Scholars' Association News
Issue 33
March 2015


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Life between buildings
By Thanos Vlastos

Jan Gehl, Life between buildings. Using Public Space, translated into Greek and edited by G. Katsavounidou, P. Tarani (foreword: P. Tournikiotis), Volos: Thessaly University Press, 2013, 220 pages ISBN 978-9609439237

Jan Gehl is an active urban planner with a global reputation; one with a young mind and exceptionally subversive ideas about a world that appears to have chosen the wrong path. Whenever he has the chance he states the obvious, since the problems are the same everywhere. The developed world has set a bad example; the prime example being the car, because money lay there. In a single century (the 20th) cities were rebuilt from the foundations up, many times their original size, downgrading their past, architecture, planning, scale and above all the way of life in cities. Now the developing world is repeating the same mistakes as the developed world and is claiming the right to consume on the same scale, ignoring the fact that the planet is past coping.

The way of life in cities is Gehl’s subject, what he focuses on. He’s not interested in what happens behind closed doors or inside buildings, but what happens in the street, where you’re open to meetings, to getting to know others; where you find yourself with others, participating in what is going on, looking around, taking in deep breaths, listening, smelling, experience the city’s beat and pulse. The street also provides you with information, educates you, teaches you. Before newspapers and television existed, the street performed the role of those media, with chairs being brought out onto the pavement in local neighbourhoods with the kids playing in front. The city’s vitality manifested itself there. Today information is exchanged and communication is done via the computer, and of the millions of square metres in a city what has won us over and captures our attention is the ¼ of a square metre taken up by the computer and our chair in front of it.

This has immense repercussions on the development of society in digital cities: this society has no need of the street and so surrenders it to the car. The car has proven to be a canker that devours public space. It covers it, pollutes it, distorts it and makes it unsuitable, even hostile to stand in. Things may well have gone downhill. Cars may well have driven us out of the street, and new technologies have easily filled the gap. However, what’s really important is that the value of the city was lost in this way. Smartphones and tablets now play the same role wherever you are. Suburbs have replaced the city: isolating the residents, taking them out of historical city centres where vitality, where life itself, congregates.

We went on a walk around some of Athens’ neighbourhoods with Jan Gehl when the urban planner was invited here by the NGO Cities for Cycling and the Embassy of Denmark. During his visit Gehl gave two talks and engaged in a round table attended by the mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki. He was at a loss when faced with a situation very different from what he normally condemns, yet which is equally problematic. As a rule, his arrows are aimed at the design of modern urban plans with their depersonalised, vast open spaces, large distances between buildings which crush your spirit, and low densities. Gehl argues that it’s these characteristics that –all things being equal- produce a non-cohesive society. On the contrary, the geography of Greek cities has high densities which, while being a condition for the development in intense socialability, do lead to tragic results as well. In Greece we pretend we don’t understand what sort of cities we are building, and insist on driving cars down narrow roads that aren’t wide enough for them. To allow cars to pass we’ve narrowed the pavements, displaced the pedestrians and cyclists, refused to provide space for public transport and give it the priority that it ought to have. In the street we are close to one another, but what is primarily of concern is to get away from there as quickly as possible because everything around us is nasty and threatening.

“Take to the streets”. Experience the city based on your real needs and desires. Experience it with your body. That’s what Jan Gehl repeatedly stresses in his work. However, streets that you can stand in are rare in Greek cities. The same is true in American and in many European cities, but for different reasons: there the human body becomes disoriented, lost in the massive scale of open spaces. In his book Gehl proposes corrective solutions for the cities we have built, to stimulate and inspire the body’s senses, to encourage people to get to know the other people around them.

Gehl blames the Renaissance. That’s because the Renaissance replaced what one might call the metaphysical myths, fables and the social compact with the rationalism of the straight line and the square. From the human body the Renaissance retained only the mind. The only sense it retained was sight. It designed buildings to be seen only. It did the same with open spaces around buildings. The individual as spectator, the city as spectacle, the society of spectacle, analysed in such depth by Debord, marked the end of our ability to experience the city as a comprehensive whole.

Fully reflecting the stance of modern urban planning, Gehl highlights the need to reapportion land uses so that homes and jobs are closer, that small-scale activities are spread everywhere, that commuting distances are small, and that walking and cycling are recognised as the best ways to access the city.

Building upwards in cities has distanced residents from the street. The street needs to become more attractive to persuade residents to return to it. The fewer the number of cars in the city, the easier it will be for kids, the elderly and disabled to go out. Pedestrians and cyclists will be able to move around freely and public transport will become the cornerstone of journeys within the city. The easier it will be too to create real public spaces capable to restoring our damaged socialability and to form that sense of togetherness and communality which are so vital today for accepting different attitudes towards life, to address the serious problems faced by the urban environment and the planet.

Jan Gehl’s book is optimistic and youthful in tone. It’s in the front line of the fight for a different city; a city where the senses have priority.

(Thanos Vlastos is a professor at the NTUA in transport studies and urban planning).

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