CHRIS FREMANTLE

First people (not cars)

Posted in News, Research, Sited work by chrisfremantle on September 8, 2012

Yesterday evening at the annual Patrick Geddes Commemorative Lecture the audience was charmed into seeing the world a different way and recognising our own failures in the process.  The lecture was given by Jan Gehl, an internationally acknowledged champion of urban quality focused on and driven by people and their well-being (rather than cars or egos).

In fact his critique of architects represented them as people who looked at the world from 3 kilometres up and dropped buildings into skylines.  His counter was that the skyline was not as important as the way that the building meets the ground.  In the analysis he offered us of Edinburgh, the topography and skyline are excellent, but the point where you move the human eye level you see the disaster.

His critique of traffic engineers was equally damning.  In his analysis the past 50 years have been dominated by the motor car at the expense of everyone and everything else.  In 2012 we need to make prioritising the car in public as unacceptable as smoking – that’s the level of challenge in effect Gehl was suggesting.

So much is true and in so many ways self evident, but the full ramifications of the analysis are wider and more comprehensive than you might think.  For instance, having a Department of Walking, Cycling and Transport?  Having the driver press the button at the junction to get permission to cross, rather than the pedestrian?  Having newspaper articles about bicycle congestion and demands for wider bicycle lanes?

What was a shame was that there were only a couple of artists in the room (lots of architects and obviously a majority of urban planners), but I didn’t see people who really ought to have been there – no-one from the VeloCity programme for Glasgow, no-one from Ayr Renaissance, and I didn’t recognise anyone from the health sector.

There was a really interesting question at the end.  The individual noted that Gehl had not used the word design once in his presentation.  The questioner contrasted this with the Scottish Government’s consultation on a new Policy on Architecture and Place-making.  Gehl basically said that he did two things.  He (and his practice) worked on “programmes and Strategies” and these set the tasks for the designers.  He (particularly in his academic life) worked on the in depth understanding of people and their experiences in public spaces.  These two obviously complement each other, but in essence he is ‘bracketing’ the designers – by evaluating (and that was his word) what works and what doesn’t, and then inscribing it into Programmes and Strategies, he is driving the design agenda.

For me this demonstrated an important articulation of the value of operating between the academic and the practice, as well as everything else he said.  It all seems so obvious when Gehl says it, but then you look around.

Maybe his books should be mandatory reading not only on urban planning programmes?

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