Tag Archives: Gehl Architects


Last week Gehl Architects once again visited China to follow up on new and old projects together with our local partner the China Sustainable Cities Program at The Energy Foundation.

The visit offered great discussions on how to develop a guideline for the harbor in Shanghai, as well as workshops on our non-motorized mobility project in Changning and the opportunity to further develop the pedestrian network in Chongqing with a new Public Space Plan covering 3 km2 in the hearth of the city.

Capacity was built on both sides of the table and hopefully it will result in more people oriented projects in the Chinese cities.


Many modern societies are addicted to speed.  A hurry virus has taken over our lives.  Time pressure is now a serious health issue, linked with stress, depression, lack of physical activity and obesity.  We eat fast food to save time, yet still don’t have enough time for regular exercise.

A common response to time pressure is to go faster, particularly as motorists.  Yet a reliance on cars as a fast mode of transport has literally stolen our money, time and health.  The more we rely on ‘time-saving’ machines such as cars, the more time we lose.  The following anecdote illustrates this paradox.

Imagine you live in a village in the 18th century, where your job each day is to collect a bucket of water from the river.  This takes an hour each day.  To ‘save time’ you build a machine to fetch the water.  However, to make the machine work, you need to spend two hours winding up a spring. 

In modern cities, the equivalent for comparisons sake of ‘winding up the spring’ is the time we spend at work earning the money to pay for all our transport costs.  For pedestrians, this time is virtually nil.  For cyclists it is minimal.  For car drivers, the time spent earning the money to pay for all the costs of cars is usually much greater than the time spent driving.  As Ivan Illich explained in Energy and Equity (1974), the typical American driver devotes 1,600 hours to their car, to travel 7,500 miles.  That’s less than 5 miles per hour.  As speed increases, so does the cost.  When we drive faster to save time, the few seconds we save will cost us much more than that in the time needed to pay for the extra fuel, wear and tear on the car, and stress on ourselves.  Paradoxically, slowing down will reduce time pressure, which itself is a major benefit for our health.

In cities where the active modes of transport are the main modes, people spend less time travelling than in cities where cars are the dominant form of travel.  This is not only because bicycles can be faster than cars in congested traffic.  Even when people travel faster in cars than on trams or bicycles, this speed is not used to save time.  Instead the increased speed leads to longer travel distances as the city spreads out and as local shops, schools and post offices close.  Car-dominated cities pay for their higher speeds with more time spent travelling.  Attempts to boost car speeds are futile, as increased speed leads to higher costs (e.g. in new roads) which in turn requires more time to earn the money to pay for these costs.

Over the long term, a switch from cars to active modes of transport will save huge amounts of money and time, for both individuals and cities.  By choosing not to own a car, an average income earner could have a shorter work week, or retire 10 to 15 years earlier.  Through more walking, cycling and use of public transport, years of active healthy life are also extended.

Read more:

Tranter, P. 2010, Speed kills: The complex links between transport, lack of time and urban health, Journal of Urban Health, 87(2), 155-165.

Tranter, P. 2012, Effective speed:  Cycling because it’s “faster”, Chapter 4 in Pucher, J. and Buehler, R. (Eds) City Cycling, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Thirty people from the office went to the opening and saw the exhibit for the first time together

My first book Life Between Buildings was published 41 years ago.  Yet today in 2012 the book, and people oriented planning principles embodied in it continues to be much in demand.  I’m delighted and humbled by the staying power of these planning principles which is most recently exemplified by the great international interest in my latest book Cities for People. Already by 2012 this book will be published in 10 languages and a number of new versions are lined up for 2013.

Yet despite this praise and continued interest in the people oriented planning principles, places, districts and entire cities continue to be developed without any reference to principles along these lines.  This is not an issue of negligence, but of neglect. For over the past 50 years, none of those entrusted with building cities – neither architects, planners nor engineers – have been trained to focus  on looking after the needs of people.  The growing interest in my work from numerous professions and disciplines attests to the fact that this is thankfully changing.  There appears to be a genuine and powerful trend of politicians, technocrats and citizens alike beginning to demand that Cities become more liveable, safer,  healthier, and indeed more sustainable.

It is a great joy for me to see these timeless principles for caring for the life in the cities presented in a new format (animated film) and in a new context joining several Scandinavian colleagues at the New Nordic Architecture Exhibit at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, North of Copenhagen.  The principles illustrated at Louisiana are very much the same today as they were many years ago. People are still people.

The film is in-the-round and divided into three sections, life, mobility and scale

It is equally a joy for me to see Gehl Architects continue to evolve these guiding core values and principles to many different types of projects and scales of intervention.  Working with partners around the world, this young, energetic and stubbornly optimistic team work to tailor and contextualize design, planning and research that builds upon the foundation established during the many years of research and dialogues.  This team is actively engaging in dialogue around the world with colleagues, clients and collaborators to add layers of meaning and new possibilities for application of these core values.  In doing so, Gehl Architects, as the other design practices featured in the Loisianna exhibit, continue to build upon a wider Nordic tradition for architecture and design that is rooted in a fundamental care and appreciation for the human being.

As we progress through the 21st century, I’m confident that the continued dedication of a new generation of city makers – from economists to social scientists to architects to business owners and politicians – that care for the city from a human centered perspective of the Nordic tradition will ensure that the cities  of tomorrow will be much better for people than the cities of today.

In 2011, The Economist named Melbourne  the world’s most liveable city. In many circles this was celebrated as the culmination of two and a half decades of investment in the quality of Melbourne’s centre – particularly the amenity provided in the public realm. But this is not a fair reflection of the reality. The Australian and Canadian Cities that consistently top The Economist’s liveability indexes do so in large part due to their suburban densities, the very suburbs that are the focus of increasing criticism on environmental and public health grounds. The rural/urban dichotomy does not adequately describe the modern city.  As we edit our cities to prepare them for the 21st century, the last thing we should be doing is glossing over the form, the fabric that generates the differences, for comparison’s sake.

There are in fact two Melbournes: Greater Melbourne and the City of Melbourne. Greater Melbourne is the full extent of the Melbourne Metropolitan Region with a built-up area of around 2,152 km² and a population over 3.4 million. It can take two hours to drive across. This region is what The Economist bases its liveability survey on. The City of Melbourne is a small municipality within Greater Melbourne with a population of 100,000 in an area of just 37.6 km². It is the commercial hub of the region and can be cycled across in 30 minutes. The City of Melbourne has been celebrated for innovative urban design while Greater Melbourne has been criticised for suburban sprawl. 73% of residents of Greater Melbourne live in detached, single-family dwellings compared to 77% who live in apartments in the City of Melbourne. In this way, two distinct patterns of habitation are described by the same moniker: Melbourne.

The trumpets have sounded and the critics have heralded mankind’s passage into an age of cities, with more than 50% of the world’s population now ‘urban’. Indeed, The London School of Economics has declared the beginning of the Urban Age. But is it too soon? Or as Malu Byrne in the NYT suggests, is it too late, and the young creative class is fleeing cities in search of affordability. In Melbourne’s case, is it right to label a predominantly suburban agglomeration (defined by a flexible administrative boundary) a city? Or is it the case, in fact, that we need a better definition of what constitutes a city, particularly when we discuss quality of life, sustainability and health in relation to urban form?

Suburban densities of the kind found in Greater Melbourne (1,567 ppl/km²) and many western cities are the subject of intensifying criticism for their environmental impact, exposure to increasing oil prices, congestion and over-representation in lifestyle disease statistics. These statistics are often embedded in an administrative boundary that describes both suburban and urban conditions, just as The Economist’s quality of life data is. The endemic lack of articulation has resulted in situations such as people leaving cities to pursue a ‘healthy lifestyle’ in the suburbs – when studies have shown they should do the opposite. Likewise, when we say the majority of the world’s carbon emissions come from cities this is misleading – they come from the suburbs (of cities).

A better definition

What if we took the rural/urban definition and added a third category: suburban. In Australia it may work like this: According to The Economist, 89.1% of Australians lived in urban areas in 2011. But if we include 2006 Australian Census Data for housing typology a different picture emerges:

11% of Australians lived in rural houses (rural)

67% of Australians lived in detached houses (suburban).

22% of Australians lived in apartments and attached houses (urban )

Australia is not in an Urban Age, nor is most of the Western world, and most of the cities that top the quality of life indices (Vienna is a notable exception worthy of further study) – the same cities that have some of the highest per capita carbon emissions and obesity rates in the world. We have declared globally that it is the beginning of the ‘Urban Age’, romanticizing humanity’s migration towards the cause and panacea of its problems: the city. In fact, many western cities are in a Suburban Age where large, detached, single-family homes are considered a birth-right. As liveability, health and sustainability merge, it will become increasingly evident just how suburban the world’s most liveable ‘cities’ actually are.  One of the great architectural challenges of our age will be urbanising suburbia. Another will be convincing developing countries what first world cities have experienced first-hand – that cities built for cars are less successful than those planned around pedestrians. Liveability data should be carefully studied before it is used for anything other than what it was intended: a tool for remuneration. Until we link urban form with quality of life in a more robust way it will be difficult to argue that sustainability, liveability, health, connectivity and competitiveness are one and the same – as many of us already feel to be the case. Meanwhile, we can celebrate Melbourne, the world’s most liveable suburb.

Further Reading: Urban does not necessarily mean central city, as this article by Christopher B. Leinberger of the Brookings Institute explores.

Gehl Institute bloggers are Simon Goddard, Claire Mookerjee, Jo Posselt and Jeff Risom

Swanston Street, Melbourne. Melbourne is one of the featured case studies in the Gehl Architects component of the exhibit. Photo credit City of Melbourne

Gehl Architects are featured in an circular video component for Louisiana (Danish Museum of Modern Art) that is part of their summer exhibition entitled ‘ New Nordic Architecture’ which opens today and will run through until October 21st.

Part of the ‘Reconquering of public space’ section of the exhibit, our component is comprised of three themes vital to urban quality– Life, Mobility and Scale. The content for each theme is based on the principles established by Jan Gehl and continually evolved by Gehl Architects to the many different types of projects and scales of intervention.

Each theme features two example case studies of exemplary city transformation projects that Gehl Architects have either contributed to – or others that we admire and deliver extraordinary quality.

Cities include:

Life – Melbourne, Australia and New York City, USA

Mobility – Bogota, Colombia and Copenhagen, Denmark

Scale – Malmo, Sweden and Chongqing, China

Over the course of the next few months we will be exploring these themes in more detail as we invite colleagues, collaborators clients and all readers of this blog to engage in dialogue. A parallel exhibit will be featured at the Venice Biennale beginning in August, so if you can’t make it to Denmark, then maybe Italy is a possibility? There will be many opportunities to contribute and we invite you all to do so.

Read more here

In the first installment of this series we discussed how data in cities can give visibility to values that were previously neglected or misunderstood. Here we will look at the city of Copenhagen and see how people- focused-data, people-first values have become embedded in the administration and institutionalised in the city over the last 40 years.  These, amongst other factors contribute to Copenhagen as one of the most liveable cities in the world (according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, and Monocle Livability indices).

The city of Copenhagen actually has a municipal department specifically for city life. In addition to the typical departments of planning, transportation and parks, the social life of the city, the human dimension of creating the conditions to encourage public life have also been allocated resources and a budget. Beginning already in the 1960s, people-first strategies began to be embedded in the governance of the city, and institutionalised at different levels. It was a movement, critically not of one individual’s political vision but a generation of politicians, planners, and citizens supported in-part, by the collected data to shape their vision by Prof Jan Gehl and Prof Lars Gemzoe.  The department now has the ambition that by 2015 80% of Copenhageners will be satisfied with the opportunities in the city to participate in public life.

This data has proved very important in the evolution of Copenhagen as a people-first city. Professor Gehl’s research has shown politicians on both sides of the aisle that careful investments in the public realm result in consistent increase in the vitality of public life. Prof Gehl and his students carried on doing these surveys of Copenhagen every 10 years, demonstrating the changes and advocating further change based on how the city was performing for people. This process of continual measuring, evaluating and creating new targets has embedded the values of a people first city at every level. A cycle account is published every two years and initially unsuccessful or unpopular projects are tested, refined and adjusted allowing the city to be courageous, to fail and learn from their mistakes.  Using these methods it is possible for all political parties to evaluate projects successes and failures from a common city for people perspective.

The culture this foments is evident in the streets and in how people engage with the city. If you wish to have an event in the city or start a business the municipality tries to help you – there’s even a special button on the website to press should you encounter any difficulties. Rather than acting in the negative as an imposing authority, the city seeks to act in ways that respond to needs with an intelligent and open attitude. Confronted with the problem of pizza boxes over-flowing out of the bins near a popular pizza restaurant along the newly renovated Søndre Boulevard, , rather than putting up signs saying ‘No Pizza Boxes!’, the city designed bins with an extra-large pizza sized slat to accommodate them.

Before and after changes made along Kompagnistræde, Copenahgen


The methods Gehl used to collect data were simply readings of the city from ‘eye-level’, which was a very important aspect of the data he generated. Rather than being another specialised data set, belonging to one silo of abstract knowledge Gehl’s research could be understood by all who lived in as well as acted on the city making it easily understandable in decision making discussion. Birgitte Svarre the co-author of the forthcoming title with Jan Gehl, How to study public life (working title), comments that ‘data that can evaluate projects can engender politicians with a qualified base from which to talk…..they can measure the success of projects and create momentum for asserted change’.

But what can we learn about this methodology and the way it has become embedded in municipality and culture of Copenhagen in light of Open Data?  As the European data forum 2012 came to a close in Copenhagen yesterday we reflected on the sheer amount of data that will be available in the coming years, both about the physical space, the hardware of the city collected by sensors but also digital fingerprints of our social behaviour, the software through social media, ecommerce and search engines. So many new opportunities are on the horizon from better informed mobility choices, to entrepreneurial opportunities in the exciting whole new sector being labelled the ‘data economy’.

However – if ‘empiricism will always confirm the status quo’ , it falls to us to make sure that as it becomes possible to measure, generate and collect more data, we have clear eyes as to what values drive the work, and whose interests it serves. We must be careful of not merely making correlations between that which is easy to compare, measuring the interaction between hardware and software of the city will continue to be difficult. And of course, we must remember to inject imagination into the political debate around city living. We want people to dare to dream, through projects such as Sustainia in Denmark- a collaborative imagining of what the sustainable future city might be. If data is the ‘raw material of the 21st century’ it will surely have a key role in its shaping, but we must be weary of a data determinism – to face the immense challenges of our urbanising world we must also be inspired.

Gehl Institute bloggers are Simon Goddard, Claire Mookerjee, Jo Posselt and Jeff Risom

Late last year we asked Hugh Nicholson, Head of Urban Design for Christchurch City Council, to reflect on his personal experiences of the earthquake and the significance of the recovery plan. This is the second of two blog entries where we present his answers to the questions we asked him, together with photos we took while working on site.

Q2: Could you describe what a ‘recovery plan’ is and what the process of producing one has meant for Christchurch?

A: A recovery plan is both a vision for what the rebuilt city will be like and the tools or projects that will take it along the path to recovery.  It provides a programme of infrastructure repair, public investment and transitional projects to stimulate recovery and provides a framework for private investment including incentives and regulation.  The Christchurch City Council was required to prepare a recovery plan for the central city in nine months by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act.  We delivered it to the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister in eight months.  We had a team of more than sixty people working on the Plan in the drafting stages. The team included Council staff and a number of external consultants including Gehl Architects.

One of the most inspiring parts of the project was the public engagement through Share an Idea.   We included a weekend long public expo with exhibitions, public speakers, virtual tours of the red zone, and a great interactive website where people could see their ideas alongside everybody elses.  Check out Share an Idea.  It generated 106,000 ideas and themes and gave us a powerful community vision to underpin the Plan.

Papawai Otakaro

 Q3: Which project from the plan are you most looking forward to implementing?

As the design leader for the development of the Central City Plan I have been focused on maintaining the overall coherence of the Plan and integrating the wide range of projects to best enable recovery – so of course I am most looking forward to delivering the whole recovery plan…but I do have my favourite projects of course. 

  • Papawai Otakaro, the new Avon River park will be a new waterfront for the people of Christchurch and offers the opportunity to weave new values, both ecological and indigenous through the central city.   A ‘green’ bridge over the Avon will provide a centre-piece for the park.
  • The new metro-sports facility offers the chance to develop a range of sporting facilities in a sporting precinct and celebrate Christchurch’s proud sporting culture.
  • A redeveloped hospital will offer modern high quality healthcare in safe and resilient buildings in case Christchurch ever has to face another disaster like this one.

Late last year we asked Hugh Nicholson, Head of Urban Design for Christchurch City Council, to reflect on his personal experiences of the earthquake and the significance of the recovery plan. Over two blog entries we will present his answers to the questions we asked him, together with photos we took while working on site.

Gehl asked: Hugh, what did the earthquake mean to you personally?

A: People often say what a ‘great opportunity’ it must be to redesign a city but it comes at a great cost.  It’s hard to describe the fear and loss of security when the ground you are standing on shakes and tears the city apart around you, not once but five times with more than 7,000 smaller aftershocks.  My house has collapsed and we do not know yet whether we can rebuild on our land.  In my neighbourhood approximately 20% of the houses are still occupied and many of our local shops and our local supermarket have been demolished. We have rented a house nearby but it has been damaged also with plywood covering broken windows, propped walls and cracked internal lining.  Of our six immediate neighbours two are still occupied, two are unoccupied and two have been demolished.  I have helped to demolish seven chimneys on various houses to make them safe.

We have been working out of temporary offices at the City Art Gallery which became the Emergency Operations Centre since the earthquakes. Working out of an art gallery sounds quite romantic but actually they don’t make very good offices – they don’t have windows in the galleries and this one was either too hot or too cold. The gallery was within the cordoned off central city for some time and we had to pass through several army checkpoints just to get to work. The ‘safe’ route in or out would sometimes change so quickly as dangerous buildings were identified that we would end up leaving the office by a different route than the one we arrived on that morning. Last week one of the local cafes which we had been frequenting for more than six months was closed and evacuated when engineers found that a neighbouring block of apartments was dangerously unstable.

More than half of the buildings in the Central Business District will be demolished. More than 6,000 houses cannot be rebuilt and whole communities will have to relocate and find new places to live.  Another 6,000 households including my family are waiting to find out whether we can rebuild.

My work has completely changed since the earthquakes.  Initially the urban design and heritage team were involved in the emergency response authorising the demolition or emergency repairs to heritage buildings as the search & rescue teams searched for bodies and tried to make areas safe.  Subsequently we started to think about recovery and have spent the last eight months preparing the Central Recovery City Plan Our work has been characterised by uncertainty and working in parallel.  There is never enough information to be sure you are making the right decision, and there is nobody who knows how to do it or what the answer is. We are always short of time and having to work in parallel in order to make progress.  The final geotechnical report confirming that it was possible to rebuild safely in the central city only arrived one week before we published the draft Central City Recovery Plan to be approved by the Minister.

Looking back I still wonder at the dedication and support of Gehl Architects and particularly David, Simon and Ewa who came halfway round the world to live and work in a natural disaster area and to help the people of Christchurch to develop a vision for what the city might look like as it rebuilds…

Next week we will present the other half of his response, considering the significance of the recovery plan.

As the year comes to a close, we wanted to share a short film highlighting our recent biking experiences in New York City!  Every other year we take a longer study tour, as part of our continuing education.  These tours contribute to a common reference of best practice and give us a chance to catch-up with friends and collaborators.

We thank Björn Olsson for letting us use this song ‘Göteborg’ , Rune Mielonen Grassov for post-production and last by not least David Byrne for being a great tour guide.

Happy Holidays from Gehl Architects

Make sure you have sound.

Gehl Architects have handed in our first Communication of Progress (COP) for the UN Global Compact initiative.

Launched in July 2000, the United Nations (UN) Global Compact is both a policy platform and a practical framework for companies that are committed to sustainability and responsible business practices.

Gehl Architects joined the UN Global Compact in 2008.

Read about our first COP on – The Danish Architecture Centre (in Danish only).


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