If you build it they will come

Calgary should follow Danish architect’s people-focused suggestions

You could call it the Field of Dreams approach to city planning: if you build it they will come.

Specifically if you build humanly scaled inviting public spaces in a city people will want to go to those spaces. If you build quality cycling infrastructure more people will hop on their bikes. If you build dense but attractive urban living spaces — not imposing towers plunked on the ground — people will want to live there.

That’s what renowned Danish architect Jan Gehl had to say when he stopped in Calgary earlier this month and his message couldn’t be more timely for a city at a crossroads about its future. Gehl advises cities from New York City to Melbourne and the thrust of his work is this: Cities should be designed for people not cars. “To a [large] extent as architects and planners we have lost our sense of scale” he says. “We’ve forgotten that we are basically a walking animal a five km/h horizontal walking animal.”

While his ideas sound obvious — of course a city should be built for people — most North American cities including ours have been designed for inefficient metal machines that probably won’t be around for much longer. Cities all have roads departments but what about the people who drive on those roads? “I don’t know of any city that has a department for pedestrians and public life” says Gehl. “And I know of very few cities that actually have records of how the city’s being used how life is developing in the city.”

In many cities around the world that’s changing. Gehl hails from Copenhagen where the city started pushing cars out of the downtown in the ’60s. Today thanks largely to Gehl’s work about 37 per cent of the city’s workers commute by bicycle (the city hopes to boost that number to 50 per cent by 2015). Copenhagen’s bike lanes are separated from traffic by parked cars — a safety barrier for cyclists that’s been emulated in other cities including New York. Most Canadian cities Gehl notes have it backwards. “They have the sidewalk and then the parked cars and then they use the bicycles to protect the parked cars.”

True enough: just look downtown at 10th Ave. S.W. supposedly a bike route (although constant construction on that street has basically obliterated any efficiency and safety the road offered cyclists in the first place). Look at any downtown street in Calgary. Cyclists are forced to risk their lives amongst heavy deadly machines often piloted by people who aren’t paying attention. Drivers are mostly protected from each other’s madness; cyclists aren’t as one Toronto bike courier tragically learned recently.

But enough of what’s wrong with the city. Calgary’s design problems are obvious — the sprawl the addiction to roads and so on. Gehl proposes a cure of sorts an imaginative vision of a city where people spend more time outside amongst other people instead of holing themselves up in their too-large homes. “The biggest interest of people is people” says Gehl. So if you build attractive city spaces where people can gather they’ll do it — even in a northern climate like Calgary’s or Copenhagen’s.

Copenhagen’s core is full of outdoor cafés even though 40 years ago planners were told it couldn’t be done. “We were told you could never have outdoor cafés because the weather was too cold in Scandinavia and furthermore it was not something Danes would ever do because we were not Italians” says Gehl. Today he says there are 7000 café seats in Copenhagen. “They come out at the beginning of March and they go in by Christmas.”

People go to these cafés because there are people at the cafés and Gehl points to babies as an example. “They try to climb out of the bed to follow what’s going on” he says. “When they can climb out they crawl after whoever is doing anything.” Later as kids they drag their toys from the bedroom to the kitchen where the parents are. “Children go where the life is” says Gehl. So do the rest of us.

Gehl isn’t talking about some wide-open public space utopia with scads of massive parks and giant concrete slabs. In fact Gehl says building too much public space in a city is one of the worst things you can do because people become too spread out and any sense of connection is lost. “Whatever you do always make too little room for it” says Gehl.

Again he gives an example: a house party. If you have too few people in too many rooms the party feels dead. “When the 50 people come put them all into the kitchen and you will have a bloody good party” he says. Cities in his mind are the same way. Perhaps that’s why Eau Claire failed so miserably — it was built with way too much space and makes you feel like you’re the only person there.

Calgary should take Gehl’s advice. Plan It the long range growth plan currently being tweaked by the city is a good start. City developers are trying to scare Calgarians into thinking that higher density would make an ugly unlivable city but in fact the opposite is true. Gehl talks about senseless density and sensitive density. Senseless density involves big towers that aren’t humanly scaled. Sensitive density by contrast is focused on people. “Make a nice city at ground level and then have higher densities behind and up above” says Gehl.

Can we do it in Calgary? Gehl thinks so. “I’ve never been working in any city anywhere in the world without somebody in the very start of the process coming over to me and saying ‘You must realize that here in Western Canada we’re more attached to our cars than they are anywhere else in the world’” says Gehl. “All over the world somebody starts to say that ‘Here things cannot change because we are different.’ Then things start to change and nobody can remember who said that in the first place.”