Author Archives: gehl architects



The process of developing cities for people can flourish in various ways. In Lublin, Poland, they have nominated 2014 to be “Year of Jan Gehl”, and we are curious to follow the initiatives and the outcome. Follow the blog “2014 Rok Jana Gehla w Lublinie” to keep up with initiatives.

In November 2013, Jan Gehl sat down with Jakub Zasina from the University of Lodz for a conversation on what determines a ‘Livable City’. Have a look right here.

Active by Design, page 7

Active by Design, page 7

We have just received word that the Design Council in London have launched Active by Design, their new programme to design places for healthy lives. The first step in their launch is the release of their short guide publication, which you can browse through here. Gehl Architects is very happy to be included in the guide with our Brighton, New Road project!

Active by Design was created in response to the increasing health crisis affecting the UK. The intention is to promote the use of good design in buildings and spaces to encourage greater levels of daily physical activity and increase access to healthy and nutritious food.


Gehl Architects’ Public Space Public Life study of Oslo was made public today, March 24, 2014.
This ‘special feature #1′ aims to incite dialogue around the challenges and opportunities facing the public realm in Oslo and other cities.


Oslo Opera House, photo courtesy of Heather Josten

By Bonnie Fortune, freelance journalist
Facts and findings are based on Gehl Architects’ report
‘Bylivsundersøkelse Oslo sentrum’


“Oslo is a small city where everyone knows one another,” says landscape architect and project leader for Levende Oslo (Lively Oslo), Yngvar Hegrenes. Norway’s capital city on the Olso fjord recently commissioned a Public Space-Public Life (PSPL) survey that took over two years to complete, despite the city’s compact size. Hegrenes is responsible for commissioning the survey, stating that Oslo was interested in taking a fresh look at their city center with input from knowledgeable outside sources. Hegrenes worked closely with the Oslo municipality, community business owners and organizations, and Gehl Architects to complete the survey.

“We chose Gehl Architects for several reasons,” says Hegrenes. “We wanted their expertise and knowledge, built up over decades of work in cities around the world. We were also aware of the historical benefit of having Gehl Architects lead the survey.”

Oslo in 1987, when Jan Gehl  made the first registrations of public life in the centre of Oslo

Oslo in 1987, when Jan Gehl first registered public life in the city center

A PSPL done today is conducted in much the same low-tech fashion as when Jan Gehl, co-founder of Gehl Architects, developed the system in the 1960s. The first public life assessments were completed in Copenhagen, but Oslo bears the distinction of being the first city outside of Denmark where Gehl and his assistants counted people and mapped their activities to determine the quality of life in the city. That PSPL, completed in 1987, surveyed a much smaller radius in the Oslo city center than the newest PSPL, released to the public on Monday, March 24, 2014. This new PSPL surveyed forty-seven different points around Oslo, took place over three seasons (rather than the typical two), and also included a survey which collected opinions from around 1,000 people walking the Oslo streets.

Study areas

47 study areas were included in the PSPL for Oslo

“It was very important for us to include the voices and opinions of the people this time around,” says Hegrenes. That said, Hegrenes’s main role has been managing and negotiating with business interests in Oslo to make sure that their concerns are being heard as the city undergoes changes. Oslo is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. The population is expected to burgeon over 30% by 2030, according to Camilla van Deurs, Project Manager from Gehl on this PSPL survey.

A goal that is becoming more apparent after the completion of this PSPL is the need to merge the needs and wishes of a growing, young, and diverse population with the pressures from business interests who desire to maintain the current car focused culture in the city. Hegrenes and his colleagues are working to create an Oslo that looks to the fjord and prioritizes pedestrian traffic over automobile traffic. Both Hegrenes and van Deurs communicated that businesses should see that pedestrian traffic is statistically likely to bring in more customers. People come to the city to socialize and enjoy cultural activities. They visit shopping destinations incidentally, but because more pedestrians can move through an area in an hour than car traffic, more revenue is ultimately generated.

Hegrenes states,  “I think that we now know that we need to cooperate better, if we want to see more city life. City life is not only shopping, or going to bars, or drinking coffee. You have to give people other aims, other goals, in the city center. I think they [business owners] see more clearly now that the former regime, which focused on as much parking as possible, will never create any growth in the retail or business district. We have a need for the space to be put to better use.”

Eidsvolls Plass in Oslo

Eidsvolls Plass in Oslo

Hegrenes sees the PSPL as a key support tool for communicating the importance of improving public life in Oslo. In fact, he has already noticed improvements in the negotiations to reduce car traffic in the city.

Hegrenes knows that it is crucial for the city to become a city for pedestrians. Shifting away from car-centered planning is also seen as a critical security measure, a unique concern for this PSPL that arose in response to the tragic terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011, which killed seventy-seven people. One element of that two-part attack included a car bomb placed near government buildings in the city center. Assessing whether cities convey a feeling of safety via open spaces, good lighting, and foot traffic, have always been a criteria for a Gehl Architects led PSPL, but the attention to anti-terrorist security measures will be a first for the 2014 Oslo PSPL, says van Deurs.

Security mesarues

Security measures taken by the city of Oslo

Hegrenes remains positive with the completion of the survey process, as he settles in for the work required for improving the city he calls home. “I would say that city changes take time. That is more obvious after this report. You cannot just change people’s views and what they think about part of the city over night. This is something that you need to work on,” he concludes.

Interested to learn more? Read the report ’Bylivsundersøkelse Oslo Sentrum’ produced by Gehl Architects for Levende Oslo.



HarborPoint in Baltimore. (Graphic: ASG, Baltimore)


By Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, Baltimore USA.
President ArchPlan, Architect, urban designer, writer.
Blog: Community Architect with weekly articles about urban issues and architecture.

Although the linkage between land use and transportation is well understood, the debate about what is cause and effect causes consternation in the land use and transportation agencies.
Therefore, a few thoughts on urban transit and what it takes to do Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

Even in cities one can find plenty of areas that are not transit supportive.Often brand-new transit stations preside over a hole in the doughnut, when sitting in an old railroad, streetcar, or highway right-of-way.  Neighborhoods grow and shrink, shopping areas shift, attractions get added or abandoned, many reasons why transit supportive urban fabric is not necessarily located where transit is or is planned to be.

Development typically follows “the market”. No market and nothing will happen regardless how much somebody would like to fill a hole in the doughnut.

Baltimore has lost much of its industry and a third of its population. It has tried every transit technology: A subway line, a cheaper light rail line, commuter trains and a spaghetti bowl of bus lines. Now a new $2.6 billion cross-town Red Line light rail is planned, downtown in a tunnel, on the surface beyond. In short, transit stations galore, many of them in doughnut holes.

Seen from the development angle stations fall into two groups, those with a market and those in disinvested areas with no or little demand for new development. Given those fundamental differences it may feel illogical to call both areas “TOD challenged”. But neither absent development nor development without consideration for transit are TOD.

Nothing will change if transit agencies declare “we do transit and not land use” and city departments hide behind the walls of their core responsibilities like housing, parks, traffic, planning and economic development. To make TOD happen, it takes all these parties to interact with each other and bust out of their own comfort zones.

In Los Angeles then Mayor Villaraigosa realized this and directed an interdepartmental TOD Subcabinet (Report)


LA TOD, Meridian Village, South Pasadena
(Photo ArchPlan)

In Atlanta the Atlanta Beltline Inc. and the Beltline Partnership, both non profits, worked with a somewhat reversed priority: Trails and parks, have been created prior to transit creating value which spurred new development.

Beltline Map

Atlanta Beltline

In Minneapolis/St. Paul the Central Corridor and the Green Line light rail projects received a HUD Sustainable Communities grant to leverage community benefits (article) resulting in the Corridors of Opportunity. (Video)

In the Washington suburbs a Purple Line Corridor Coalition pursues similar goals for the planned circumferential light rail line connecting various metro terminals.

One of the granddaddies of successful TOD is Arlington County, VA which has used Washington’s Metro for decades to concentrate growth around the county’s subway stations. (slide show). Which brought smart growth to the county and more riders to transit than surface parking ever could.


Clarendon, Arlington County VA, TOD with retail, offices and housing

In Baltimore the state transit agency (MTA) and the city recognized the TOD challenge in a Red Line “Community Compact” for better communities. Land use improvements are required by the Federal Transit Administration for federal funding. In the spirit of these considerations the MTA conducted community based station area planning and the city created new TOD zoning. Yet, while bad regulations may prevent development, even the best regulations and visions will not make development happen. How to get from plans to actual TOD?

The Baltimore Community Compact names a few: Land banking, land disposition, public private partnerships and creative funding. Other steps would be development “freezes” (to prevent new non transit-supportive investments next to a station), facilitation with developers, and land owners to find out how they could be enticed to invest in high risk zones. This could mean scaling development so that several investors come out of the gate together instead of one early pioneer taking all the risk. It also means carefully leveraging public infrastructure investments. A mayoral TOD working group would not simply review developers submissions, but remove obstacles for investment.

Transit supportive land use is not only good transit, it  also grows the tax base and creates equity within communities, many starved for services and access to jobs. An obvious catalytic element in “market challenged” station areas would be good affordable housing.

To make catalytic projects reality, suitable development lots need to be assembled, master developers found, public private partnerships created and public assets leveraged. Assets can be land, entitlements, tax increment financing or bonds.

A proactive interagency group that goes beyond policy and regulation and focuses on implementation is needed to coordinate these steps.

Uneven markets, fear, false perceptions about transit, sentiments against density and years of auto oriented policies must be overcome, investment in the wrong places be made less attractive. In short: Each city needs the “entire village” before TOD visions can become reality.

Read the full-lenght article on the subject at Klaus Philipsen’s blog Community Architect


By Julia Suh
Architect ǀ Urban Strategist, Australia

Julia_SuhIn a suburb called Ilam, only 5 minutes’ drive away from the “red zone” in the earthquake-struck city of Christchurch, lives and works Richard Gardiner, a retired high school design teacher. His one-and-a-half-storey bungalow, built in 1927, was relatively unaffected by the earthquake. “We are very fortunate,” he said and took a moment to reflect before continuing. “We had no major structural damage to the house apart from the chimney. The day after the earthquake I climbed onto the roof to take down the remaining bits of chimney. A silly idea I realised afterwards, with all the relentless aftershocks!” he said. Gardiner set up his architectural model making business Scaled Down not long before the earthquake shattered the city on 22 February 2011. The disastrous event unexpectedly turned what began as a personal hobby into a full-time career. “I would say 75% of the commissions are from ordinary people wanting to keep something to remind themselves of their destroyed houses, and more importantly, the memories they built in them,” Gardiner said. With the opportunity for renewal also comes the tension of how much of our past we should hold onto.

Almost 3 years after the catastrophic day, standing in the midst of vast gravel fields of the Central Business District (CBD) where office buildings, hotels and restaurants once stood, I certainly have difficulty picturing what the city, my hometown since 1994, used to look like. As a high schooler in the mid-nineties, my usual hangouts were limited to friends’ houses, suburban malls and numerous neighbourhood parks, while taking the bus to “the city”, “the (Cathedral) Square” or “Hoyts on Moorehouse Ave” was a special and almost rebellious action. Not that there was anything particularly exciting in the CBD, but at least it was a good place to watch tourists with large cameras hanging from their necks, see who is winning the Giant Chess game and, sometimes, hear the Wizard speak nonsense – or the truth – from the top of a wooden ladder. At the end of the day, after what seemed like the longest 20 minutes of wait, I would be glad to be on the bus back to the comfort and safety of my suburban home.

When I turned 16, I had a weekend job in a souvenir store on Colombo Street. A short segment of Colombo Street to the south of the Cathedral Square was lined with restaurants and shops then, mainly serving foreign tourists, and in turn activating the otherwise quiet CBD. In the following decade, I would frequently visit my hometown from Auckland, New York or Sydney, and enjoy its slow-paced suburban life as well as urban renewal projects in the CBD: the Christchurch Tram reappeared after 41 years of absence, as a tourist attraction; the City Mall underwent significant facade and landscape upgrades to become more pedestrianised; public buses became better organised at a central bus interchange; and a new NZ$47.5M art gallery became a welcome addition to the arts precinct. All of them are now partly or completely closed due to post-earthquake repair works.

Skeletons of the Christchurch Cathedral remain for now.

Skeleton of the Christchurch Cathedral remains for now.

The site of former City Mall is cleared for new developments.

The site of former City Mall is cleared for new developments.

Some vacant lots have been turned into parking lots. They largely remain empty.

Some vacant lots have been turned into parking lots. They largely remain empty.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament awaits future demolition or restoration. In the meantime shipping containers support its edges.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament awaits future demolition or restoration. In the meantime shipping containers support its edges.

Now constant road works and the lack of amenities in the CBD are driving businesses to relocate to or start new in the suburbs, begging a question that needs to be asked: what characteristics do we intend our suburbs to have? While suburban malls like the Westfield in Riccarton have been busy around the clock with the loss of CBD, earthquake-displaced boutique stores were left with no place to go for a while. A recent redevelopment of a former tannery site in Woolston, rightfully called The Tannery, is already proving to be a success. The 1.8-hectare site is to house 70 tenants when completed, including a pilates studio, an art gallery, bars and shops. “No corporates. We only accept boutique retailers. Keep things nice and local,” Bruce, a project manager of The Tannery, said.

Julie, a manager at a home store called Cosi Fan Tutte, likes being able to stay close to her neighbourhood. “The earthquake changed everything from the way we shop and work, to the way we socialise. To be honest, I hardly used to spend much time in the CBD before the earthquake, apart from picking up a few things from Ballantynes (department store). And now, I never go there. The roads are bad, and there are more stores popping up in my neighbourhood. I shop here, work here, live here and socialise in friends’ homes. There is a stronger sense of community than before but I do miss live music – there aren’t that many places to go for entertainment,” Julie said.

Hornby, one of the damage-free suburbs, is also booming. Mitre 10, a giant hardware store, set up a mega store there following the earthquake. Next door, other big boxes selling things like curtains, paint and bikes followed suit. (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has wonderful mapping of rebuilding efforts including the current status of demolition/building works, population change, and “anchor projects” in the CBD.)

However, this unique opportunity to recast a vision for Christchurch must not look at the suburbs and CBD in isolation. Evan Smith, a community organiser of CanCERN (Canterbury Communities’ Earthquake Recovery Network), argues the city must be built upon “village values”. In the first instance the phrase scares me (and also reminds me of Howard’s diagram of The Three Magnets, where he advocates values of Town-Country). A city is not a collection of suburbs, it is not a village or a town. A city must aspire to innovation, culture, education, creative arts: it must be a hub that fosters congregation of people in an organised and accidental manner. I appreciate “Village values” interpreted as self-organising communities that help each other at times of needs or as a set of more independent infrastructure systems. I also don’t see the suburb as the devil in urban development – some folks like my parents enjoy living in their suburban house of 20 years with a large vegetable patch, two cars, and kind neighbours. However, the City of Christchurch must not go back to its past that had two separate entities: the CBD for working and suburbs for living.

While the city presents an ambitious vision for a new CBD with various specialties from Retail Precinct to Health Precinct, it is not clear, without residential or mixed use mapping, how these precincts will accommodate and foster vibrant city living. Cafes, restaurants and bars alone do not make public spaces vibrant; people do. The city centre needs to be a place for living, not just for working or socialising. In contrast to suburbs that can take on distinct, excluding characteristics over time, Christchurch Central Development is an opportunity for more diverse, walkable, mixed communities in the city centre. One that I hope, will encourage my parents to try out city-living as they reach their 70′s.

World Buskers' Festival takes place on the site of Re:START, CBD's transitional pedestrian mall.

World Buskers’ Festival takes place on the site of Re:START, CBD’s transitional pedestrian mall.

RAD Bikes is one of many community-led initiatives to activate the city centre. Everyone is welcome to use the workshop or seek help from a volunteer on duty to repair bikes.

RAD Bikes is one of many community-led initiatives to activate the city centre. Everyone is welcome to use the workshop or seek help from a volunteer on duty to repair bikes.

New bike lanes are encouraging residents to cycle more. The network is still far from complete, but it is a start. Check out the network map on Transport for Christchurch.

Read more on Julia Suh’s observations on city-living at her urban research blog Urbia.


TOOLS FOR CHANGE is a whirlwind of learning, talks, working sessions,
film screenings, city tours, and other surprises.

It is a great way for you to gather tools for creating better ‘cities for people’ and for
meeting and working with like-minded colleagues from all over the world.

In 2013, 25 international people joined us at our Copenhagen office.
We would be delighted if you could join us this summer!

DATE: June 18 – 19

PRICE: €1200 per person

It’s up to you to arrange and cover your travel and hotel stay.

Reserve your participation by February 7 by sending an email to




By Devon Paige Willis
Devon is doing a Masters program called 4Cities, an Erasmus Mundus Masters that takes students from Brussels to Vienna, Copenhagen and Madrid to study cities. Gehl Architects met her when she was interning at the Montréal Urban Ecology Center in 2013.


In September, I moved to Brussels for my studies. Before arriving I knew little about the Belgian (and de-facto European) capital besides what I learned when I visited in 2010 and what I heard from friends:  tasty waffles and fries, a strange statue of a boy peeing, two official languages and a good system of trams. I had been told it often rains and each time I told someone my Master’s program involves studying in four European cities, unequivocally Brussels prompted the least enthusiastic response.

It turns out that Brussels is an incredibly interesting city – the politics, the culture, the diversity and its interesting past make it great material for learning about cities. It is also a liveable kind of city; with everything an urbanite needs (although public transportation could be better: all transit ends by midnight during the week). However, there is one major problem:  the car culture.

The thing that hands down surprised me the most about Brussels is the number of cars and the sheer place devoted to automobiles in the city. Cycling in Brussels is challenging for several reasons (the hills, the cobblestone), not least the cars.  In fact, Brussels is arguably the most congested city in Europe.

This surprised me not only because of the stereotypes I had about European cities being from North America, but also because during my internship at the Montreal Urban Ecology Center last year we would often cite the progressive highway code in Belgium, which (it would seem) gives priority to the most vulnerable road users (pedestrians first and then cyclists). However, after five months in Brussels, it seems that at least in this Belgian city the code is not fully embraced – or enforced.

First, pedestrians are not given priority. At crosswalks they often they wait for cars to stop and often the cars do not. Distance between crosswalks exacerbates the problem as pedestrians choose to cut across to avoid long detours. In 2009, there were 88 deaths for every 1 million inhabitants in Belgium (compared to 43 in the Netherlands) and Brussels has the most traffic accidents of Belgium with 1000 accidents per million vehicle kilometers driven in 2010, in comparison to less than 500 in both Gent and Liège (CEESE – ULB et Transport & Mobility Leuven 2009).

The Atomium in Brussels

The Atomium in Brussels

Second, there are cars everywhere, even under the Atomium, which is something like the Eiffel Tower of Belgium. There are many parking lots in Brussels, including large lots in front of the town halls. Finally, there are even cars in the parks. One of the largest parks, Bois de la Cambre, is cross-crossed by roads, with few pedestrian crosswalks, forcing pedestrians to cross traffic to continue walking, running or cycling (although the roads at closed Friday to Sunday in the summer months).

In comparison, Amsterdam is a cyclists’ paradise. This came as no surprise, Amsterdam is known to be one of the most cyclable cities. However, I felt it all the more after living in Brussels.  Amsterdam is smaller and flatter than Brussels, which makes walking and cycling easier and more enjoyable, especially along the canals which give a romantic feeling to the city (Brussels also has a canal, but it remains largely industrial). The bicycle paths are extensive, connected and separated from traffic. Cyclists have priority, even over pedestrians it seems, as many times I had to stop to allow cyclists to pass as I walked in the centre.

Cycling in Amsterdam

Cycling in Amsterdam

In the four days I was walking around Amsterdam I only heard a car honk once, while in Brussels drivers honk habitually. In Brussels you must plan your trip by bicycle ahead of time to avoid congested roads and steep inclines, but in Amsterdam even as a tourist I was able to manoeuvre the city with little difficulty though it is true that pedestrians must be wary of oncoming bicycle traffic. I was even able to cycle outside the city, explore residential areas and make my way back to the centre thanks to a system signage along the bicycle path network.

The level of car usage and congestion is a problem for Brussels. So much that recently the mayor of Brussels commune, which is the city centre of the Brussels Capital Region, has talked about decreasing cars from the city centre, namely from Anspach, a large boulevard. The Netherlands do not have significantly less cars than Belgium (449 per 1000 inhabitants versus 471 in Belgium), yet car usage is visibly lower in the Netherlands. While there are challenges to shifting mode choice in Brussels – a car culture, a sprawling urban population, and a challenging topography – the city should move towards a less car-dependent model, as the current state of congestion, stressed drivers and vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists resembles more an American city than a city that wishes to be capital of Europe.

Following on from our Winter Activities posts, we received this fantastic (and real) story from Chicoutimi, Quebec in Canada. Thanks to Sylvie Pilotte for sharing.


Something strange happened in my city

A concrete bridge caught fire at minus 25 degree Celsius two weeks ago. Repairs were being done under one of the pillars of the bridge; the wooden scaffold that was used caught fire during the evening. As a result, the bridge had to be closed for two weeks. It has not reopened yet.

Fortunately, beside the 40 year old concrete bridge stands an 80 years old steel bridge that is solely used by pedestrians.


In the midst of a very unusual cold wave, temperature varying from minus 15 to minus 25 (minus forty with the wind factor), the citizens of Chicoutimi started walking…

This morning between 6AM and 8:30AM, we counted 3200 people crossing the one-kilometer long old steel bridge from the north shore to the south shore. We assume that maybe a thousand people were walking the opposite way.

The concrete bridge, «le pont Dubuc», supports an important traffic volume, 50 000 vehicles pass the bridge every day. With its closure we have to make a detour of 42 kilometres to reach the other side. That is the reason why the municipality decided to put in place an alternate transportation system to accommodate people who were willing to walk a little. The answer was amazing. I am flabbergasted by the response of my fellow citizens. Not only did they massively choose to walk and use the public transport system, which is free for the length of the crisis, but they also did it with joy and serenity.

So despite the fact that it can be quite problematic for certain aspect of the economy and quite difficult for certain individuals, this interlude in our normal life (it is supposed to end on Sunday) will remain for many a happy souvenir. The atmosphere on the bridge is joyous; we are sharing a new sense of community and the landscape around us is spectacular and we have time to admire it.

For two weeks, we have had a walkable city. As a landscape architect, an advocate of active transport and a true admirer of Jan Gehl’s principles, I can now prove to everybody around me that people in my city can walk too!


howtostudy3Planetizen has released its twelfth annual list of the ten best books in urban planning, design and development published in 2013, and we are happy that “How to Study Public Life” is represented among other interesting writings on the development of cities past, present, and future.

Have a look at the Planetizen list of ‘Top 10 Books for 2014

If you need more inspiration for readings in the new year, have a look at Planetizen’s list of ‘The 100 Best Books on City-Making Ever Written’



By Julia Suh
Freelance urban strategist and architect, Australia
Former guest lecturer at Hanoi Architectural University


“Em ơi!” called out the vendor when she caught my eyes examining her basket full of fresh baguettes. We exchanged glances, promptly followed by customary bargaining and transaction. She then swiftly disappeared to find her next customer. At sunrise, street vendors and shoppers in Hanoi’s Old Quarter begin signaling the start of a new day: red and blue plastic stools are laid out on the sidewalk to receive noodle soup seekers; megaphone-equipped metal carts make sure contained footwear does not go unnoticed; makeshift motorcycle-wash is quickly set up in the lane way marking its territory on dampened asphalt. Some mobile vendors nimbly move about on foot or by bicycle to deliver goods to their regulars, while others search for eyes lingering on their baskets of vegetables, fruits, snacks and flowers.

From each end of a bamboo pole pivoted on the vendor’s shoulder hang two baskets that delicately balance each other, forming an iconic image of Vietnam’s mobile street vendors. ‘Fixed’ vendors on the other hand, often with fast-food push carts, operate from sidewalks and lane ways serving patrons daily from the same spot. It is not unusual for ground-level eating houses to spill out onto the sidewalk with their mobile cooking facilities (cylindrical briquettes), food carts and plastic tables and stools, compensating for insufficient indoor space. I picked my favourite blue plastic stool facing St. Joseph’s Cathedral and sat for a while sipping Vietnamese iced tea under a striped awning. Later in the afternoon, an old lady with a baby in her arms would walk in as usual – the baby was passed around and entertained, until the lady decided she had enough chat for the day and took off. Some restaurants are more permanently equipped with a fixed kitchen, generously sized tables and comfortable chairs with backs, but curiously remain almost empty. Despite the fumes and noise from motorcycles zipping by, the locals’ preferred eating and drinking spots are still the sidewalk where food is cheap, space is flexible and people-watching is easy. The mask-wearing locals are certainly concerned about their polluted environment, however, coupled with inadequate public transport, Vietnam’s high motorcycle ownership in fact affords mobility and vibrant street life all over the city.

A woman delivers vegetables to eating houses early in the morning.

A woman delivers vegetables to eating houses early in the morning.

A mobile vendor comes around to sells snacks.

A mobile vendor comes around to sells snacks.

Sidewalks are promptly filled with informal workers providing services from shoe shine to motorcycle repairs.

Sidewalks are promptly filled with informal workers providing services from shoe shine to motorcycle repair.

A motorcycle-wash is set up on a quiet street.

A motorcycle-wash is set up on a quiet street.

'Fixed' vendors set up outdoor seating in the lane way. Lane ways are a typical feature of a tube house, and provide 1-2m wide access to a rear courtyard and houses.

‘Fixed’ vendors set up outdoor seating in the lane way. Lane ways are a typical feature of a tube house, and provide 1-2m wide access to rear courtyards and houses.

Eating houses provide plastic stools for eating and drinking outdoors.

Eating houses provide plastic stools for eating and drinking on the sidewalk.

Ground level activities in Hanoi’s Old Quarter are largely associated with its trading tradition. The city centre’s urban fabric is predominantly shaped by ‘tube houses’. The deep and narrow plot size is dictated by centuries-old tax law: the wider the street frontage, the more the property tax. The regulation has led to an urban fabric of 3-4 story mixed use apartments bordering the streets (some growing taller, despite recent height regulation enforcement), with wide open ground level shops, offices and eating houses. Living spaces on upper floors are connected by internal stairs, accommodating 2-3 generations of families. Even when the ground level is not used for a family business or rented out, its façade still opens wide onto the street, fitted with glass sliding doors and metal gates. It is used for motorbike parking, tea drinking, TV-watching, cooking and eating, and the doors are often left unlocked and open to welcome visitors, both planned and unplanned.

There is a strong sense of community here. Robbers, as daring as they may have been to enter the house, would have a hard time leaving unseen by neighbours or street vendors. Children often eat and play outside their houses, claiming the sidewalk as an extension of their play room. At different times of the day, children, mums, teens, grandparents, travelers, workers spontaneously gather in Hanoi’s small and big pockets of public spaces. As I start walking to my usual bus stop for work, I must be prepared to dodge flying shuttlecocks, weave through chatty crowds, and most importantly safeguard myself from accelerating motorcycles.

Tube houses are modified at the owner/residents' discretion.

Tube houses are modified at the owners/residents’ discretion.

Active street frontages of tube houses keep neighbourhoods safe and engaging.

Active street frontages of tube houses keep neighbourhoods safe and engaging.

A motorcyclist pauses to watch a good game of badminton in the city centre.

A motorcyclist pauses to watch a good game of badminton in the city centre.

School children spill out onto the few public spaces in the city after school. Badminton is very popular amongst the young and the old.

School children spill out onto the few public spaces in the city after school. Badminton is very popular amongst the young and the old.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake provides a much needed break for pedestrians in the city centre.

Hoàn Kiếm Lake provides a much needed break for pedestrians in the city centre.

A badminton court at Hoàn Kiếm Lake transforms into a dance floor on Saturday nights.

A badminton court at Hoàn Kiếm Lake transforms into a dance floor on Saturday nights.

Motorcyclists will drive on the sidewalk if that has a chance of saving time. A number of traffic lights are set up and several zebra crossings exist, but a typical driver will accelerate through intersections, park on the sidewalk and dismiss pedestrians. The city is occupied by an urban population of 6.5 million people with a rural mentality: individual desires are prioritised over long-term collective gain.

On the one hand, the motorcycle has empowered people to be more mobile, allowing mums to pick up their kids from school, students to get to school and traders to transport goods for sale. On the other, it has become the central dictating principle in Hanoi’s urban planning. A number of provinces and districts were merged into Hanoi’s metropolitan area a few years ago, tripling its land area. Many commute long distances daily using the most viable transport option: motorcycles are affordable, convenient, and fast. Cycling is unsafe and slow, while the only local public transport mode, the bus network, is disconnected, slow and overcrowded. Despite the cheap bus fare (about 25 cents per ride, regardless of distance) and reasonable frequency of buses, driving a motorcycle makes sense for most adults. “The newer the model the better of course,” my 20-something-year-old students in Hanoi said. “You look cooler if you have a cool motorcycle. A bicycle, not so much,” they added. With a new Bus Rapid Transit system and light rail underway, the city hopes to see a gradual decrease in the use of private motorised transport.

Trần Phú street is getting ready for a new elevated light rail.

Trần Phú street is getting ready for a new elevated light rail.

St. Joseph's Cathedral plaza mainly functions as a pick-up/drop-off area for motorcyclists and cabs.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral plaza mainly functions as a pick-up/drop-off area for motorcyclists and cabs.

Vietnam’s leaders seem to envision a new modern Hanoi without its poorer past. While informal sector workers are being driven out from parts of the Old Quarter, ambitious plans for New Towns and large-scale developments are on the rise. Singaporean, Japanese and Korean developers are responding to Hanoi’s demand for more private and exclusive neighbourhoods away from the city centre, best accessed by private cars. The new housing largely consists of quasi-European villas with backyards and parking space, and nondescript high rise apartments. Shopping is conveniently done at a nearby mall that offers everything from food to clothes. “You can safely assume the villa residents will have their own cars and maids. They may have another house in the city centre closer to work, and spend the weekend in the villa, away from the polluted, crowded city. Or sometimes, they just leave the villa vacant for years as an investment property. Either way, they want this European look,” said a local architect currently finishing a project at Vincom Village.

As the Vietnamese get richer and aspire to more spacious, car-oriented living, we will see less of the vibrant public life than that which currently keeps streets safe, active and engaging, and more of a monotonous, large and unoccupied cityscape. Perhaps today’s economic downturn is a golden opportunity to reconsider what modern Hanoi should look like. I would start by acknowledging the informal sector workers as part of the economy, and applying housing principles that are in line with 1,000 years of Hanoi’s vibrant history.

The first of 9 phases of Ecopark, a US$8.2 billion development, is now occupied. By 2020 the 500 ha of land will be complete with new gated villas, schools, hospitals, parks, gyms, shops and offices.

The first of 9 phases of Ecopark, a US$8.2 billion development, is now occupied. By 2020 the 500 ha of land will be complete with more gated villas, schools, hospitals, parks, gyms, shops and offices.

Read more on Julia Suh´s observations on dense Asian cities at her blog “Urbia


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