Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cities for People - not Cars

I went to the first of two public talks by Jan Gehl, a leading Danish urban planner, last evening. It was immensely satisfying to be part of a crowd of 500 people applauding Jan Gehl as he advocating designing cities for people not cars.

Cities were originally created as a place where people could meet and sell their goods. They were also transportation hubs, but the focus was on people. But in the ‘50s, cities were invaded by cars, and city planning revolved around moving cars from Point A to Point B. Sidewalks were unnecessary; parts of Miami have no streetlights because cars don’t need them. Too bad if you want to walk your dog or jog. You can walk in the mall from 8-10 every morning.

Gehl’s home town of Copenhagen, like a handful of other cities around the world, have chosen to return their cities to people. In 1962, 18 of Copenhagen’s town squares were being used as parking lots; they are now all spaces for people to sit and talk and watch the world go by. They have outdoor restaurant seating for 7000. Copenhagen has a problem with traffic congestion, but it’s in the bicycle lanes as 36% of residents cycle to work (as opposed to 26% in cars).

And everyone rides their bikes. Gehl’s mother in law was still cycling at 82. Gehl and his wife celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary by cycling to town for a nice meal and then cycling home again – a round trip of 19.8 kilometres.

Gehl also encouraged Saskatonians to stop being afraid of winter. Hold an outdoor Christmas market; set up a skating rink; encourage restaurants to provide heaters and blankets to extend the patio season. He urged us not to follow Calgary’s example by building tunnels and walkways to escape the cold for a couple of months but are then stuck inside when the sun is shining and the weather is warm.

For someone who loves to walk, to people watch in the park or sip a beer on an outdoor patio, Gehl’s words were music to my ears.


Jen said...

Sounds amazing! Then I guess I would just work from home and would never have to go anywhere! Sounds good to me :o)

John B. said...

Alas, North American towns are just not habitable without a car to get around. I always wonder when I am in the US or Canada what happens to people who cannot drive.

Cities there are just office blocks where people go to work by public transport or perhaps by car to a car park and at the end of the day people go home to life with a car.

I have friends: he is Australian and she Canadian. They have chosen to live in England close to the mediaeval centre of the ancient town of Shrewsbury.

I asked why so when they were both used to space of which there is little in England, now one of the world's most densely populated countries and where it is hard to get out of sight of a house.

The answer was that they felt it was a community. They make a point of walking to the market with a pull 'Grannie' trolley to buy their needs. He walks to work and is now an elected local Councillor. They feel for such reasons part of a community.

Having said that I note their neighbours in their new suburban type development are all car orientated and the adjoining school chokes the road with cars carrying the pupils to and from.

European towns were built for people to walk. Few could afford to ride a horse. Therefore the towns became choked with traffic and parked cars but pedestrianisation has now become increasingly common.

The result? The development in England of out of town shopping centres despite the staggering difficulty of obtaining zoning consent and of paying exorbitant land prices. Market towns based on retail trade thus decay.

We all mourn the passing of the hardware store where not only did the owner have every sort of obscure fitting in stock but would explain how to use it. The store has gone in favour of the out of town giant hardware store where you can park but have to decide yourself which is correct fitting for your job.

Look up Kohler, Wisconsin and its history. Kohler was an early attempt to deal with these problems. Not room to do expound more here.