Monday, December 14, 2009

Jan Gehl, Planner Extraordinaire

A name that I became familiar with only after reading David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries over the Thanksgiving holiday (a complete review is on its way) was that of Jan Gehl, a Danish urban planner who is largely responsible (as far as I can fathom) for making Copenhagen the world bicycling paragon that it is. I have spoken before about Copenhagen and its self-propagated images and perceptions, and frankly, I've been less than complimentary, because I think that the most vocal Danish bicycle proponents confuse cause and effect and fail to give credit where it's due (Mikael Colville-Andersen, in his talk in Washington DC, did not mention Gehl).

But if he is not personally so, Gehl appears to be close to the source itself. He's an architect and planner, and principal in Gehl Architects (who have one of the coolest Flash web front-ends I've ever seen.)

New York has a significant connection to Gehl as well. The New York City Department of Transportation hired Gehl as a consultant to survey its streets in 2007 and, by no coincidence bicycling is up in that city as well. Perhaps related to this connection, the New York Times has seen fit to recognize Gehl in its ninth annual Year in Ideas issue of the Sunday magazine.

Byrne talks about Gehl in several places in his book. He introduces him talking about Melbourne and the success they've had in making their city much more liveable. Byrne describes Gehl as
a visionary yet practical urban planner who has successfully tranformed Copenhagen into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city.. We here in New York think that's .. all well and good for the Danes, but New Yorkers are .. independent minded, so that can't happen here. But Gehl reveals that his proposals initially met with exactly that kind of opposition over there: the locals said, "We Danes will never agree to this—Danish people won't ride bikes." [emphasis mine]
There are many reasons to be hopeful and engaged after reading Byrne's book, but I must say that I found the above paragraphs to be the most inspirational I'd read in quite a while.

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