Pedestrians and Urban Life: lessons from Copenhagen

kennymaticChris Turner, author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, writes on WorldChanging Canada about Danish architect Jan Gehl who focuses on the role of pedestrians in urban life in Copenhagen, Melbourne & The Reconquest of the City:

Mr. Gehl’s core message remains so simple it sounds almost like a proverb. It goes like this: “Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it.”

Urban sustainability rarely seems so straightforward, ensnarled as it is in thorny issues of land use and energy consumption, housing prices and unemployment rates, roads and transit lines, density and sprawl. In many of the world’s cities, however – North American cities in particular – there might be no single problem that encompasses them all as fully as the decision made after World War II to give top priority to the automobile in every urban quarter and under essentially every circumstance. And as Mr. Gehl’s clients are learning, there is no more economical or efficient way to begin sorting out this knot of problems than to simply restore people to their rightful place above cars in the urban hierarchy.

If the pedestrianization movement has a birthplace, it is Mr. Gehl’s hometown, the cozy Danish capital of Copenhagen. Regarded as recently as the 1950s as a dull provincial burgh, utterly overshadowed by dynamic metropolises like Paris and Rome, Copenhagen now routinely tops international quality of life rankings. …

The Strøget – downtown Copenhagen’s high street and the pedestrian network’s main artery – is Europe’s longest pedestrian thoroughfare, and most days it is a dense forest of marching feet. … Copenhagen’s lively inner city is a recent and deliberate phenomenon. And it started with a bold experiment similar to Montreal’s summer flirtation with pedestrianization. The Strøget had traditionally been closed to vehicles for two days each Christmas, but by the 1950s its narrow eleven-metre width was choked with two lanes of cars, trucks and buses every other day of the year. So was every other street in downtown Copenhagen, and the city’s stately old squares served mainly as parking lots. So in November 1962, half-disguised as an extended holiday closure, the Strøget went car-free for good.

The initiative immediately inspired widespread and often strident opposition, particularly from downtown merchants, who assumed that a permanently car-free Strøget would be their ruin. Other critics argued that the measure was simply un-Danish. We are Danes, not Italians, they argued. It’s too cold here and it rains too much. We like cozy meals at home, not outdoor cafes.

The fears proved unfounded – the Strøget soon boasted more shoppers, an explosion in café seating, and eventually a new kind of urban culture focused on outdoor public spaces. Building on the Strøget’s success, the network expanded piecemeal – another street and a few more squares emptied of cars in 1968, and again in 1973 and 1980 and 1992. From those first 15,800 square metres of the Strøget, Copenhagen’s pedestrian network has expanded to about 100,000 square metres.

The city also developed a unique set of empirical data to chart the pedestrian network’s impact. Starting in the early 1970s, Jan Gehl, an urban design professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, began to measure foot and bicycle traffic and the use of public space in Copenhagen for the first time ever. Mr. Gehl was soon joined by a colleague, Lars Gemzøe, and together they began to publish their findings every ten years.

One revealing statistic measured the steep growth in “stationary activities” in downtown Copenhagen – people seated at outdoor cafes or around the rims of fountains, people window-shopping or watching buskers. From 1968 to 1995, the average number of people so engaged on a summer afternoon had shot up 330 percent, an increase in magnitude vitually identical to the growth in the pedestrian network’s size.

Beyond the number-crunching, Mr. Gehl and Mr. Gemzøe also assembled overwhelming qualitative evidence of the success of Copenhagen’s pedestrian reconquest. Their 1996 study Public Spaces Public Life, for example, overflows with before-and-after photos of the city streets that look like they were shot in different universes. Each pair of pictures depicts the same radical transition: on the left, in black and white, a desultory 1950s-era parking lot; on the right, a modern full-colour scene of strolling shoppers and hustling foot-propelled commuters, market stalls and buskers and people seated in animated conversation.

“It became this very powerful empirical tool for kind of shifting the mindset of these very large political organizations,” says Jeff Risom, an urban designer at Gehl Architects.

Indeed so unprecedented were Mr. Gehl’s studies in the annals of urban design that they became his ticket to international prominence. Traffic engineers working in city halls the world over can tell you exactly how many cars zoom through every major intersection each day, the impact of another lane of traffic or the current demand for parking spaces. Few outside Copenhagen, however, have ever counted the traffic on a single sidewalk.

“We need to make pedestrians visible in planning,” says Mr. Gemzøe. “All the problems of vehicle traffic are well known and you’d never dream of changing anything in the public space without knowing how it conflicts with that. But you have no information about people.”

“The secret to our strategy has been incrementalism,” says Mr. Adams [director of Melbourne’s urban design department]. “We’ve got about 200 things running at once. You know, improving the footpaths [sidewalks], planting trees, signage, furniture, widening the footpaths, bringing pedestrians back in – it’s a sort of broad strategy of slow improvement.”

For more on Gehl and Copenhagen see Metropolis Magazine and the Project for Public Spaces.

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