Jan Gehl quotes city planning

Jan Gehl’s ideas have influenced many cities of the world in how they think about their streets and public spaces.

In fact, he’s studied and worked with over 70 cities in his 50+ years as a researcher and urban quality consultant. Those cities have included the likes of New York, London, Moscow, Sydney, Melbourne, and Copenhagen. 

In this article, we’ve gathered some of Jan’s best quotes from his talks and interviews – including our audio interview with Jan Gehl for The Environment Show. 

We’ve also written a profile of Jan Gehl so you can find more about him. 

Many of us go about our daily lives in the city without really thinking about how the public space of our city is being used or could be better used. Jan has devoted his life to it. What he’s found and what has to say is important for all of us who live in urban environments. 


Cities and public spaces 

“First we shape the cities – then they shape us.” 

“The city throughout the history of mankind has been the meeting place for people. Much of the culture of mankind has happened in the public space. Public space is a very important aspect of a good and well functioning city.”  

“40 years ago getting as many cars as possible into the centre of the city was seen as the thing to do. That is certainly not the thing to do today.” 

“It’s interesting to see which cities of the world are on the list of liveable cities. They’re always the cities that are sweet to their people.” ~ ‘Urban Design with Jan Gehl’ Crane TV


Public spaces as meeting places

“Throughout history, public spaces have had an important role in day-to-day human life. It has been the meeting place, it’s been the marketplace. What’s happened in the last 50 years is that public spaces have been overrun by the motorcar. We have what I call the car invasion, and the city as a meeting place and marketplace has been squeezed out of many places.”

“What we see now is a renaissance of the public space as a meeting place. The increase in the sidewalk-café culture worldwide is a very sure sign of people wanting to be in public spaces.”

“In public spaces, you are directly present. You can interact with other people, you can watch them with your own senses – as opposed to seeing pictures on TV.”

“What happened in Times Square in New York is the moment they provided much better public space it became packed with people. They closed it to traffic and people took over.”


‘Human scale’ v Modernist approach 

“All the old cities were built on the way people moved with their feet, how far they could look with their eyes, and how they used the environment. So first you have the life, then you have the space for the life, and then you put the buildings on the side of the spaces. Life, space, buildings in that order. ” 

“Modernist planners and architects lost the sense of building to the human scale. No profession was asked to look after this. Everything was done too big as if it was not for people anymore.” 

“Everything we knew about cities and good environments for human beings was thrown out by the Modernists. The effect on the quality of life for people was not considered.” 

“The most important scale is the people scale. The city at eye level and at 5km/hour. This knowledge (about human scale) has been lost by planners and architects.” 


Think small 

“Think big but always remember to make the places where people are to be, small.” 

“Small dimensions work – so long as we are moving on our feet and moving with the speed we are made for.” 

“That’s why a city like Venice is very sensual because you sense things very close to you. It’s rich with experiences. When I bring my grandchildren to Venice they explode with joy. If you go to a suburb there’s so little to experience.” 


The impact of cars on cities 

“The other big thing that happened in the 1960s (at the same time as Modernist planning) was the car invasion – filling all the voids of our cities. And filling the interest of the politicians and the planners. Every city had a traffic department that counted cars but no city had a department for people and public spaces. No city had any knowledge of how their cities were being used by people – but they did know how traffic used the city. The influx of cars further confused the sense of scale – because to get traffic moving it needed a lot of room and when cars park they needed large spaces.”  

“The other problem was the speed of cars. In the old days when we moved about cities as pedestrians, it was 5 km/hour. At that speed, you can have small dimensions. You can see details. You can see other people. The environment is interesting and personal. But then we got 60km/hour environments all over the place. At that speed, you need big spaces. You have big signs. There are no details and no people.”


Shifting thinking from cars to people 

“If you invite more cars, you get more cars. If you make more streets better for cars you get more traffic. If you make more bicycle infrastructure you get more bicycles. If you invite people to walk more and use public spaces more, you get more life in the city. You get what you invite.” ~ Jan Gehl ‘Designing Cities for People, Not Cars‘ Climate One 

“All cities have traffic departments and statistics for traffic and parking. Do you know of any city with a department for pedestrians and public life? Hardly any city even has good data concerning the people who use the city. People in cities tend to be invisible and poorly represented in the planning process.” 

“I have never worked in any city anywhere where I was not told at the start ‘you must realise that we have a special relationship to our cars in this particular region so it will never happen here. Then when things have happened 10 years later no-one can remember anyone saying that. But it always starts with ‘the change of mindset cannot happen here’. The same people who say this go on expensive holidays where the problem of the motor car has been solved. That’s where we go to have a good time but why can’t we have a good time in our own city?” 

“We know the majority of the world’s population are going to live in dense cities. There will simply not be room for all of us to have a car.”

“There’s a concern for the climate, there’s a concern for resources, and there’s a concern for the quality of life in the cities and for room in the cities.”

“My work is not anti-car but pro-people.”


Car culture in different cities

“When I first worked in Melbourne I was told ‘we are Australian – we are born with a wheel in our hands when we come out of our mother’s womb’.”  

“In Moscow, they had this idea that freedom from Communism meant the right to park wherever you like.”



“Every day I wake up in Copenhagen I know the city will be a little bit better than yesterday. There are so many cities in the world where they for sure know it will be worse. At this point in history, we need cities that are better than yesterday.”

“Copenhagen is very much a product of the university and the city working together for 40 years. The data we collected over 40 years was like strong medicine, influencing the way the city is planned and how they talk about its public life.”


The benefits of walking and cycling 

“The city plan for Copenhagen invites people to walk and cycle as much as possible in the course of their daily life. That is good for the climate, it’s good for the noise in the city, it’s good for the pollution in the city, good for the energy consumption, and it’s good for your health.” 

“By being sweet to the pedestrian and the cyclist you hit five birds with one stone – you get a lively city, you get an attractive city, you get a safe city, you get a sustainable city, and you get a city that’s good for your health. These are all things we are very concerned about at this time in history.” 

“We have the serious problem now of the ‘sitting syndrome’. For 50 years we had planning that invited people to sit from early morning to late night – behind computers and in cars. Now doctors are telling us to plan cities that encourage people to walk and cycle as much as possible. This is in the World Health Organisation’s strategy for cities – to make cities for walking and cycling. This will give people better quality of life and be much cheaper for health systems.” 

“The more you use your own movement system to get around (cycling and walking) the better it is for your health. Then you won’t have to jog or go to a fitness centre. That one hour or more of exercise a day will give you longer life expectancy. Furthermore, it will reduce the health costs for the nation considerably.” ~ ‘Intelligent Cities: Neighbourhood’ Jan Gehl Interview for the National Building Museum 


The role of cycling in urban quality

“When you are on a bicycle, you are using your senses to see other people and what’s going on. And people on the sidewalks can easily see bicyclists as individuals, as people. So you cannot say that public life is only on sidewalks, I also think it’s in the bike lanes.”

“A city with a lot of bicyclists is indeed a city with a lot of life.  A city with a lot of cars is a city with a lot of cars, metal, and speed. Not with people. You can hardly even see people in the cars because of the shiny windows and the speed they move, so from a human-sense point of view they are not present in a space.”


Smart transport  

“We can easily make cities where you don’t need individual cars for each individual’s transportation.” 

“Cars are useful for a number of things but they are currently being used for many things that could be done smarter or in other ways. It’s about finding a better balance between automobile transition, public transportation, bicycle riding, and walking.”

“Instead of going full-fledged in one direction, we’re going to have be much more flexible. We need to look at other solutions and see clearly the downside of having too much automobile traffic in cities.”

“Now in Copenhagen, it’s considered to be much smarter to use the Metro (public transport) or bicycle than to try to drill your car into congestion in the city. This will be accelerated by the concern for climate and health.” 


The human body

“I’m a strong believer in planning based on the human body – what we can see, how we move, and what speed we naturally move. That speed we move affects the way we see the details and understand the surroundings.”


Human behaviour  

“It is a fact of life that the greatest interest of people is other people.” 

“A good city is like a good party – people stay longer than really necessary because they are enjoying themselves.” 

“If you see a city with many children and many old people using the city’s public spaces it’s a sign that it’s a good quality place for people.” 

“We know much about good habitat for mountain gorillas. We know much about good habitat for Siberian tigers. But we hardly know anything about good urban habitat for homo sapiens.” ~ Jan Gehl in his TED Talk paraphrasing the former Mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa 


Urban planning 

“Neither city planners nor traffic planners put city space and city life high on their agenda. For years there was hardly any knowledge about how physical structures influence human behavior. The drastic consequences of this type of planning on people’s use of the city were not recognized until later.” 

“The main focus of urban planning has been to keep the cars happy.” 



“We should make cities six to seven storeys high – like they did in Paris in the good old days.” 


Architecture and architects 

“First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.”  

“Architects know very little about people.” 

“An endless number of green buildings don’t make a sustainable city.” 

“It’s very easy to study form. But architecture is actually the interplay between life and form. This is much more complicated to study. Form influences our way of living and using cities enormously.” 

“Why do architectural professors go out and photograph buildings at 4 in the morning? Is it so there’ll be no disturbing people in the foreground of the photo for their lectures?” 

“In the 90s we had ‘starkitecture’. Architects competed with each other on who could make the funniest shapes for buildings. What’s really important is not what it looks like but how it adds to the quality of the city.” 

“There’s been the tendency that architects do a funny tower. Once it’s photographed they do another funny tower. They never come back. There’s never an evaluation of how the philosophies of what they claimed for their design actually worked.”

“Architecture and city planning has an enormous impact on patterns of life in the city. Yes we form the cities but then the cities form us.” 

“Every time we build anything we affect the quality of life of people.” 


How liveable cities are good for democracy and safety 

“It’s very important there’s public life in public spaces. That means people from all walks of life will naturally meet in the streets, squares and parks of the city. So you can see what society you belong to. You can see your fellow citizens eye to eye going about daily life.” 

“In a number of American cities, they have managed to kill public life –  so there’s no-one walking or cycling in the city. They’re completely dead. And the only information you get about your fellow citizens is through television when you see when someone has done some criminal act. So people get more and more scared and start to stigmatize certain groups because you see them on TV and think all of this group must be bad guys. It’s very important that we meet our fellow citizens naturally. It’s important for democracy to realise we are a mixed lot and together we form society.” 

“In a Society becoming steadily more privatized with private homes, cars, computers, offices and shopping centers, the public component of our lives is disappearing. It is more and more important to make the cities inviting, so we can meet our fellow citizens face to face and experience directly through our senses. Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life.”

“The presence of other people is always important for your feeling of safety.”  


How liveable cities are good for business 

“In the 21st Century if you treat people badly it is bad for your city’s economy. If you treat people gently it is good for your city’s economy.”  

“It’s interesting to see the investment of companies in relocating. They will go to the cities which are the most liveable cities in the world and not the ones that have the most cars in their downtown streets.” 


The cost of making cities liveable 

“Some people say it will be very expensive. The vast majority of our recommendations are peanuts. What is really costly is the big infrastructures we’ve made for cars. That costs a lot of money. But even if there are costs I would argue it is loss of money not to do something.” 


City changes around the world  

“One city after the other around the world is taking a more humanistic road to city planning than the previous generation who took the road of getting as much traffic to circulate as possible. It’s quite worldwide now. And of course, the climate concern and the health concern – that is more and more worldwide.” 

“After being invaded by cars and traffic for 50 years we’re now seeing many examples of cities being reconquered for people.” 


Similarities across cities 

“Cultures and climates differ all over the world but people are the same. They’ll gather in public if you give them a good place to do it.” 

“I’ve come to realise it is the same creature that lives in all corners of the world. It’s homo sapiens. The same species. We all have the same biological history. Our senses are made for this walking animal. The way we move around in the city is the same.” 

“We have found in the research a number of things that are standard in all corners of the world. When all those criteria have been met in a place you have this feeling you belong there. You feel like you’ve arrived. That is the same whether you’re in Greenland, New Zealand, or Japan.” 



“If you walked around Sydney and were not told this was Sydney you’d think it was Kansas City. You’d never get an inkling that this was one of the most beautiful settings in the world.” 

When asked in our interview how did it get like this – 

“In the 50s and 60s when the motorcar came into society all the streets and all the spaces between buildings of the city were filled to capacity with vehicles. Wall to wall vehicles.”  

“Sydney has been stagnant for 40 years. There’s been no major challenge to how the city is being used. Every street is filled to the brim with noise and traffic. It’s been like that for 40 years.”  

“Having a city centre that’s stuck in the ideals of 40 years ago is not the thing to do today.” 


The future of cities 

“All the cities of the world are going to expand. We need to have a better understanding of what makes good urban habitat for home sapiens. We have an obligation to make the new places more livable, more sustainable, more healthy. We have the tools.”  



Jan Gehl interview for The Environment Show 

‘Architect Jan Gehl on Urban Planning, Human Scale, and the Bicycle Revolution’ Sierra Club, 29 January 2010

‘In Search of the Human Scale’ Jan Gehl TED Talk 

‘Is Jan Gehl winning his battle to make our cities liveable?’ Ellie Violet Bramley, The Guardian, 8 December 2014

How to Build a Good City’ Jan Gehl Interview on The Lousiana Channel 

‘Intelligent Cities: Community’ Jan Gehl Interview for the National Building Museum 

‘Intelligent Cities: Neighbourhood’ Jan Gehl Interview for the National Building Museum  

‘Planning for people-oriented cities’ Jan Gehl Interview with the Centre for Liveable Cities


Jan Gehl quotes – your turn

If you’ve seen any other good Jan Gehl quotes let us know in the Comments. 


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You can find more about Jan in our profile post on Jan Gehl.


Phil Stubbs

Blogger, Podcaster, Producer at The Environment Show

Environmental Podcaster, Blogger and Producer at The Environment Show. I'm based in Sydney, Australia.

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