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.