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An Alfresco chat with Jan Gehl

Every time we manage to snag an interview with Jan Gehl, it ends up being one of the coldest days of the Fall. But that didn't stop the Danish livable streets maestro from grabbing a table in New York City's new wonderful public space, Madison Square, to chat with Streetsblog's Editor-in-chief Aaron Naparstek.

It was just a little over two years ago we talked with Mr. Gehl in the iconic Times Square "bowtie" where he offered up a sobering evaluation of the lack of public space in NYC. You can watch that here. But thanks to recent initiatives by the NYC DOT, these days the future looks more promising for pedestrians and cyclists. During their conversation Mr. Gehl and Aaron covered much ground including the rapid pace of the transformation of our streets, the concepts behind the fluidity of traffic, the release of World Class Streets: Remaking New York City's Public Realm, and the democratic process - with a shout out to our future 44th prez!

If you love this, don't miss some of our past interviews. Here are just a few: Janette Sadik-Khan. Enrique Penalosa. Gridlock Sam. Donald Shoup. Randy Cohen.

 

Aaron Naparstek:  We’re here today in Madison Square with Jan Gehl, the renowned urban designer from Copenhagen, Denmark.  Jan’s been working with the New York City Department of Transportation on a public space/public life study for the city of New York.  Jan, you were here two years ago and we interviewed you here on Streetfilms.  One of the things that struck me from that interview is you talked about how it was your impression that the public space in New York hadn’t changed that much in a long time, similar to what you had seen the city looking like in the ‘70s and ‘80s when you had been to New York before.  Here we are two years later and I wanted to get your sense of how the city has changed, or if the city has changed, what direction we’re going.  What’s your impression? 

Jan Gehl:  [00:50] Two years ago one had this feeling of déjà vu, I’ve seen it all before.  That the quality of the city had not been addressed, not been challenged for thirty years or so.  And in the meantime I’ve seen many other cities turning around, being much better for people, being much better for pedestrians, addressing the question of bicycle infrastructure, inviting more bicycling, whatever.  And here, it was just as if Mr Moses has just left the stage, and after he had filled all the streets with cars from wall to wall.  We are living of course today in a, I call it the leisure time society.  We have lots of leisure time.  We live much longer than previously, we are living in smaller households, our lives is more and more privatised, and we’ve seen an upsurge of the public realm in a number of cities.  Actually whenever the public realm has been improved, people have come rushing and started to use the places.   

Aaron Naparstek:  [01:57] Yeah. 

Jan Gehl:  [01:57] That is exactly what you can see DOT and the City of New York is at this point doing very, very rapidly, which is very impressive.   

Aaron Naparstek:  [02:07] This is a great example, we are actually sitting in a space that was… 

Jan Gehl:  [02:13] Asphalt. 

Aaron Naparstek:  [02:13] …just like a raging, yeah, asphalt intersection, you know, just a couple of months ago.  It’s pretty remarkable that this was the middle of a street not so long ago. 

Jan Gehl:  [02:22] Of course we still have a slight noise problem. 

Aaron Naparstek:  [02:26] Are we the loudest city of any of the cities?  Or are we just the loudest city or the loudest city? 

Jan Gehl:  [02:31] I do think that London is louder than you are because their streets are more… are narrower and their diesel buses are really horrendous.  So you can really hit some very high decibels there.   

Aaron Naparstek:  [02:47] You did this study in New York, what did you find?  What were some of the insights that you got? 

Jan Gehl:  [02:53] There’s lots of people here, lots of pedestrians, but generally they were all walking as fast as they could from one point to the other.  And when we looked closer into it in our Public Life/Public Space survey, there was hardly anywhere to rest, you had to be on your feet all the time.  In Copenhagen, on our main street we have about 450 café seats per one thousand yards.  Here you have 20 seats on Broadway per one thousand yards, meaning that it’s almost impossible to sit down and rest and look at the life going on.  Many people, they sit indoors all day on their behind, they don’t move much, and indoor the climate maybe extremely controlled with air-condition, and so the interest in having just fresh air and doing a little bit of walking, that has gone up enormously.  And all this the city can provide.  And the interesting thing is that if the city addresses this, you will find that the city becomes more lively, more friendly and attractive, more safe, more sustainable and a healthy… and invites for a healthier lifestyle.  So you can hit a lot… number of the goals we have generally in cities just by being kind to people. 

Aaron Naparstek:  [04:17] Your group also took a look at the outer boroughs, not just Manhattan, and you had some pretty interesting findings out in Flushing Main Street in Queens.  What did you see there? 

Jan Gehl:  [04:28] We could start by saying that the DOT has a very firm policy that whatever improvement there will be should not only happen in the centre of the city, but should be happening in all the five boroughs.  And that’s why we have been studying a number of streets in the various boroughs.  And we found completely enormous numbers of pedestrians on very, very narrow sidewalks.  The idea is to make the people who use the city visible because then we can start to discuss is this picture we see, is that what we want with our city?  And then we can start to say, oh we want to improve this or that.  That’s exactly the same as the traffic engineers will always do, they say we have a prognosis for the future, we need two lanes more over there.  I could say that we have a prognosis for some of the sidewalks here, you need twice as wide sidewalks to treat these people properly. 

Aaron Naparstek:  [05:31] So what kind of solutions do you have for a street like that? 

Jan Gehl:  [05:34] I do think one has to take a closer look at the traffic to see if some traffic could be diverted, or other changes could be made to the stream of traffic, so we can have some widening of the space for the people.  The amount of traffic in any city in the world is arbitrary.  It’s a matter of how much asphalt you gave them in the first place.  If there were two avenues less in New York, there would be less traffic in Manhattan.  And we saw some interesting thing in San Francisco.  Two freeways cracked during the earthquake in ’89, and they have removed both freeways.  They haven’t introduced new ones because they found that the traffic stabilised at another level, and still the city works well.  So now they have instead of the Embarcadero Freeway, they have a boulevard with a tram going in both directions.   

Aaron Naparstek:  [06:35] This is an interesting thing, the sort of question of, you know, the elasticity of, you know, traffic demand.  I mean a lot of people look at streets and avenues in New York and they say, we don’t have room for bicycles and wider sidewalks because look, look how crowded the streets are. 

Jan Gehl:  [06:51] If we talk about bicycling, which I do think we will see in the 21st Century will spread very widely because it is a smart way of going around in cities where there’s too much pollution and too much consumption of oil, and where people doesn’t do enough exercise.  And if you look at New York, it’s flat, it’s very compressed and it’s got wide streets.  What we’ve seen in various European countries, that is to develop a bicycle culture so that it becomes so safe and so obvious that more and more people start to bicycle, so that in the end it’s not only the males between 25 and 35 in survival gear and Tour de France outfits who will be bicycling, but all generations. 

Aaron Naparstek:  [07:47] One of the issues that comes up here in New York when, you know, the DOT is coming in and building all this new bike infrastructure, people say, well why build it, there’s no cyclists here. 

Jan Gehl:  [07:55] Yeah, there will be absolutely no bike culture if you don’t invite.  And maybe I’ll return to the car question, because if you make lots of asphalt, what happens, you invite people to drive more or buy more cars.  If you make lots of bicycle infrastructure, if you improve the crossings for bike, if you make it safer, what happens is you invite people to get the bright idea, maybe I could bike also. 

Aaron Naparstek:  [08:24] You know the other day we had a very historic presidential election here in the United States when Barack Obama was elected President and… 

Jan Gehl:  [08:31] Mind you, we followed it very closely in Europe. 

Aaron Naparstek:  [08:35] You heard about that?   

Jan Gehl:  [08:36] You could hear the applause from there also.   

Aaron Naparstek:  [08:38] Well so that’s exactly the thing.  So in my neighbourhood and in neighbourhoods all across the city, you know, upon hearing the news that Barack Obama would be the 44th President of the United States, people rushed outside and the spontaneous celebrations sort of took place in public space.  And the corner of 5th Avenue and Union Street became a, you know, town square with people cheering and hugging each other.  Is there a connection between public space and democracy? 

Jan Gehl:  [09:04] We can see that throughout history the public space has been the meeting place of people.  That’s been one of the major communication services in the societies.  And in the First Amendment in the United States Constitution is the right to address your fellow citizens in the public forum.  And to do that you need a public forum, and in many American cities they have managed to do away with the public forum.  I think that the major democratic service of the public space is that you can quietly meet your fellow citizens and look them in the eye and see that you live in a wonderful society with a lot of nice people, you don’t have to be afraid of them. 

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Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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