Jan Gehl on the Politics of Transforming Cities

Advancing the politics of public transportation and public spaces is not easy. Danish architect Jan Gehl and his firm Gehl Architects, however, have a track record of success with cities around the world.

September 28, 2016, 5:00 AM PDT

By Lily Song


Jan Gehl and his team worked with the city of Melbourne in 1993, taking inspiration the grand boulevards of Paris and the communal squares of Rome to remake the public experience of the city. | OPIS Zagreb / Shutterstock

Jan Gehl, the prize-winning Danish architect and urban designer, recently spoke at the Harvard Graduate School of Design with researchers and planning faculty affiliated with the "Transforming Urban Transport: the Role of Political Leadership" (TUT-POL) project. Supported by the Volvo Research and Education Foundations (VREF) and hosted at the Harvard Graduate School of Design under the direction of Professor Diane Davis, the project seeks to advance knowledge of how, when, and where political leadership has been critical to the successful implementation of path-breaking transportation policies.

Gehl, whose research and ideas about the form and use of public spaces have shaped hundreds of cities around the world, spent the visit discussing the role of politics and governance as well as related strategies and tactics in the successful implementation of path-breaking urban policies and projects. The following excerpts from Gehl's visit have been edited for clarity and organized by theme:

Across cities set in different types of democracies, the personal factor is very strong in bringing about transformative urban changes.

My book New City Spaces talks about nine cities that have really turned things around, and in nearly all of the cases, it started with some centrally placed person or torchbearer who had a vision. It might have been the mayor of Curitiba, the longstanding director of urban design and city design in Melbourne, or the mayor in Strasbourg. In Copenhagen, the city architect, city engineer, and mayor worked together, and in Portland it was more or less the Greens winning the election in 1968. It could come from the bottom or above, but very seldom did it grow out of the day-to-day administration of the cities. It was often a force from the outside, or a new officer or a new politician.

Gehl Architects get invited to cities because they agree with the firm's mission.

It's never a fight. They have a plan to make a better city. They find an expert from very far away and people might listen. In New York, Bloomberg had his plan, and we came into the picture because we might be useful in giving some information, which he could use to persuade people. In Sydney, the mayor brought me in to go between the state of New South Wales, which ran transport, and the city of Sydney, which wanted a nice city that was sustainable, healthy, and good for people. After a while, I was called the Danish icebreaker.

People have always been the strongest supporters of cities, and politicians answer to them.

I talk about the kinds of things and situations that every person in the community can recognize and identify with. People have always been the strongest supporters of cities. They have children who walk to school and can see right away that a certain type of city is better than the one that exists. If people start to have an idea and then turn to NGOs and start to have some influence, then the politicians are very quick to listen. Thank god for the ordinary citizens and for democracy where the politicians listen to the people.

Centralized governance structures can enhance urban policy innovation, while diffuse systems of urban governance can result in policy impasse.

Moscow has the most efficient democracy in the sense of producing the most amazing turnaround in just three years. The president of Russia issued a decree that all Russian cities, to become worthy of the great nation, required the mayors to put their heads together. While all of the mayors were eager to show initiative, the Moscow mayor was one of the most successful. He has a very strong position as the mayor of 15 million people and possesses a lot of authority. He asked us to come up with a blueprint and has followed it carefully

On the other hand, London made next to nothing of our proposals. Ken Livingston said he would carry out this thing to the letter. A few minutes later, it was Boris Johnson saying anything having to do with Ken Livingston was not so interesting. Furthermore, the mayor of London is not strong—he has 32 boroughs, and each of them have their own policy. Some want to go west and some want to go east, and they can yell and scream at the mayor's office to go that way, but the individual borough always wins. So nothing much has happened there.

Public support and engagement can promote policy and program sustenance in democratic contexts amidst political competition and turnover.

There's really a genuine interest in Australia in a number of the issues we talk about including the green and health issues, and also livability and a little of an inferiority complex where they want to be better than in other parts of the world, because they are so far away. In Adelaide, we were to present our findings at 3 pm in a little room for 200 people. Then they looked out the window and saw 500 people, and when they looked out again a while later, they saw over 1,000 people, who wanted to hear about the future of the city and how to make a better city. So they set out doing the work right away. The other party could take over and might not continue all of their ideas, but they would have to do some.

Supplementing policies of change with public relations and engagement strategies can enhance their salience and acceptance.

In Sydney, every time they do anything, they put up posters saying, "this is our policy; you voted for it," which I think is a very smart thing to do. While putting up bike lanes or doing a parking initiative, they will also run a political campaign that emphasizes the bigger, long-term goal of climate improvement.

Emphasize the positives of change policies, not what is taken away.

Copenhagen spent 50 years improving the city in ways that complicated driving, all the while selling the positives. As the changes unfolded gradually, they emphasized what was given to the city and not what was taken from the motorists, which is a very important difference. They didn't sell on the basis of reducing roads or parking spaces but rather creating more beautiful places to live and enjoy. I always say that my work is not anti-car but pro-people and sometimes there have been side effects.

Sometimes you have a lot of historic architecture to work with and other times you build new spaces that bring people together.

The work can be easier in places like Prague and Edinburgh, where the urban fabric is made for people and we clean up after the cars. But we also have ample examples from colonial cities—Australian cities included—that share the story of wide streets but manage to turn the cities around. Melbourne is a colonial city, which had no squares, but then created the best square in Australia from scratch and then created several more to become one of the most livable cities in the world. As far as I'm concerned, pre-planned colonial cities can certainly achieve miracles.

Don't take away St. Mark's Square because it has a problem with pigeons. Regulate its uses, again and again.

After the public space improvement in Times Square, a lot of the street entertainers came, and some, like the ladies with the painted flags, made certain groups, like the religious people, unhappy. All cities go through this. If you have too many pigeons on St. Marks Square, do you take St. Mark's Square away, or do you take the pigeons away? If you do away with St. Mark's Square, it is gone forever, but the pigeons will come back, and you have to chase them again. We know that you have to regulate, and you have to regulate a number of things, whether it's the noise from cafes, what time they close at night, how many street vendors you can have here or there, or how many street orchestras you can have standing permanently on one corner. Then, three to six years later, it's the same again, and you regulate. It's like a school, or like any place with people. Things develop, and you gently organize it.

Don't stop public space improvements because they worsen gentrification. Differentiate and do follow-up interventions.

I think that we have to make city districts as best as we ever can, and then we will have to do something with the policy to combat gentrification by ensuring that a certain amount of the housing is made available by affordable pricing. One of the reasons why more people with children stay in an area is because now the children can move about, and it's a good place for children when it didn't use to be that way. And then the prices go up because more people want to stay there and it becomes an "in" place. But the politicians will have to solve this problem in other ways than taking away the sidewalks so that little children cannot walk to school.

Town and gown symbiosis can advance urban transformations.

Copenhagen is very much a product of the university and the city working together for 40 years. I happened to be in the school of architecture and observing and studying people in the middle of the city where they had started to pedestrianize streets. When we published our findings, the city planners expressed great interest, so we conducted more studies, the whole time not getting paid. With each study, they got more fired up, asking what we knew before we even had results. After a while, the city began to pay for our studies. Then they began using our methodology of learning as much about the life in the city as we know about the cars and the traffic, which shortly became part of the city operation.

Data collection and analysis methods on how people use the city can act like strong medicine for politicians and planners to make public space improvements.

When I retired as professor, the mayor sent me a letter saying that the politicians wouldn't have dared to make Copenhagen the most livable city without our documentation of how people used the city. Being able to document how people use the city in exactly the same way that traffic engineers document how the traffic works in a city has been a very strong strategy. The minute you have the data—the base study—you can ask questions about how things are vs. how they should be, make comparisons with other cities, and start a process of change. Five or ten years later, you can measure improvements—that there are more people in public spaces and that they are more happier—which pleases the politicians and sometimes motivates them to work harder and faster than without the data. In Copenhagen, we found that the data over 40 years time was like strong medicine, influencing the way the city is planned and how they talk about its public life. 

Lily Song is a Lecturer in Urban Planning and Design and Senior Research Associate with the TUT-POL project at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Her teaching and research focus on issues of urban sustainability, livability, and justice; race and class politics in American cities and postcolonial urban contexts; and community development. She holds a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning from MIT.

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