.
Gehl Architects’ process begins with rigorous analysis. They count benches, record the number of people on each street, day and night, week and weekend; analyse what people are doing, how old they are, where they are going, how they are getting there. They examine where people jaywalk, what streets they avoid, what obstacles they slalom. They scrutinise “visual pollution” from signage, numbers of bins, pavement surfaces, security, lighting, how wind funnels through certain areas and sun catches others. And it is all measured and graphically demonstrated — quantifying the human experience of a city.
We live in cities that are, in Gehl’s words, a product of the “traffic engineers’ heyday” — more or less the past half century. In China, 90 per cent of people don’t own a car, yet cities based on what Gehl calls a “100km/hour experience” are growing continually. Gehl Architects do not propose masterplans to transform cities overnight. Rather, they promote “initiatives for change”, pilot studies that usually begin with one priority: improving walkability — the 5km/hour experience.
It is a long-term approach. It took Copenhagen five decades to become the human-focused city it is today. Since its main street was pedestrianised in 1962, a network of others have gradually followed, as well as 18 public squares, previously car parks. The city’s success is due to physical changes married to a shift in mindset.
When Gehl conducted a pilot study in 2008, temporarily closing Broadway to traffic between Times Square and Herald Square, New Yorkers awoke to a new way of thinking about their streets. Gehl identified that 90 per cent of the users of Times Square (pedestrians) had 10 per cent of the space: since then, 400,000 sq metres in midtown Manhattan have been pedestrianised. Norwegian architects Snøhetta are making Gehl’s pilot a permanent reality as Times Square’s transformation completes next year.
Pilot studies are effective tools to demonstrate theories. São Paulo is rich in architectural heritage, but since the end of the dictatorship in the 1980s, its high-rise development has rocketed and sprawled, with little planning. As traditional businesses move to the skyscrapers, the urban fabric is often neglected. After local workshops, Gehl conducted experiments on four main roads and squares testing how people used the spaces. They converted a parking lot into a playground, added temporary bike racks and benches, and coloured zones on the road to identify routes. Results showed that these small interventions had social impacts: fewer accidents, less jaywalking, more recreation, and — Gehl’s measure of a safe city — more young and elderly out and about.
Giving urban space back to people does not always suit developers who, Søholt says, tend to work with square-metre calculations “and deal with life and strategy later”. In Lille, France, Gehl’s challenge is to tackle this. “Euralille”, the booming 1990s business district with vast buildings and high-speed rail, is a product of an ambitious masterplan. But it neglects the street-level human scale. Gehl’s work — ongoing since 2013 — aims to knit together areas divided by the railway tracks, and activate the in-between spaces.
By contrast, his work in North America tends to focus on open sprawl more than dense, high-rise development. At present they are working on what they call “mid-sized-towns” — Charlotte, Columbus and Lexington in Kentucky — which have spread-out centres with poor quality public space and significant social segregation. The survey is in process: defining key destinations (residents are covering maps with Post-it notes identifying “great buildings”, “best views”, “green areas”); examining the ease of transit from one to the next; and making simple improvements to the street network to increase walkability, and therefore health and wellbeing.
When asked by a minister in 2011 to “health check” Moscow, Gehl found heritage squares marooned by traffic. Cars had overtaken the streets — 93 per cent of the riverfront was a highway.
So what should be done about cars in general? The answer may not be total exclusion, but an approach to curb them, with fewer lanes, improved routes, wider footways, and subterranean car parks.
The space in between buildings is also crucial to Gehl’s work. He describes ineffective public squares as “carpets” in front of buildings, as opposed to areas where people can interact.
Big culprits are mid-century modernist housing estates. Rosengård in Malmo, Sweden, for example, is disconnected from the city by dual carriageways. Gehl’s study found that the “no-man’s-land” between buildings had poor lighting, nowhere to sit, tunnels of wind and a high crime rate. Working with residents from 2009, Gehl Architects addressed the estate from eye level: they improved lighting, created terraces and gardens in areas with evening sun, used bike sheds to shelter courtyards, resurfaced the landscape, and redefined routes through the estate. By giving people a sense of ownership of shared spaces, crime has been reduced and recreational activity has risen by 60 per cent. No one is claiming deprived estates can change overnight. What Gehl shows is that his flexible framework of tests and participation can encourage sustainable progress.
When I ask Gehl about his thoughts on London he is critical — and perhaps justifiably, since the firm conducted a thorough survey in 2004, little of which has been carried further. Gehl suggests this is due to a lack of local governing power. Søholt believes London suffers from a reluctance to do anything unless it is perfect, for fear of disturbing what she calls the “political beehive”.
London’s recent cycling deaths have provoked fury. After Moira Gemmill’s death in April a vigil — dubbed a “die in” — was held by 400 cyclists lying in the road at Lambeth Bridge junction. Safe cycling in London is unlikely to be solved by “cycle superhighways”, as they won’t change the way we think about sharing the road. In Copenhagen, by contrast, cycling is integrated into the street’s fabric, with pedestrians and cars, and clever measures such as a “median” lane in the middle of the road and traffic lights for cyclists. Gehl recently led a study on the cycle highways in Odense, Denmark, which found that women still preferred to cycle on ordinary streets at night because they thought they were safer than these highways. In his view, real change requires mental as well as physical engagement.
Easy to say but is it easy to do? Evidently not. Next time you are sitting in a traffic jam spare a thought for Gehl and these attempts to recapture our cities.
If the days of ordinary gas-guzzling cars are numbered, how will commuters get to work? One idea is Autolib’, Paris’s electric car share scheme, writes Claudia Knowles. Operators Bolloré hope to introduce thousands of battery-powered cars to London by 2018, with Los Angeles and Indianapolis to follow. A Bolloré spokesman suggests the scheme could prove popular among young people for commuting and — as has reportedly happened in Paris — “making love”.
Less romantic, perhaps, yet no less eco-friendly, are Terra Motors’ electric rickshaws, which are being developed for the Asian market.
But what if roads themselves begin to disappear? If pavements stretch further and wider, demand for car-free options may grow. Parents could opt for the wheelbarrow-esque cargo bike, for example, a school-run favourite in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Or those nostalgic for the days of roller disco could sport a pair of Cardiff Skates over their work shoes, a Californian design that comes with four “speed-control discs” for all skating occasions.
Then there are skateboards, of course. Increasingly, skaters are flocking to Barcelona, in particular, where the beachfront, stretching from the centre to thedistricte de la innovació, provides the perfect runway.
Futuristic alternatives are also at hand. The Walking Bicycle combines a cross trainer with an oversized scooter, while the Solowheel’s gyroscopic self-balance mechanism allows the frame to be disposed of altogether to create an electric, seatless unicycle. Two-wheeled versions have appeared on the market as Hovertrax, made by Solowheel, and Dutch-crafted Oxboards.
The architects who kickstarted the transformation of Times Square - FT.com