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Urban habitats

Creating spaces for people

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Prof. Jan Gehl, architect, urban design expert & founder of Gehl Architects, about urban habitats and good places for people.

Prof. Jan Gehl | © Sandra Henningson/Gehl Architects

Prof. Jan Gehl | © Sandra Henningson/Gehl Architects

As a world-renowned architect and expert in urban design and public spaces, can you share what motivated you to become an architect?

That’s a great question, because becoming an architect was actually a coincidence for me. I was in a boys‘ school, which was during the postwar generation, and all twenty people in my class went straight into university, and five years later they were finished. They were very dedicated, no questions asked, just doing. I was going to become an engineer, but then, at the last moment, some university students from various professions came to speak to us. There was an architect, and I thought, "gee, this sounds more fun than engineering, I will go for that." Then I went to the School of Architecture. There were no architects in my family, and no arts either. I had never heard the word "architect" before, it was first introduced to me in the school of architecture. I rushed through and was finished at the age of 23. Then, I went out to do all this modernism, and then I got married. It was in the 60s, I finished in 1960 and married in '61. That was the time when there was a very big expansion in the cities. The agricultural areas were mechanized, and there was a lot of left-over agricultural workers who were going to the city where all the industries were blooming and needed workers. There was a fantastic migration to the cities, and there was an enormous housing shortage. They had enormous programs of mass-producing Plattenbau.

Just like in the 19th century with the first industrial revolution.

Gründerzeit, yes. After the war, the 60s were a period of growth, expansion, good economy, high Konjunktur, and a lot of things were happening. In the middle of all this, and that's a beautiful story, I was very interested in history. I actually trained as an architect for restoring churches, medieval churches. I had a background of digging in Greece, in ruins in Delphi, and studying historical settlements in the old colonial days in Greenland. So, I was mostly making new churches and repairing old churches. Then in the little office I was working in, a Christian man came in who had a big piece of land in one of the cities of Denmark which had just been slated for urban development. He wanted something in his land that was “good for people, not the usual crap”, no single-family housing, no Plattenbau, no modernistic blocks, but something good for people. He thought because we made so many churches, we must be good Christians, so we would know. Of course, we first said, “Everything architects do is good for people,” but then he answered “not quite.” I went home to my wife and said, "Do you know what's good for people?" and then we realized that nobody knew anything for real. We started to guess, and in the end, we made this project which was never built, actually because it was too progressive. It was made up of clusters of small rowhouses around squares. We thought that a square was good for people. Then my wife and I got money to go to Italy, because I wanted to study why it was so good in Italy and what Italians did in their squares and streets. We went to Italy for half a year with money from Carlsberg brewery, and we used the money to conduct research and to drink Chianti (laughs).

When was this?

This took place in '65 when we travelled, and in '66 we wrote our first articles. It is believed to be the first time that the words "men" and "people" were mentioned in an architecture magazine. My wife was then hired by the Danish Building Research Institute to study housing, while I was accepted to the university to continue my studies on "Life between buildings". We found that all the patterns we observed in Italy were also present in Den- mark, but due to the colder climate, it was less frequent and for a shorter period of time. This made it easier to study and was also more of a tradition in Italy, although it was the same phenomenon. Later, when I began to conduct research, I had the opportunity to present it to William Hollingsworth “Holly” Whyte in New York, who had done a lot of research in New York and believed that whatever he had discovered was unique to New York behaviour. "Look at what people do on New York street corners!" – "Yes, I've seen that before, that's universal behaviour." We realised that it was highly universal, that we were studying homo sapiens in their environment. I have a good one-liner for you, for the magazine, it's a quote from the mayor of Bogotá in Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa. He said, "It's a paradox that human beings know so much about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers and whales, and we know so little about good urban habitat for homo sapiens."

Cities were always made up of spaces for life.

Prof. Jan Gehl
Gehl Architects

At what point did we lose this knowledge or did we ignore this knowledge on purpose?

Sometimes I say that the good old days went from a long time back to 1933. Then, the modernists created the Charter of Athens for city planning, stating that living, working, recreation and communication should never be put together, but should be kept separate. The city should be a machine, and traditional cities should not be built. We should not focus on spaces, but focus on objects. This was very well-received by the architects because then they didn’t have to think about anything but their own building; you can put objects wherever you like to because context doesn’t matter anymore. Then came all the star architects, and the only way to compete was to make something more ridiculous.

In the old days, the buildings were more or less anonymous, and you could only add a little more detail here or there. The distinctive feature of all the cultures was that cities were always made up of spaces for life, such as the agora and the streets. When we look at Giambattista Nolli’s map of Rome from 1748, all these spaces make up the city. When we think of an old city like Cologne, we remember all the streets and all the squares, but we can only name three buildings: the cathedral, the town hall and one more.

But when we think of Dubai, we can’t recall spaces because there are no spaces, it’s all leftover space, but we can mention six or ten funny buildings. It is made out of funny buildings. So, today, they start by designing the building, and then call in the landscape architect to do some landscaping, and then look out the window to see if there is some life. In the old days, they started with life and said, “This is a good place for a market.” First, what life will it be? We need a market square, and then the buildings walked out to the streets where the people were moving. Farmers came and sold their goods, and after 200 years, they started to make a tent, and after 400 years, they started to build a little house, and then a bigger house, and then the street was invented. The street started as a linear movement, made by feet, the market started as a thing in the city where things which needed space could happen like markets, processions, executions, coronations of kings. All these squares were 100 x 100 meters because that’s how far you could see, so if they were bigger, you could not see to the other end.

Copenhagen has become a role model for urbanism and urban planning and getting life back into streets. How difficult was it for you to initiate this process in the 1960s or 1970s? What did you do to convince municipalities to change their attitude?

As a person of advanced age, I have had time to reflect on this matter. When I published my first book, "Life Between Buildings", I emphasized that life between buildings is just as import- ant as life within buildings, and the way we build significantly impacts it. The main chapter of the first volume was about the art of constructing streets, which modernism had lost, and we had to learn it again. We began influencing this approach, particularly in Copenhagen, when I was employed at the university after touring Italy and writing articles. We now realize that in the last 50 years, three places in the world have studied the relationship between built form and life, and they are the centers of these kinds of studies: New York, with Jane Jacobs, William “Holly” Whyte, and the Project for Public Spaces; Berkeley, with Donald Appleyard, Christopher Alexander, Clare Cooper Marcus, Allan Jacobs, and Peter Bosselmann; and Copenhagen.

The difference between Copenhagen and these other places was that we used Copenhagen from the very beginning to conduct our research. Every time a street was closed, we studied what happened, and every five years, we reviewed the entire project and proved that giving more space to people attracted more people. Whenever they removed a parking lot, two more people would come and sit. We discovered that adding precisely 14 square meters for staying activities – people who are not walking but resting – made a difference. We published our findings regularly, making it the first study in the world of life in the city. Later, I had the opportunity to be a visiting professor at Berkeley, and I discovered that they were far more thorough in their research, but no one was using it. This was completely different from the research we conducted in Copenhagen because we knew that everyone in Denmark knew each other. I knew all the politicians, the mayor, and all the city planners were my students, and we all read the same books. The city became very interested in what we were doing, and they started asking us to do more research on specific topics. Eventually, they came to us and asked, "What should we do next?" We gradually gained significant influence on the way people thought in the Copenhagen city hall and the city as a whole. They were reassured in their decision-making by the fact that more people were present and that they were happier.

In Germany, the main focus is on the automobile industry. However, what can we learn from Denmark in this regard?

Even Sweden has its own car industry, as do many other countries. Denmark, on the other hand, has recently shown some foresight by investing in wind power and green technologies. They have decided to increase the number of wind turbines in the North Sea tenfold, which has created around 100,000 new jobs.

This is an area of development that we in Germany have not focused on, as we have a strong automobile industry but lack the natural resources for wind power. I see this as a problem, and it's impressive to see how Denmark has made a concerted effort to transition towards a greener economy and mobility.

I believe that we need to focus on moving ourselves around more, and not rely solely on cars or other motorized vehicles. While electric bicycles are a step in the right direction, they don't help with the issue of a sedentary lifestyle. Scooters and other such vehicles only serve to perpetuate the dominance of the automobile industry. As we get older, we face a shared challenge of finding ways to stay active and mobile, while also enjoying our surroundings. It's important to strike a balance between natural spaces and areas where people congregate, such as shops and public spaces.

What is your perspective on creating good housing to address the challenges that come with urban growth, demographic and climate change?

My core message of "making good places for people" is inherently sustainable. This involves prioritizing the creation of quality places and reducing the need for mobility as much as possible, such as implementing the concept of "15-minute cities". If we had a good subway system and bicycles, we would have solved many of our problems, without any need for cars. There are plenty of smarter transportation options we can explore to reduce our reliance on outdated technology.

When discussing housing, I often refer to two distinct types of housing being developed. The first, which I call "hotel housing", focuses on providing a comfortable place to sleep and a view from the window. The other, which I refer to as a "good place to live", is suitable for all seasons, phases of life, and circumstances, where one can live with children, pets, or even with physical limitations such as a broken leg. The difference between the two lies in the fact that the latter provides a pleasant living environment in addition to comfortable flats. We are working hard to understand that neighbourhoods and areas for living are more important than flats for sleeping. Nowadays, there is a growing interest in co-housing, particularly among elderly people. We refer to it as plus 50 co-housing, where people who are around 50 or 60 form a commune where they have small individual spaces, as well as shared facilities such as a swimming pool, a winter garden, and go on holidays together, enabling them to have an active and fulfilling old age. Additionally, more people are becoming interested in what they are doing in Freiburg-Vauban, with housing communities where a group of people have some autonomy in decision-making. I believe this is a fascinating development.

Thank you for this wonderful conversation.

My core message of ‘making good places for people’ is inherently sustainable.

Prof. Jan Gehl
Gehl Architects


Prof. Jan Gehl | © Gehl Architects

Prof. Jan Gehl | © Gehl Architects

is a practising urban planning consultant and professor emeritus of urban planning at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has researched the form and use of public spaces in depth and put his findings into practice in numerous places around the world. His com- pany Gehl Architects – Urban Quality Consultants creatively designs new ideas for how communities use public space. For Gehl, design always begins with an analysis of the spaces between buildings. Only when you have a vision of what kind of public life is desired in a particular space can you look at the surrounding buildings and the possibilities for productive interaction between spaces.


Csilla Letay