Jan Gehl, the guru of the Danish approach to urban design sometimes called “Copenhagenization,” has a new book out. It’s called "Cities for People," and it documents his half-century of work as a pioneer in the field of urban sustainability. Gehl started out in Copenhagen, a young architect well-schooled in the principles of modernist design who was goaded by his psychologist wife’s pointed question — “Why aren't you architects interested in people?” — to start examining the life on the street between the buildings.
This was at the peak of modernism’s aesthetic hegemony, the golden age of grand modernist model cities like Brasilia and Chandigarh, inspired by the soaring rhetoric of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus school. Architects were (and for the most part remain) obsessed primarily with form. People? They were line drawings to be included in the artist’s rendering of a big development to please the client; they were minor details in the big picture.
Swimming against the current of his day, Gehl started counting walkers and window shoppers and stoop sitters, people on bikes and seated at outdoor cafés. The quantitative tools he developed would come to redefine the urban planner’s work everywhere they were adopted — first in his native Copenhagen, then in a growing number of cities around the world. Gehl advised London on how to reimagine its downtown streets in the wake of its congestion charge, helped turn Melbourne, Australia, from empty, soulless “donut city” into the thriving cosmopolitan envy of the whole continent, did similar work in Oslo and Barcelona and Adelaide. Finally he came to the ultimate metropolis, New York, to count pedestrians on crowded sidewalks and scaffolds along Broadway and teach the city’s Department of Transportation how to build “complete streets” New York-style.
When Gehl lectures on his New York work, he begins with Robert Moses’ vision of the urban street as a soaring expressway, which very nearly turned Lower Manhattan upside down in the early 1960s. Here’s what Moses had planned for Greenwich Village and Soho and Little Italy and the rest:
This was Le Corbusier’s modernist dream writ large across one of America’s most storied urban landscapes. Elevated highways and high-rises would replace dirty, cramped, crime-ridden streets and ugly little vernacular shopfronts.
The opposition to Robert Moses, led by a young journalist named Jane Jacobs, was victorious in its efforts to stop Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway from gutting Greenwich Village, but much of his vision held sway across North America for the next several decades. Highways, office pods, glass cubes, swooping off-ramps, the outsized retail sprawl of what Jan Gehl calls “burger strips” (and, later, the mighty big box) — this became the norm. Downtowns emptied out, suburbs swallowed up wilderness and farmland, and the polyglot city street was replaced by broad curving roads, divided highways, multi-laned one-way traffic on downtown “commuter arteries.”
Now, with fuel prices soaring, city centers rediscovered, and the exurban bubble irrevocably popped, the “urban renewal” of Robert Moses is giving way to a new model of urban living, and its fundamental building block is the “complete street.”
In the Copenhagen model promulgated by Gehl, bike lanes are the centerpiece of a complete street, but complete streets are not just streets with bike lanes. They are streets reconfigured for a range of functions, with the safety and comfort of pedestrians given priority over the convenience of motorists for the first time in half a century.
In New York, the showpiece complete street project to date is Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, which was transformed in a few short months from a four-lane ersatz expressway of fast-moving one-way commuter traffic into a welcoming multi-use public space. There’s a smart new bike lane, yes, but also medians and pedestrian islands at intersections to make the street more welcoming to people on foot, street trees and planters, signage and lane paint to delineate plenty of space for people as well as cars.
Ninth Avenue joins a fast-growing list of streets across America and around the world that have embraced complete street design as a fast, affordable, efficient way to stitch sustainability back into the urban fabric. (You can browse the basic principles and an interactive map of projects at the National Complete Streets Coalition website.)
I could try to describe a complete street as a collection of design elements — sidewalk widths, medians, separated bike lanes café seats — but the best way to understand why the complete street is powerful is to watch one built from scratch. In a single weekend. By untrained volunteers. For less than a thousand bucks.
This is what happened last spring in the Oak Cliff neighborhood in Dallas. The video below tells the story more compellingly than I ever could:
Is there a bike lane on Oak Cliff’s “Better Block”? Yes. Was a group called Bike Friendly Oak Cliff a lead player in the project? Also yes. But as the video evidence shows, this was a story about people, community and public space, not an homage to cycling for its own sake.
This is the most important lesson of the Bike Lane Wars: they do not represent a fight between cars and bikes. That battle is merely a proxy in the collision between competing visions of urban life. In shorthand, there is the business-as-usual Moses approach on one end of the spectrum (streets as conduits for cars, single-use, big-boxed commuter suburbs ringing declining cities) and the multimodal, multiuse urban livability model championed by urbanists like Jan Gehl. As Gehl likes to say, one maximizes the happiness of motor vehicles, and the other maximizes the happiness of people.
Even if the age of cheap oil weren’t coming to end, even if tailpipes weren’t contributing to the fundamental alteration of the planet’s climate, this seems like an easy choice to me.
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