Vladan Šír
Leave the cars in the past. Architect Jan Gehl returns to Prague.

He spent half a century studying how to design cities that would benefit their inhabitants. At the very least, Europe, with its old cities and narrow streets in the centers, should return to a time before modernism and the explosive development of the automobile, says architect and urban planner Jan Gehl. At the age of eighty-seven, he keeps up with the latest technology and says it can help us get people walking again. He visited CAMP on 16 October 2023, and Prague has long been working with his team to transform the North-South Arterial Road (Magistrala).

This is your first visit to Prague in eight years. What are your observations?

I realize today, as I did then, that you have more cars per one thousand inhabitants here than in Denmark. This love of motor vehicles arrived late to the Czech Republic, but it is very strong and has resulted in a number of problems. Walking around the city, it is obvious that the number of parking spaces is not sufficient, and people are fighting for space for their cars. Cities with historic centers were not built for cars, but for people. So, if you live in the center, it should be a rule that you don't automatically have your car in front of your house, as you have plenty of services and public transport available. If you want a car or even two in the family, then you're better off living in the suburbs. If you want a boat, you also go to the port. I really think we're going to have to find a way to reduce the number of cars in cities, otherwise cities will become small, poor versions of Los Angeles. We could get into an uncomfortable situation where you sit in the car for half an hour and only get a kilometer away from your house. I'd be surprised if anyone called that a good quality of life.

So, do you think that cars are the biggest challenge for European cities today?

I say we have two enemies. One was modernism, and the other was allowing so many cars. If we were reinventing the transport and mobility system today, I am sure we would not have come up with the idea that everyone should own a ton of steel on four rubber wheels. This was invented 125 years ago in Detroit, in the Wild West. And in that time and place, it was ideal. It is not so ideal for today, for ancient cities with dense housing, for a society with a large number of elderly people that also wants better care for children. It goes against the logic of resource use and sustainability.

Jan Gehl is a Danish architect, urban planner and university professor. As a consultant, he participated in the development of cities in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia.

Author: Jan Malý , Source: IPR Praha

Are technological innovations such as car sharing the way to go?

We could have a combination of car sharing and driverless electric cars. Technology offers us a number of solutions, but holding on to 125-year-old technology is just plain stupid. The number of cars can be minimized in various ways. One is very effective and involves reducing parking spaces. Another is to reduce speeds on the streets, so that car journeys will be longer. The price of fuel can also be increased significantly, or a charge can be introduced for entering certain zones. By contrast, ideas about flying taxis and drones strike me as horrible. I don't like the idea of filling the sky just to make more room for cars on the streets. I can imagine, however, that they could be used to transport medicines to islands, of which we have plenty in Denmark.

What trends do you see in urban development?

One trend we already know about is that the population is aging. We will have more and more elderly people in cities; pensioners will make up about 35% of their population, and most of them will be in good shape. The length of time that people work, not necessarily full-time, but in some form, will also increase. Another trend is the aforementioned flirting with new technologies for mobility, but we also see the opposite trend, where people are no longer thinking about mobility and are focusing on quality of life in smaller communities. They do it in Paris, for example, where, under the leadership of the clever mayor Anne Hidalgo, they developed the idea of the 15-minute city during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to this idea, life should move more slowly and you should have all your daily needs within walking distance, i.e., within a fifteen-minute walk. It kind of goes back to the fact that we are, after all, homo sapiens, a walking animal. It's interesting that we walk indoors, where we wouldn't even think of getting a ride, but once we step out on the street, it's the Wild West.

In Prague, Jan Gehl spoke about the future of cities.

Author: Jan Malý , Source: IPR Praha

You're an architect by training. When did you start working in what you call humanistic urban planning?

There are two explanations for this. One is that I married a psychologist right after I graduated from architecture school. It introduced me to a lot of people in social sciences who kept asking me questions: Why don't you architects actually care about people at all? And why is nothing taught about people in architectural schools? The second explanation is that I started my career restoring medieval churches and designing new churches. I worked for a very nice architect who was once approached by a client, also a Christian, who owned a large piece of land and wanted to build a residential project on it. So he came over and asked if we could help him with that. He didn't want the usual clusters of houses, but instead something that would benefit people and that he could be proud of. We realized at the time that we didn't really know what it was supposed to be. We knew what was fashionable in architecture but not what was good for people. So I started talking to my wife and her colleagues about it and asking them: Do you know what would be good for people? They had no idea, either. We had no knowledge in this regard. I therefore had to do it myself, and I was one of the pioneers. It shows how damn old I am.

Where did you draw inspiration and knowledge from back then?

That's easy. When we started talking about what would be good for people, my wife and I got a scholarship to go to Italy. We went there for six months, and I had the opportunity to observe how the Italians use the streets and squares, especially the piazzas. Nobody was concerned about it before, everyone merely noticed the style: this is a Renaissance square, this is a Baroque square. And so I started to collect data on how things work in Italian squares.

Eleven years ago, your book Cities for People was published in Czech. Is there anything you would change in it today?

No, the book is still being published in other countries. Soon, I will go to Lithuania, where they are preparing a translation into the 39th language. But I wouldn't change anything about it. The book is about the species homo sapiens, which hasn't changed that much in eleven years.


Explore CAMP's expert curated audio content on Bloomberg Connects. Download the app for free.