Time to reclaim the streets

Illustration: Gehl Architects

Gehl Architects discuss some ideas for the future of the City in this month’s Monocle magazine. If you subscribe to Monocle you can read it here:


In our ever-urbanizing world it is essential to be both idealistic and pragmatic about how we choose to live. If we’re to make our cities healthy, happy and resource-efficient then we must recalibrate the measures used by practitioners to focus more on quality of life: we should invert the space given to  cars for people.

The framework for this is already in place. In 2011 the UN pronounced a draft resolution on sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces – stating it is a basic human right.  This timely decree happened just days before the right was exercised by citizens everywhere from Cairo to Wall Street. Communities took position of places like Tahir square in Cairo and Pearl traffic Island in Bahrain.

If you looked beyond the politics and the violence, what you could see was cities around the world usually full of cars – that were now full of people. Whilst we understand these as acts of defiance, and displays of symbolic solidarity against the incumbent order – physically  they had also reclaimed the streets from a different insidious order, that of the predominance of the motorcar over the human.

According to a 2009 report (WHO,2009) more people are killed on the road each day than die from Aids, TB or Malaria. Globally in 2004 it was the leading cause of death amongst 15-29 year olds and the second amongst 5-14 year olds. The draft UN resolution begins the necessary legislative process against this skewed order taking a tight grip of cities around the world. In Jeddah sidewalks have become a dumping ground for building waste, developers in some Indian residential developments are not bothering to even build sidewalks at all and in Moscow pedestrians are increasingly forced underground into confusing, extensive underground networks as traffic speeds by above. Whilst people seek out their political rights in the public spaces around the world let us not forget their human right to open space, to walk and be free in the city.

This phenomenon is something I have been studying for many years. In 2007, Gehl Architects undertook an important study of Flushing Main Street in New York City. We found that 97,000 pedestrians walk along Main Street every day, but they are squeezed into only 30 percent of the street space. Some 56,000 motorists have access to 70 percent of the street space.

My contention is that this allocation of space should be reversed. In future we should set targets for investments in cities based on the number people that investment will positively affect. This is especially relevant in emerging economies. Take, for instance the city of Chennai in India where 45 percent of all daily transit trips are by foot or bicycle, yet investment in sidewalks and bike lanes comprise less than three percent of all infrastructures. This stands in contrast to highway investment, which comprises 39 percent of all investment but serves only 23 percent of all the daily trips in the city.

Planning more widely should be optimistic and lead with positive frameworks for what you can do, not bureaucratic legal jargon about what you can’t do. Architects should be asking not what your city can do for your building design, but what your building design can do for the city. With regards to how buildings touch the street, disallow any new commercial building that doesn’t have active thresholds facing the city or contribute in another way to the urban realm by providing some sort of public amenities.


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