By David Briggs

On Wednesday, September 15, I attended a lecture by Jan Gehl at the Center for Architecture. Gehl is a Danish architect specializing in improving urban quality and has been working with New York City for the past three years to help create public places where people can relax and enjoy the urban experience on foot or their bicycles. I have to admit that I had not heard of Gehl until recently – like Lady Gaga, all of the sudden he was everywhere. David Byrne mentions him frequently in “Bicycle Diaries,” so as someone who has biked sporadically to work for the past twenty years and used to listen to the Talking Heads, I wanted to hear what Gehl had to say.

After introductions by AIANY president Anthony Schirripa, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, and Department of Transportation Commissioner Jeanette Sadik-Kahn, Gehl started off by comparing the experience of a city with attending a great party - you end up staying much longer than originally planned. As a Brooklyn resident since 1988 and an occasional Manhattan resident before that, it is an apt although not entirely complete metaphor for my experience. I did come to the city because it seemed that something was going on that I wanted to be a part of. But I also came to the city for the very reason that I sometimes do not go to parties – I did not want to live in a place where I knew everybody. That has changed over the years: I have made friends, started a business, got married and had kids, still play softball, referee my sons’ soccer games, and have become more involved with community issues. The social spheres that surround these parts of my life ebb and flow depending on the circumstances, which is the beauty of it to me – there is not just one party.

Despite the constant challenges with noisy neighbors, petty crime, overcrowded subway stations, and a bureaucratic public education system, the city works for me. Gehl recognizes that there are many small, but rich experiences and that the very act of walking down a neighborhood street is not solely about getting to our destination. We take note of new restaurants, look at construction sites, obey and disobey traffic signals, take short cuts through small parks, avoid tourists, buy a hot dog, go to the bank, wave to friends, and so on. When a planner joins us, he or she sees the city in a very different way than the ones who insist on looking at a city from above. Jane Jacobs looked out her window in the West Village and witnessed a series of events and interactions that were often taken for granted. Robert Moses was not interested in these quotidian rituals – as most urban planners in the 1950-1960s, he saw the city as a map where places needed to be connected via high-speed automobile networks. Gehl wants us to slow down and enjoy the view.

Gehl presented several examples of cities that were in the process of transforming themselves to pedestrian and bicycle-friendly urban centers. Although Melbourne and Copenhagen’s ambitions are impressive, the most stunning image he showed was how the Cheonggyecheon River was reclaimed in Seoul, South Korea. The river was covered up by a freeway in the 1970s and had become one of the noisiest and congested areas of the city. In 2001, the recently elected mayor decided that the freeway would come down, the river restored, and a new Bus Rapid Transit system created. Automobile traffic was cut in half and the project was completed in 2005.

During his talk and the follow up Q+A session, it was apparent that many of the cities where he works have visionary leaders. He explained how the mayor of Copenhagen realized a few years ago that if he slowly reduced the number of parking garages in the city center, then it would be harder for people to park their cars and encourage them to take public transportation. Commissioner Sadik-Kahn has embraced this strategy by quickly implementing Gehl’s recommendations to create pedestrian-only zones at Times Square, Herald Square, Madison Park, and Union Square. However, when Mayor Bloomberg was attempting to push through congestion pricing a couple of years ago, it died when the politicians in the New York State Assembly refused to support it. They may have been protecting the interests of their constituents, but they are hardly protecting the public’s interest.

Closer to home, Commissioner Burden must share Gehl and Commissioner Sadik-Kahn’s vision and develop a more ambitious strategy for rezoning our neighborhoods. The city has been looking at the Gowanus area from above and has predictably proposed zoning changes that will result in more people and cars without suggesting any ideas for integrating the neighborhood into a sophisticated urban network of paths, bicycle lanes, community facilities, and access to public transportation. Developers will be entrusted to green their buildings and remediate their contaminated properties while squeezing out an acceptable profit margin. This is the wrong approach and if we are to create vibrant, divergent communities, our civic leaders and planners must learn to design our communities from the perspective of someone walking down the street.

Towards the end of his lecture, Gehl pointed out that in the last three years New York City has added more miles of bicycle paths than Copenhagen has in the last fifty years. This is an amazing statistic, but one has to keep in mind that some of these paths are no more than a few paint marks – try following the one down Centre Street to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge during rush hour; it is practically suicidal and you are close enough to the cars to reach in and change the radio station. The best bike lanes are the ones that drivers and pedestrians can see: the dedicated lanes on Ninth Avenue, Grand Street, and along Prospect Park West; the street lanes that are painted green; and the beautiful bike path along the Hudson River.

Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Kahn, with the help of Gehl and an impressive array of talent at the Department of Transportation have started to transform the way we engage with the city’s public spaces. Let us hope that it is the beginning of a great party.

Photo by Peter Rae of the Sydney Morning Herald