I had the honor this week of speaking at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on some of my research in Singapore (I promise to write more on that next). However the exciting part was not sharing my work but getting to meet and spend time with one of my favorite urbanist, Dr Jan Gehl of Gehl Architects in Denmark.
Jan is most famous for writing the book “Life Between Buildings” in 1971 and for his subsequent consultant and design projects over the last five decades which have reshaped city spaces to be people oriented. His firm has worked throughout the world consulting in New York City, Melbourne, Singapore, Jordon, and Moscow. Their approach uses research as a major tool to understand how the city works before they make any suggestions. I love how the firm calls itself “Urban Quality Consultants,” instead of planners or architects.
Petronas Towers in KLCC
Jan’s latest book “Cities for People” tells the story of few cities that have embraced the humanized scale and people oriented concepts he has taught about and helped to design solutions towards. This book also has a few tools for designers and planners to use as they examine their city’s spaces. As part of the conference Jan also taught a brief workshop where he shared on these tools which are in the form of 14 simple questions about people’s conception and experience related to protection, comfort and enjoyment within the public spaces of a city.
Redesigning a KL street in a workshop.
As a planner and research who’s training was greatly influenced by the writings of Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs other famous urbanist that emphasize the importance of people oriented cities, experienced on the street and not from above, I often take for granted all of the work that our predecessors have done to refocus our profession on people and not buildings or cars. Much of Jan’s problems with how our cities are shaped today come from how we use traffic engineers to make cars (and drivers) happy and urban designers and architects to make places that look good from above or on maps. As he said,
“No city seems to have a department of people, pedestrians and public life”, but “I have seen lots of traffic departments” with lots of statistics on cars in our cities.
Instead he urges us to take a much simpler look at what makes a good city by evaluating it from the perspective of a pedestrian. Can we walk around our cities without the fear of traffic accidents? Can we sit and rest in public spaces throughout or city? Are we able to have conversations in public or is our city too loud? Or simply is there even room designated to walk along our city’s streets?
I have been blessed to live in New York City and Singapore, two very walkable cities. I also realize though that there are many of these simple lessons which we can still put into action to help make Singapore, especially the heartlands outside of the CBD, much more people instead of car oriented. In the meantime I will leave with one of my favorite quotes from Jan:
“A good city is like a good party – people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves,”
Jan Gehl and I with our Malaysian Institute of Planners hosts.
A special thanks to MIP, REDHA, PAM, and KL City Hall for inviting me to participate in the 2012 WCSC Conference.