I was lucky enough to go to the Hackney Empire last week, a fantastic 1901 theatre slightly off the beaten path (we had to take the Overground to get there – well outside my usual stomping grounds). We were there for a screening of the film ‘The Human Scale,’ a documentary about the work of Jan Gehl and the way he has worked to make cities all over the world more geared toward people and less geared toward cars and high rises. His most famous book is called ‘Cities for People’ and he is to urban planning what David Attenborough is to nature documentaries, so I was super, super psyched to get to see the film and to hear the Q&A with him afterward, and the whole evening totally lived up to my expectations.
One of the major tenets of Gehl’s work is borrowed directly from traffic engineering: it is a truism in urban planning that more roads does not ease congestion; it only encourages more driving. But, it turns out, it holds for public space as well: creating more public space creates more use of public space. This has been most recently demonstrated by the changes that Jeanette Sadik-Khan has made to the New York City street grid (pedestrianizing Times Square in 2009 being the platonic example). Man, do I wish I’d thought of that.
The film (which is 90 minutes, but we saw an abbreviated 60 minute version) focuses on 5 tenets of Gehl’s work, and chooses a case study (or in some cases 2) to illustrate the ways in which Gehl’s work has been applied and to what effect. For the most part I thought it was amazing; there was a section on high-rise suburbs in China; on traffic engineering in New York City, on pedestrianization in Copenhagen; in urban interventions in Melbourne; and a final section on the rebuilding of Christchurch, New Zealand. Gehl gave a short presentation on London, as well.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in New York but none in China, Copenhagen or Melbourne. However, I did spend two very full days exploring Christchurch about a year ago. The city was devastated by a series of earthquakes in 2011-2012 that hit the downtown area especially hard – so much so that as of a year ago, a huge section of the city was still completely fenced off, completely inaccessible unless you were part of the demolition crew. In the initial rebuilding, the city moved to minimise parking and to restrict buildings to 6 stories, which a feasibility study suggested was most appropriate to Christchurch conditions – above 6 stories, buildings need stronger foundations and reinforcements that render extra stories less lucrative than is commonly imagined. Gehl Architects were called in to help the city envision its future and to create a redevelopment plan that respected the human scale and restored the city’s quality of life, though responsibility for the plan was subsequently taken away from the city government. And when I was there in March 2013, there were giant boards advertising the city’s bold plan of action.
It did not live up to my hopes and dreams.
The film made it clear that the outcome of the planning process was not everything Gehl Architects (not to mention Christchurch city planners) had hoped. And the scale of the disaster is something that’s hard to comprehend from a documentary film. Christchurch faces an uphill battle, even with Gehl Architects’ advice: New Zealand, as much as many parts of the US, is a car-dominated city (712 cars per 1000 people, vs. 828 in the US). A map of Christchurch is almost funny – even the most novice mapreader will be able to tell where the master-planned portion of the city ends:
Like many colonial cities, Christchurch was founded on the site of a Maori settlement in the mid-19th century. The streets reflect the city’s origin and subsequent expansion, which is to say: they are really, really wide. In the US, midwestern cities (the same vintage as Christchurch) were built wide to accommodate streetcars and today are being retrofitted with bike lanes (and, in my hometown’s case, they’re resurrecting the streetcars. Woot!). I’m sure this is something that Gehl & Co. took into account when they actually made their recommendations to the city. But a few things struck me as I walked around, none of which were addressed by the masterplan the city ultimately ended up with or in ‘The Human Scale:’
1. The city is car-dominated. There are some lovely, quiet residential streets and a big park and some reasonably pleasant stuff, but the routes between them are dominated by wide avenues full of fast-moving traffic. While some early recovery projects have sought to address this, there was not a city-wide effort to address the ratio of pedestrian to car space.
2. The pace of rebuilding is frenetic, even with a big chunk of the city centre fenced off and still being demolished. Everywhere you go, you see billboards advertising new construction. The use, heights, scale and design quality of the buildings varied considerably.
3. The city masterplan is published and hanging on big boards outside the cathedral (which is fenced off, but as a major tourist attraction, has a special access point that allows yahoos like me to get a good view). The masterplan focuses on a series of mega-projects, like a new healthcare centre and a new conference facility, at the expense of the parts of the city people actually live in. I thought the future city outlined outside the cathedral represented a huge missed opportunity, and I will be detailing my logic in successive posts.
In the meantime, please note that my experience of the city is already outdated, as is ‘The Human Scale,’ both of which are from 2013. If there have been developments that I have missed, please let me know.