Jan Gehl is arguably one of the most influential thinkers in the world when it comes to city design – and specifically how people use the public spaces of cities.
He originally trained as an architect, but soon became more interested in the space between buildings. Over 50 years he’s studied those spaces and has advised cities around the world – including New York, London, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Melbourne, and his hometown of Copenhagen.
A key contribution has been to bring awareness to how people use cities and how things have changed in our lifetime.
As Jan Gehl points out, cities have always been the meeting place for people. What’s happened since the 1950s is we have allowed cars to take up all the public space and in the process, we have killed the public life of our cities.
He says that if we make the streets and spaces focused back on people (rather than cars), we get a city that’s more lively, more attractive, more sustainable, safer, and better for your health. In essence, it’s a more liveable city.
All this is becoming more important as the world’s population not only grows but continues the trend of people moving from the country to the city. It’s estimated that over 50% of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. And the forecasts are for that percentage will go way higher in the decades to come. We’re going to need Jan’s common sense thinking if our cities are to function well for their future inhabitants.
“All the cities of the world are going to expand. We need to 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
I caught up with Jan Gehl when he was in the city I call home – Sydney. He was here to advise the City of Sydney on how it could make its city centre more people-focused. His research and recommendations did indeed lead to the pedestrianisation of one of the city’s main thoroughfares – George Street.
A lot of Jan has to say in the interview is applicable to cities around the world. It’s about shifting thinking in cities – away from cars and back to making cities better for people. Have a listen …
Timeline of Jan’s work
1960 – Graduated with a Masters of Architecture from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts
1965 – Investigates the interaction between public space and public life in Italy with his wife, Ingrid, a psychologist
1968 – Studies public life in public spaces in Copenhagen city centre (the work marks the beginning of Gehl working closely with cities on their design)
1970 – Danish newspaper BT features Jan and Ingrid with their ideas of merging architecture and psychology – including why human behavior should be the starting point for architecture
1971 – Work as a Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Professor of Urban Design at the School of Architecture in Copenhagen.
1971 – Jan publishes ‘Life Between Buildings’ book. Ingrid publishes ‘Living Environment’.
“The debate on how we build cities and whether or not they are for cars, people or both, begins to reach a broader audience via popular media, and contributes to a public debate about the social and psychological perspectives of architecture.”
~ Gehl Architects on Jan’s influence on city planning from the 1970’s
1987 – First English translation of ‘Life Between Buildings’ published
1987 – ‘Public Space, Public Life’ survey in Oslo (Gehl’s first private practice engagement)
1994 – Public Space/Public Life Analysis for Melbourne. (Jan’s analysis and recommendations lay the foundation for improvements in the city centre – in terms of the quality of space and life, not to mention an economic turnaround.)
2000 – At age of 64 Jan co-founds Gehl Architects with Helle Søholt to work on “creating cities for people”
2003 – Study of public spaces and public life in London
2004 – London Mayor Ken Livingstone makes Gehl’s report a central part of his election campaign for his second term
2007 – Gehl’s recommendations for New York City lay the foundation for the transformation of key streets and squares
2007 – City of Sydney commission Gehl to create an urban strategy to transform the city centre
2009 – Gehl’s ideas adopted in Copenhagen’s city plan ‘A Metropolis for People’
2010 – Publishes ‘Cities for People’ book
2013 – Publishes “How to Study Public Life’
2013 – Nykredit Architecture Prize – Scandinavia’s largest architecture prize
2015 – Global Award for Sustainable Architecture
2020 – ‘Life Between Buildings’ translated and published into more than 20 languages
Source: timeline adapted from Gehl People’s ‘Our Story’.
Jan Gehl is in his 80s now and has had a long distinguished career. Here in this section, we’ve fleshed out a few of the interesting aspects of how his work has evolved.
Jan Gehl’s observation of people in public places in Siena Italy 1960s. (Pic via Gehl People.)
After graduating from his Masters in Architecture, in 1965 Gehl went with his wife Ingrid, a psychologist, to study public life on the streets of Siena an in Italy.
Then in 1968, he spent every Tuesday for a year sitting on a main street in Copenhagen (Strøget) carefully observing the behaviour of people.
This early work laid the foundation for his books, consulting, and popularity of his ideas now. (More on Ingrid later. Her background in psychology was to play a key role in Jan’s trajectory.)
It’s worth remembering at that time (in the 1960s and 70s) post-war modernist thinking held sway not just over the design of buildings but of how cities themselves were being organised. In the midst of this, Gehl began to think about how this physical environment influenced human behaviour.
He came to rail against the modernists who he saw as designing the life out of cities. And the traffic engineers who planned to replace people on the streets with vehicles.
In essence, Jan Gehl realised modern planning wasn’t taking into account how people liked to use the space between buildings. And that modernist thinking was out of touch with the people on the ground. It had lost a sense of the human scale.
Jan’s hometown of Copenhagen has played a key role in his career. He has studied its main streets and street life many times over the years – in the 1960s, then 1985, 1995, and 2005. And as Jan says the city’s planners and politicians have actively sought data and ideas from him and from the Danish Academy of Fine Arts (where he’s been a Professor for decades.)
He says the city’s relationship with researchers and academics is a key reason why Copenhagen has taken a different course to cities in the US. Danish decision-makers respected the research and wanted to engage with the findings to understand how people used their city.
It’s at the point now that the City of Copenhagen has directly incorporated Gehl’s ideas and thinking in its plans and policies – including it’s ‘A Metropolis for People’ policy which aims to make the city “the world’s finest city in the world for people”.
But it wasn’t always so. Up until the 1960s, Copenhagen did have the kind of configuration we know too well of modern cities – where the cars and traffic dominated public space.
Copenhagen’s main street Stroget in 1954.
Then in 1962, Copenhagen trialed something very new – the pedestrianization of its main street – Strøget. This led to a lot of public debate at the time.
In my interview with him, Jan explained how many people at the time said that Danes would not use public space as Italians do. And indeed businesses extorted that “no cars meant no customers – and no customers meant no business.”
But in fact, the street did become very popular. Now Gehl says businesses in other streets in Copenhagen ask for their street to become more pedestrian-friendly.
They’ve realised if you make the street attractive for people, you get people. And if you get more people, you get more business.
Copenhagen’s main street Stroget now. (Pic via Going to Copenhagen.)
Read the story of the pedestrianisation of Strøget, Copenhagen.
This video also tells more of the story. In it, urbanist Mikael Colville-Andersen interviews Jan Gehl about the evolution of the street and Gehl’s involvement.
The influence of Jan Gehl’s wife Ingrid
After graduating with a Masters in Architecture Jan Gehl met and then married psychologist Ingrid Mundt. She and her psychologist friends challenged Gehl and his colleagues about why architects were not interested in people and how architecture could influence people’s lives. (And were instead concerned mainly with form.)
“Why are you architects not interested in people?” ~ Ingrid Gehl
Ingrid’s challenge provided an awakening for Jan and would set the stage for his life’s work.
The pair set out to study the relationship between sociology and psychology on one hand and architecture and planning on the other. In 1965 they went to Siena in Italy to study how people used places in the city. This was another key moment for Gehl. This was the first of Gehl’s ‘Public Space / Public Life’ surveys.
It laid the foundation for the many surveys he was to do in the decades to follow.
“Gehl, bolstered by psychological thinking, spent the next 40 years developing principles based on how the shape of cities can impact on the human lives lived within them, rather than on traffic efficiency and parking spaces.”
~ Ellie Violet Bramly ‘Is Jan Gehl winning his battle to make our cities liveable?’, The Guardian, 8 December 2014
There’s more about the important role Ingrid played in Jan’s work in this interesting article – ‘The Little Known Behavioural Scientist Who transformed Cities Around the World’.
Work with Cities
From those early studies in Copenhagen, it did take some time for Jan’s approach to catch on. In 1987 Gehl was asked to work on a public life study for Oslo in Norway. In 1994 he was asked by the City of Melbourne in Australia to work out how to bring life back to its city centre.
Then in the 2000’s came a whole series of engagements with cities around the world. It was at that time he established a design firm providing research and advice to cities. Gehl People, as it’s named now, describes what it does as “consultants in urban quality”.
Jan Gehl’s ‘Public Spaces / Public Life Study’ for London in 2004. (Pic by Gehl People.)
Gehl has worked with a string of cities in Australia and New Zealand – including Melbourne (1994 and 2004), Perth (1995 and 2009), Adelaide (2002), Sydney (2007), Auckland (2008), Wellington (2004), Christchurch, Launceston and Hobart (2010).
The Melbourne story is one of the most interesting. Gehl’s analysis laid the foundation for significant changes which not only resulted in a major improvement in the quality of public life in the city centre but also resulted in a major economic turnaround in the city centre, with businesses thriving where people want to be. (He tells more about this is my podcast interview with him.)
In 2007–08 he was hired by the Department of Transportation of New York City to study how people used its streets and suggest designs to improve public life. The Head of the DoT, Janette Sadik-Khan, subsequently made significant changes to the city’s streets on the back of Gehl’s recommendations. Including reclaiming Times Square – clawing back space for people from cars.
The transformation of Times Square in New York in 2009. (Pic via NYC DoT.)
Gehl and his firm have now worked with more than 50 cities around the world – including London, Brighton, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Moscow, as well as Melbourne, Sydney and New York.
“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.” ~ Jan Gehl
More of Jan Gehl’s thinking (and quotes)
We’ve collected here some of Jan’s key ideas along with some great quotes which help bring those ideas to life. You can also see an in-depth collection of his words of wisdom in our post ‘Best Jan Gehl Quotes’.
Architects and architecture
“Architects know very little about people.” ~ Jan Gehl
Jan trained as an architect and still identifies as an architect but clearly thinks his profession still has much to learn. He says so much of architecture is focused on form (the shape of buildings.)
He makes the point that in reality architecture is much more – it’s the interplay between life and form. Something that needs much more attention – and is a fair bit harder to figure out.
“What’s really important is not what a building looks like but how it adds to the quality of the city.” ~ Jan Gehl
Modernism v the ‘human scale’
“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.” ~ Jan Gehl
Jan gets even more critical when it comes to the Modernistic approach to architecture and city planning.
He says the Modernist likes to take a helicopter view of cities. In other words from a mile up in the air looking down on the shapes rather than at ground level where people are.
“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.” ~ Jan Gehl
More and more people in Copenhagen use a bicycle as part of daily life. (Pic by Copenhagen Media Centre.)
Lively, attractive, safe, sustainable, healthy
“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.” ~ Jan Gehl
The ‘liveability’ of cities is a term that’s often used to discuss the quality of urban environments. Jan cites the importance of these attributes in measuring liveability – lively, attractive, safe, sustainable, and healthy. Who would have thought the pedestrian and the cyclist were key to delivering the key attributes for a better city? But they are people – the people on the ground – at the human scale.
By contrast, the focus in most cities around the world since the 1950s has been on cars – moving cars them around and parking them efficiently –
“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?” ~ Jan Gehl
Squares of Copenhagen (Gammeltorv-Nytorv) overrun with parked cars in the late 1950s. (Pic by the City’s Engineers Office.)
The dominance of cars in cities
“The main focus of urban planning has been to keep the cars happy.” ~ Jan Gehl
You’ll hear in my interview with Jan that he’s not anti-car. What he’s saying is that city planning has actively encouraged more people to drive. The end result is that the public spaces of our cities to become overrun with cars. “Wall-to-wall vehicles” as he says in our interview.
Along the way, we’ve pushed people to the margins or forgotten them entirely. Jan is advocating for changing the balance and bringing priority back toward people. With this shift comes an improvement in the quality of urban life.
“If you make 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
Gammeltorv-Nytorv in Copenhagen today. (Pic by Lars Gemzøe, Gehl Architects.)
Improving quality of life
“Every day in Copenhagen the city gets a little bit better. In cities where there are more cars, the city gets worse. We need to ensure that the quality of life of citizens in cities around the world gets a little bit better every day.” ~ Jan Gehl
Is life in your city getting better? I’m not sure many cities can really say they are. But shouldn’t that be the goal for cities?
In this video, Jan speaks about his life-long mission to improve the quality of urban spaces –
Video produced by Louise Mendonça.
Good for business
The conventional wisdom is you need cars for business. But there is growing evidence to back Jan’s claim that public spaces focused more on people are better for business. It makes sense as people moving at walking speed (rather than car speed) are more likely to walk into your store. Cities that treat people “badly” push them into the margins in favour of using public space for cars. Cities that treaty people “gently” encourage them to walk, cycle and stay in a space. Ultimately it’s people that bring business not cars.
“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.” ~ Jan Gehl
Democracy and safety
“Public life in public spaces 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.” ~ Jan Gehl
In my interview, Jan explains how making cities more liveable is good for democracy and safety. He describes how many American cities have killed public life in public spaces. One of the results is the only the information people get about different groups is through the news and how this perpetuates stereotypes and stigmatisation. The other obvious benefit of having more people and life around is that you simply feeler safer in a space.
“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 this society.” ~ Jan Gehl
We are one
“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.” ~ Jan Gehl
After studying city spaces and city life for more than 50 years and conducting research in more than 50 countries Jan is convinced we’re essentially the same creature and we respond to the same cues no matter where we are –
“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.” ~ Jan Gehl
Jan Gehl has published a number of books including “New City Spaces”, “Public Spaces – Public Life”, “New City Life”, “How to Study Public Life” and most recently “People Cities”. The most well known are “Life Between Buildings” and “Cities for People”.
Jan Gehl’s first books were largely ignored when they were first published. But there’s been a growing interest in what Jan has to say. Now a number of his books are set as textbooks in urban design courses. And ‘Cities for People’ has been published in 32 languages.
‘Cities for People’ introduces the idea of creating cityscapes on a human scale. Jan Gehl emphasizes the human issues essential to successful city planning – how to develop cities that are Lively, Attractive, Safe, Sustainable, and Healthy.
“Urban landscapes need to be experienced at the speed of walking rather than at the speed of riding in a car or bus or train. This small-scale view, he argues, is too frequently neglected in contemporary projects.” ~ Gehl People website
‘Life Between Buildings’ is Jan Gehl’s classic text on the importance of designing urban public space with the fundamental desires of people as guiding principles.
The documentary film ‘The Human Scale’ was inspired by and demonstrates Jan Gehl’s ideas. It questions the thinking that’s led to the cities we know today and instead asks what would happen when we put people into the centre of our planning.
Buy or rent ‘The Human Scale’ documentary.
Watch the trailer –
In this TED Talk, Jan Gehl makes the case for building cities for people. He spells out how for the past 50 years, urban planners have gone out of their way to build grandiose cities, with large open spaces to accommodate traffic and awe-inspiring views to impress the inhabitants.
The result was cities that might look inspiring from the window of an airplane or a car but offer very little to the people on the ground actually living in it. Public spaces have become uninviting and uninspiring. People have been discouraged from physical activities and from merely enjoying their surroundings.
Gehl argues that with obesity and other lifestyle-associated problems on the rise, it’s more important than ever to build cities for people. Cities that move at 5km/h.
Jan Gehl’s urban architecture firm is Gehl People. They do consulting work around making cities for people – for government, non-profit and private companies.
Related posts and podcasts
This profile and podcast is part of our series on the World’s Environmental Leaders.
If you’re interested in cities check out our profile of Janette Sadik-Khan. JSK was formerly Head of New York City’s Department of Transport and was responsible for major changes to the streets of NYC. (She’s probably most famous for reclaiming Times Square for people and away from cars.) Her thinking drew from Jan Gehl’s ideas and a report he conducted for New York City.
There are more words of wisdom on cities from Jan in our roundup of ‘Best Jan Gehl Quotes’.
Your thoughts on Jan Gehl
We welcome your feedback on this post and our series. If you enjoyed the post and podcast please share it with someone you think would like it too.
What you can do
Are you frustrated with the design of the city where you live? Think it could be more sustainable and people-focused? Here are some things you can do:
Pitch your politician
Write, call and see your political representatives (especially local and state.) Tell them about Jan Gehl’s ideas, the cities he’s worked with, the changes that have come about in those cities and the changes that could and should happen where you live. Vote for politicians who support what you’re on about. Put a motion to your local government Council to make your street greener, more sustainable and liveable. Use available info to help support your case.
Leverage available info
There are other places that have been through transformation, nutted out street design and overcome obstacles. These videos from StreetFilms will provide inspiration. And this Global Street Design Guide will give some nitty-gritty.
Link with like-minded groups
Find people and organizations that share your values and enlist them to help lobby with you and give you more clout.
Hold a Better Block
A ‘Better Block’ is a one-day demonstration of a liveable street. Instead of lobbying, arguing and running into brick walls for years to get changes, you can do your own temporary version and do it fairly quickly (in a matter of months.) The beauty is people will see for themselves – how much better a more liveable street really is. We did a Better Block where I live and we managed to convince our Council to get our whole street re-designed as a result.
Choose transportation thoughtfully
Instead of driving your car every trip, consider the alternatives. Walk when you can. Ride a bike. Seek out local bike groups for support. Choose public transport for longer trips. Remember, if you drive your car “you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.”
Have your own suggestions to make a difference? You can also let us know in the comments.