Jan Gehl champions something that few architects have mastered: cities for people. The Dane favors compact neighborhoods over grand master plans. The 79-year-old city planner values the wishes of residents over architecture. And his resounding success proves him right.

Ssssshhhhhrrrrr. In the background, a cordless screwdriver buzzes away. Jan Gehl apologizes for the distraction; “Excuse me, they’re doing some work in the kitchen.” Life is quite busy for the professor emeritus and city planner.

As a city planner, Gehl‘s detail orientation and screw-tightening skills come in handy wherever mayors or councilors realize that something needs to change. Over the past few years, they have been beating a path to his door: Gehl is considered a top global expert on humane cities.

“I’m an idealist,” states the 79-year-old. “And the projects I’m working on are all about creating better environments for pedestrians and public life.” To Gehl, both of these are intrinsically linked – people should be able to experience their city on foot.

He goes on to scoff that we know more about the perfect habitat for Siberian tigers than a good environment for people. His wife Ingrid and he started out studying life in the cities – and then traveled to Italy on a grant in 1965.

In 1971, “Livet mellem husene,” life between buildings, was the first result of their studies between streets and squares – and turned out to be quite a flop. Yet Gehl labored on and continued to hone and develop his methods over the years, by then a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts.

Jan Gehl Brighton
“My projects are all about creating better environments for pedestrians”.
Photo: Gehl Architects

Gehl’s foremost success is Copenhagen

Today, his successes prove him right. And the standout example is Copenhagen – the city of Gehl’s alma mater, teaching career, and a company he co-founded. In a way, it serves as an open-air lab for his ideas:

All the way back in 1965, the city – advised by Gehl – created Europe’s longest pedestrian zone, the Strøget. Copenhagen has become a template for the fundamental shift from post war car-centric cities to more pedestrian-friendly 21st century metropolises.

“In order to reclaim a human dimension, city planners need to re-evaluate the many capacity-friendly ideas,” he states in the recently released “Cities for People”.

This means: Our cities are filled with too many traffic lights, narrow sidewalks, and multi-lane highways that squeeze in pedestrians and force them to cross streets in a rush. According to Gehl, that’s not a given: “There is a good, pedestrian-friendly solution for any traffic planning issue.”

And he adds that “it is high time to revisit our priorities.” To this end, Gehl has introduced a check list of small changes that – taken together – produce great results. He favors “polite reminders” (as in Copenhagen) over flashing traffic lights that “encourage hasty crossings” (as in New York City). Gloomy pedestrian underpasses (like the one near Zurich’s train station) should be replaced by sunlit “zebra crossings at street level.”

Copenhagen stroget Jan Gehl
Advised by Gehl, Copenhagen installed Europe’s longest pedestrian zone, the Strøget.
Photo: Yadid Levy / Getty Images

From New York City to Shanghai: a globally sought-after urban consultant

Gehl knows cities better than most. Paraphrasing a well-known analogy, some people are good with horses and become horse whisperers, while others are good with people.

The latter usually become doctors, nurses, or priests. As a city planner, Jan Gehl is a little bit of all. First and foremost, however, he is a self-professed “missionary.” He preaches human scale development and has been consulting for cities around the world for years, helping them to redesign entire neighborhoods to benefit their residents.

The formula is simple: go to the city, observe, and listen. And then join together to effect change. A fun video on his website tells the story behind it all.

It took the love of developmental psychologist Ingrid to open the builder’s eyes: Architecture should serve people. In this spirit, Jan Gehl draws on insights by sociologists and psychologists to turn ivory tower planning into bona fide collaborations.

Gehl’s top priority: the human scale

His drive really picked up in 2000 when Gehl and Helle Søholt, a former student, joined forces to found the company Gehl Architects.

Maybe, it’s all just a question of scale. Modernism delighted in completely redesigning metropolises or conjuring up abstract plans on the drawing board. Builders like Le Corbusier, who considered rented dwellings “housing units” or “living machines,” liked to subdivide cities by function.

This is a kind of thinking Gehl would like to leave behind. The architect is less interested in models and buildings than in their residents.

Over the years, Gehl came up with a range of basic principles that support and define thriving communities around the world. One of these rules might be not to build skyscrapers since six or more levels up residents lose touch with the street and feel removed from it all. Or: consider the ground floor. It shouldn’t be uniform or forbidding, but varied and full of surprises.

“Better city spaces, more city life“

Nowadays, Gehl provides coaching for cities like New York City, Shanghai, Singapore, St. Petersburg, or Almaty. And his insights sound so simple, matter of fact, and even trivial that it can be hard to fathom how our modern cities, divided by functions, could ever have forgotten these wisdoms.

“Better city spaces, more city life,” one of his premises states. High quality spaces encourage leisure activities and interactions. “It’s so obvious, we have simply overlooked it.”

P.S. The interview was conducted over an old telephone on the fifth floor of a building in the center of Munich.

Sao Paulo Jan Gehl
“Better city spaces, more city life.“
Photo: Luis E. S. Brettas

Header image: Sandra Henningsson / Rights Gehl Architects