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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

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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...

  • Anne Hamilton

    Thanks for offering the giveaways! Sounds like an interesting book – would like read more about how health is related to cities.

  • Lily Mathews

    Looks great. I remember the first time I checked out Life Between Buildings from my school design library and it was this great, eery blue paperback with a graphic straight from the 1970s. Love that this conversation has evolved and is still relevant today.

  • Po Sun

    Love Gehl’s work and all of his principles to make cities truly for the people that live in them.

  • Alie Cote

    It seems to me that a majority of contemporary writing on cities and sustainable cities, is a reiteration of the classic, Life and Death of American Cities, by the ‘Mother of Urban Design’, Jane Jacobs. What I find interesting in Gehls book, is that he has been part of the conversation about cities for the last 40 years, and seems to have evolved his theory to match current trends and practices in both everyday life and practice.

    However, I am skeptical as to the ‘toolbox’ approach to simplifiing city theory. I do not think dynamic cities and spaces can be compartmentalized into 12 criteria, yet contemporary practice continually tried to create rules to follow for good urban design. True ‘good urban design’ is an understanding of the criteria which can respond to a city or space and enhance the unique charateristics of the place and more importantly, the people who live there.

  • Prior to the 2010/11 earthquakes in Christchurch NZ Gehl had prepared a report on revitalising the city centre. After the quakes his firm was commissioned to collate the 100,000 submissions from ordinary citizens in the ‘share an idea’ workshops. After preparing an extensive plan for a clean green people focused 21st century city reflecting a consensus the National government adopted the failed top down ‘Katrina disaster recovery model’ and set about rewriting the plan to suit a narrow set of oligarchical interests. Gehls ideas have been severely diluted if not completely ignored at this point in the rush to rebuild a poor facsimile of what had previously existed.

  • I’m glad some have enjoyed Gehl’s work as much as I have!
    Alie: I agree that most authors today look back to the classics; as history repetes itself, we (society) will always look to the past for guidance, solutions, etc. I also feel Gehl has more of a focus on specific design aspects, whereas Jane Jacobs is possibly more on the sociological side. (With that said, both authors have insight into both the design and sociology of urban spaces and cities.) Gehl, in both Cities for People and Life Between Buildings, seems to focus on the bicycle as a solution to the automobile dependency we have seen in the last decade, where Jacobs does not seem to address the ‘age of the automobile.’ Yet, they both have a strong connection between the liveliness of cities and their respective public spaces. There are quite a few similarities, but I think Gehl has made some strong points visually in Cities for People for society today.
    In terms of the toolbox approach, I still like Gehl’s straightforward approach. He is simply giving possible solutions that have worked in other cities (i.e. Copenhagen, Melbourne, etc,) of which can be tweaked to apply to other cities around the world. I have always liked City Comforts (Sucher, Revised 2003) as a ‘toolbox’ as well; it follows three important guidelines for ‘comfortability,’ all of which can be applied almost universally to commercial, urban spaces. I have not read all of Gehl’s work, nor have I followed him for the years he has been active, so I cannot answer to whether he has evolved his theories to match current trends. I would like to think he is providing more evidence for the solidarity of current trends? Thanks for your feedback!

  • Danny: Thanks for sharing! That’s interesting to learn about Gehl and his team in NZ. I’ll have to find an article about it!

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