PlaNYC guru plays West Village; gig sold out

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A pedestrian plaza in the Meatpacking District. (Photo by Zac Frank.)
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Behind Michael Bloomberg’s long-term plan for the city is a Danish professor and urban planner named Jan Gehl, who for several years has been quietly, if not slowly, guiding the remaking of New York.

Gehl is a legend in his field. Events at the Center for Architecture in the West Village are always well-attended, but Wednesday night there were, among other signs of something remarkable, a line to get in the door that stretched halfway down the block, overflow seating on the first floor that would beam the lecture from the gallery two floors down, and reserved seating for the press, almost all of which was occupied. I was sitting on an aisle on the far side of the lecture space, which has high ceilings, angular white walls and a concrete floor, waiting for the event to begin when people began to file into the space between the block of chairs and the wall—standing-room only for a two-hour talk.

Gehl was hired by the Bloomberg administration in 2007 to help implement PlaNYC, but public credit for the city’s efforts to increase bike traffic, among other initiatives, generally goes to Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. His presentation was a reminder that strategies the administration has used—like removing traffic lanes to discourage driving—are in significant part a product of his life’s work.

City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden and Sadik-Khan were there, as was the consular general of Denmark, Jarl Frijs-Madsen, and several other Danes, who were easily identifiable by their height, thin frames, strong jaws, and unusually elegant hand gestures.

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Burden, looking typically impeccable in a pale aqua dress with a zipper slash pocket, made an introduction by praising Gehl’s vision of planning a city from the perspective of the pedestrian on the street.

“We used to say we plan at the scale of Robert Moses, but we judge ourselves by the standard of Jane Jacobs,” she said. “That’s not really true anymore. We judge ourselves now by Jan Gehl’s standard.”

She welcomed Sadik-Khan to the podium. (Both Burden and Sadik-Khan referred to each other several times during their introductions, in particular to their joint attendance at parties that Gehl has thrown and their trip to Copenhagen together.) The transportation commissioner, whose pro-bicycle initiatives have made her a kind of folk hero for a certain set, even nationally, wore a fitted black suit with shiny stripes down the legs and a blazer that tied with a string in the front. She is very thin, with brown hair that frames her face.

Gehl has been an “important partner” for years in implementing PlaNYC and engineering “World Class Streets,” Sadik-Khan said, referring to a report released in 2008. “He’s become an ambassador for New York.”

The occasion for Gehl’s appearance at the event, organized by the American Institute of Architects, was the release of his newest book, Cities for People, which spells out the theories he has been working with for decades, but with proofs, in the form of extensive research. It’s being released in English, Danish and Chinese.

(Sadik-Kahn has a blurb on the back cover of the book, which probably says more about her than it does about him.)

Gehl is a smart-looking man who appears younger than his age. (He turns 77 today.) He wore a black suit with a black shirt, a crimson-embroidered-on-crimson tie and rimless eyeglasses. By way of introduction he said, with a heavy but highly functional Danish accent, that he was “honored” to be there and “humbled” that everyone in the room had come to see him.

“A good city is like a good party,” he began, “you stay for longer than you plan.”

With slides that identified the parts of streets as “optional activities,” “necessary activities,” “public urban spaces/pedestrian streets/traffic calming,” and “car invasion,” he recounted how he came to think in those terms.

“I married a psychologist,” he said; her friends at some point asked him “why architects don’t do anything for people.” He gestured to a slide of a skyscraper.

His architect colleagues, he came to believe after some thought, had “started building buildings” without really building cities. Cities used to be more organic, and buildings tended to be built next to each other, not individually, beginning with “garden cities,” complexes of high rises where “everyone can see the garden,” he said. “And later the parking lot.”

He referred to Jane Jacobs as an originally “lonely voice,” and to “Robert Moses and his boys,” who “filled the streets wall-to-wall with traffic,” which more or less clarified his position on what he is interested in emphasizing in New York.

Gehl's first book, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, published in 1971, is considered a seminal work in urban planning; it went against some of the dominant ideas about planning at the time, and its emphasis on public spaces and fewer cars reflected the ideas of the New Urbanism and the theories that cities around the world are now implementing after decades of car-dominated planning.

It's the “Brasilia Syndrome,” he said, referring to the capital of Brazil, which was built from a master plan in the late ‘50s. “It looked fantastic from a airplane,”  but “at ground level, it was shit.” Gehl said much the same thing about Dubai, where he felt as if he were at “an exhibition of perfume bottles.” (He also showed a slide of Atlantic Yards, which drew audible approval.)

Gehl called the authors of these developments “birdshit architects,” because they are “planning from high above and dropping their things down.” Building towers, he said, makes “a collection of towers." The prospectus drawings are filled with “happy people” milling about and carrying out “unspecified” public activities.

Architecture should be about the “interaction between form and life,” which is the approach he has taken in Copenhagan, where his influence has been enormous and which has changed drastically over the last decades to become a place where most people commute by bicycle, and where public space is a priority. Forty years ago, Gehl said, “people said, ‘We are Danes, we are not Italians, we will never promenade. Plus the weather is bad.’”

“We have eliminated the winter in 40 years,” Gehl said, pulling up a slide of Danes on bicycles in the snow and another of smiling Danes at outdoor table wrapped in blankets provided by the cafe.

The four issues with which Gehl approaches city planning are liveliness, safety, environment and health. If people are walking or biking, he says, all four are accomplished, because there are crowds in the streets and places that cater to them, those crowds provide safety, reducing the use of cars improves air quality and environment, and of course walking is good for you. He pulled up a slide that showed a clip from a Danish newspaper with a photo of two very fat people and a caption that translated as “Houston: the city with the fattest people in the world.” He pulled up a photograph of a gym that provided escalators to get to the door.

“Walking is life itself,” he said.  Gehl believes if a city addresses walking, “everything else will follow.” Fewer cars provide better walking and, he said, “the level of traffic [in a city] is arbitrary.” In other words, more room for cars means more cars, and less room means fewer cars. In Seoul, Korea, the city ripped down a highway that had covered a river, built a park, and did nothing to compensate for the loss of the roadway. “The traffic found other things to do,” Gehl said.

In closing Gehl presented a series of slides illustrating the model of the New York he and the Bloomberg administration are building. New York is lively and there is lots of walking, of course, but not much space to rest, Gehl said, showing slides of the new Times Square and other areas that have, seemingly overnight, been turned from streets into spaces with chairs and tables and plants. The old traffic lanes have not been replaced by additional roads. New York has built more bike lanes in two years than Copenhagen has in 50 (of course New York has lots of streets to work with), and replaced numerous traffic lanes with pedestrian plazas. If asphalt is either torn up or turned over to bike lanes slowly enough, he said, people won’t even notice. (As anyone who has spent lots of time in the Flatiron can attest, lanes disappear overnight.) Weeks later, another one goes. There was lots of noise about closing Times Square to cars, but it’s died down.

There are small eruptions each time a traffic lane goes but they are far enough apart that the protests have yet to reach anything like critical mass. By not presenting a master plan, and instead building from the ground up, Gehl believes, despite resistance, that city dwellers can get what’s best for them. It’s a stealth campaign to do to the city what Gehl and Burden and Sadik-Khan believe is best.