Cities for People


Review by Philip Langdon

New Urban Network

By Jan Gehl; Island Press, 2010, 283 pp., $49.50 hardcover

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk,” declared the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. “Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

That quotation provides an apt beginning for Cities for People, a wise and instructive new book from a fellow Dane, the eminent urban designer Jan Gehl. Gehl, in a long career consulting for cities all over the world, has specialized in creating places in which people are happy to walk — and bike and spend time in public spaces.

Cities for People brings together much of what Gehl has learned about how to make cities lively, safe, and healthy. With more than 400 color photos and a clear, direct style of writing, the book is an excellent guide for those who are just starting to learn about urban design and for experienced practitioners as well.

Gehl, a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and founding partner of Gehl Architects — Urban Quality Consultants, sorts outdoor activities into two categories: the necessary (going to work, waiting for the bus, delivering goods) and the optional (walking for pleasure, hanging out in a public square, etc.). In any country with an advanced economy, “necessary activities” are rarely enough to activate public spaces throughout the day and evening. Optional activities — things that people choose to do for emotional, aesthetic, recreational, or spiritual satisfaction — are the keys to making a modern city hum with life.

Copenhagen, which Gehl has influenced through research and consultation, is a model in that regard. Despite a chilly northern climate and a metropolitan population of less than 2 million, the Danish capital has managed to fill its squares and make its sidewalk cafes thrive. It has achieved one of the world’s highest bicycle-commuter rates; 37 percent of workers in Copenhagen bike to their jobs — more than the number that get there by car (31 percent).

The biggest mistake in creating public spaces is to make them too large, Gehl says. His motto: “When in doubt, leave some meters (yards) out.” By way of analogy, he cites a rule from landscape professor Sven-Ingvar Andersson: If you’re expecting 100 students for a lecture, find a room that seats only 50. “The room will fill up quickly, and everyone will think that this must be an important lecture indeed since so many people have turned up. … The atmosphere is concentrated and expectations are high. The distance between lecturer and students is as modest as possible during the lecture itself, making the experience more intense for everyone.”

That rule has often been disregarded by modernist designers, who tend to make buildings and public spaces that are too large for the sensory apparatus of human beings. Gehl has meticulously studied the senses. Cities for People presents illustrations showing that although we can see a person more than 300 feet away, “the experience only becomes interesting and exciting at a distance of less than 10 meters/33 feet, and preferably at even closer ranges where can use all our senses.”

The senses at close range

It is only when people or buildings or other objects are within 7.5 yards that “all of the senses can be used, all details experienced and the most intense feelings exchanged,” Gehl explains. Thus, buildings that are tall add little to urban livability. Human beings are not naturally inclined to look up, he observes, and even when they do, they can’t get much enjoyment out of what they see above about 44 feet.

Above five stories, Gehl elaborates, “Details cannot be seen, people on the ground can neither be recognized nor contacted. Above the fifth floor, offices and housing should logically be the province of air-traffic authorities. At any rate, they no longer belong to the city.”

Many people assume that residential towers are good for urban life because they concentrate more people in a given area, magnifying its liveliness. Gehl disagrees: “In fact, we often see that poorly planned high density actually obstructs the establishment of good city space, thus quenching life in the city. The high-rise buildings of downtown Sydney produce ”dark, noisy streets with strong gusty winds,” he points out. Manhattan has “many examples of skyscraper clusters with dark, unattractive streets at their base.”

The Greenwich and Soho sections of New York are much closer to the ideal. These two areas achieve relatively high density, but “the buildings are lower so the sun reaches into the tree-lined streets — and there is life,” Gehl says. “Reasonable density and good quality city space are almost always preferable to areas with higher density, which often specifically inhibits the creation of attractive city space.”

Besides, he notes, “people on the top floors — of apartments as well as workplaces — venture into the city less often than those who live and work in the lower four to five floors.” The atmosphere of the sidewalks is disproportionately the result of people in ground-floor units. If a design gives ground-floor residents comfortable semiprivate space in front of their units, the area will likely end up feeling well-populated. It will humanize the environment and put more “eyes on the street.”

This is a book packed with useful specifics. Gehl demonstrates the importance of getting things right at ground-floor level. He explains how to create “soft edges,” which “signal to people that a city is welcoming.” He discusses rhythm on the street, and calls for narrow units along the sidewalks, with plenty of doors and vertical relief. He recommends an “active ground-floor policy,” which impels businesses to have windows, doors, and a degree of transparency in their first-floor facades.

If Cities for People is widely read and widely applied, the world’s urban life will be immeasurably better.