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Book Review of "Cities for People" by Jan Gehl

Book Review of "Cities for People" by Jan Gehl

Danish architect, Jan Gehl’s “Cities for People,” (2010) explores improving designs of cities for people to live and work. In this follow-up to “Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space” (1971), Gehl explores the shifting focus from the automobile to pedestrians and bicyclists in the past fifty years and how this shift affects urban design today. Using consultations

by Katie Poppel April 29, 2013
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Danish architect, Jan Gehl’s "Cities for People," (2010) explores improving designs of cities for people to live and work. In this follow-up to "Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space" (1971), Gehl explores the shifting focus from the automobile to pedestrians and bicyclists in the past fifty years and how this shift affects urban design today. Using consultations and recommendations completed by Gehl himself, he illustrates many points in "Cities for People" via examples in cities such as Copenhagen, Melbourne, and New York City, among others.

Gehl outlines four goals in Chapter One of "Cities for People," which are further explored during the remaining chapters:

The Lively City refers to providing more than the most basic of needs or broadening opportunities for interactions with society. A city must join those who use public space with attractive, inviting public spaces; "Public space is the key to urban attraction." The Lively City aspect focuses on soft edges of the city: where people meet buildings.

The Safe City outlines different methods to create sound city spaces, involving traffic safety and crime prevention techniques. Gehl mentions a focus on cars leading to decreased safety; pedestrians must be the design focus. Also, an "open city" allows for people of all different socioeconomic background to intermix. Safety is also increased with soft-edge boundaries between private, semi-private, and public spaces.

Cities for People by Jan Gehl

The Sustainable City highlights the high priority on pedestrians + bicyclists and their respective infrastructure, allowing fewer resources used and a lessened impact on the environment. The focus on pedestrians + bicyclists also allows for denser cities; their infrastructure is less massive. Give the city to the pedestrians + bicyclists versus the automobile to help transition society from the automobile. Using transit-oriented development also helps connect people, bicyclists, and their "collective traffic network." Lively cities and social sustainability mean greater options, more than the most basic needs, for a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

The Healthy City focuses on combining health policy with city planning. To quote Gehl: “The price of the loss of exercise as part of a daily pattern of activity is high: a decrease in quality of life, a dramatic rise in health costs and a shorter lifespan.” Creating greater options for walking within the planning culture will result in a change in society's acceptability of walking, similar to transforming away from the automobile.

Understanding the interconnectedness of these four goals is vital for city planning. Focusing on these goals at eye level within a city will lead to a better environment for pedestrians, bicyclists, and the city as a whole.

Protected / Cities for People by Jan Gehl; Separated bicycle lane on Dunsmuir Street, downtown Vancouver, Canada

"Cities for People" has a stellar layout. The book is full of pages upon pages of color photos from a plethora of cities around the globe. As most designers tend to understand information in the form of graphics, tables, and visual sources in general, "Cities for People" really hits a positive nerve.

Perhaps the selling point of "Cities for People" is the 'toolbox.' Though the entire book can be seen as a toolkit for safe, walkable, interactive cities, this final ‘toolbox’ is the most simple and straightforward. Located as Chapter Seven, the toolbox provides an overview (with graphics) of the basic planning principles concerning the layout of a city. These range from the flow of traffic (pedestrian, automobile, bicycle, etc.) to twelve, quality criteria for an excellent city space at eye level. The highlight of the toolbox is the last few pages entitled “Reordering priorities, please.” These vital pages use real-life examples, again, to highlight putting pedestrians first with simple 'yes' and 'no' photos. This part of the toolbox depicts the ‘automobile first’ mindset of the past fifty years, and the solutions to return to pedestrian-focused cities. If you are one for graphics to see the problem clearly (and solution for that matter), the toolbox will speak to you as well.

Has your city embraced prioritizing pedestrians and bicyclists over vehicles? How could your city still improve? Do you believe in Jan Gehl's four-part approach to cities? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below. 

The Global Grid gave away two free copies of this book to a couple lucky people. Be sure to never miss one of our reviews. Follow #TheGlobalGridReads for our reviews and join our Goodreads group for opportunities to win free books in the future.

Credits: Creative Commons images courtesy of Gehl, Strelka Institue for Media, Architecture, and Design, Paul Krueger. Updated December 4, 2017.

By purchasing "Cities for People" using the links on this page, you'll be supporting The Global Grid. A small portion of the sales come back to us to support our work and book reviews like this.

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Katie Poppel comes to The Grid as a student constantly on the go. Set to graduate from the University of Cincinnati in 2014, she is studying for a bachelor of urban planning with focuses in urban design and sustainability. Her program has allowed her...

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