Danish architect Jan Gehl has issued a plea for town planning to be consistently oriented toward human needs. Over the past few decades, he has transformed Copenhagen into a model example of a city geared towards tangible human needs, which has since been copied all over the world.

Harald Willenbrock

Mr. Gehl, mayors and urban planners from around the world ask for your help as they seek solutions for improving quality of life. But it seems only very few can define what that really means?

Jan Gehl

There is one quite reliable indicator for the quality of life in a city: look around and see how many children and old people are out and about in its streets and squares.

Harald Willenbrock

Could you please elaborate?

Jan Gehl

The way I see it, a city is worth living in if it respects human scale. That means it runs at the pace of pedestrians and cyclists, not cars; that its streets and squares are of a manageable scale so that people can come together in them. That epitomises the basic concept of a city.

Harald Willenbrock

But why children and the elderly, in particular?

Jan Gehl

I was recently in Hanoi where I met a Vietnamese woman who had just returned from Denmark: “Has there been a baby boom in Denmark?” she asked. “Copenhagen is full of parents with pushchairs and five-year-olds on bicycles!” As it happens, there has not been a baby boom in Denmark–quite the opposite, actually. But as Copenhagen is so safe, we can let our children play on the streets. The same applies for the elderly–and as you know, their numbers keep rising. In Hanoi, the roads are quite simply too dangerous for them.

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Harald Willenbrock

What do architects and urban planners need to do in order to get the population back out on the streets?

Jan Gehl

That is easy to answer. They should plan their housing and cities for the people.

Harald Willenbrock

Is this not already the case?

Jan Gehl

No. Most new buildings and neighbourhoods don’t take the human scale into account. You can see this in their overinflated dimensions: buildings, streets and squares are getting bigger and bigger, while we–the people who use, appreciate and should feel comfortable in them–are as small as we ever were. This has resulted in cities which constantly seem to be whispering: “Go home my friend, as quickly as possible, and shut the door behind you!” This has damaging consequences.

Harald Willenbrock

What are these consequences?

Jan Gehl

Urban planning over the last half a century has cost thousands of lives, because it was centred on vehicle traffic and left people in a sort of permanent stupor. Today, more than a third of the U. S. population are overweight; inactivity is responsible for more deaths than tobacco. Conversely, the costs of healthcare are at their lowest in cities where the population is active. Walking 10,000 steps a day or engaging in some other form of exercise can help you live an extra seven years, on average.

Harald Willenbrock

Why do you think that cities were built with so little thought to their populations?

Jan Gehl

City planning in the last half-century has been dominated by two powerful paradigms …

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