With a winking apology to the ornithology set, the renowned Danish architect Jan Gehl last week laid out his â€œone stone-five birdsâ€ strategy for a brand of urban transformation that unapologetically privileges pedestrians and cyclists while methodically squeezing cars out of the downtown.
And, as the 73-year-old Gehl told a standing-room only crowd at the Design Exchange last week, the benefits of a city with vibrant public spaces accrue broadly: â€œWe have come to realize that a lively city has a higher degree of social inclusion,â€ said Gehl, who has long been involved with efforts to close off many of Copenhagen’s downtown streets while dramatically increasing its network of bike lanes. â€œIt’s important for democracy if people from different groups can meet each other in their communities rather than sitting at home and watching television.â€
Inspiring sentiments, but will council and city officials hear them as the right, eyes trained on next year’s municipal election, seeks to brand Mayor David Miller as an ideologue waging a war on cars?
City planning officials did their part to bring Jehl — who has played a key role in New York City’s pedestrian and cycling strategies — to Toronto, introduce him to key players and shop him around to reporters. But the city’s media ignored his appearance — an omission that will make it easier for the mayor’s party to either duck his advice or, more likely, cherry-pick the easy bits (more on this in a moment).
In a nutshell, Gehl argues that city cores become livelier, safer, more attractive, more sustainable and healthier (the five birds) if municipal governments restrict cars in core areas (one stone) using a variety of methods, including removing lanes, widening sidewalks, and programming downtown traffic signals to impede, rather than expedite, vehicular movement.
But, Gehl added, tactics are crucial. His advice to municipal clients such as Melbourne and NYC is to move by increments, and then to closely document the impact of such changes using regularly updated â€œpublic life surveys.â€
The idea, Gehl pointed out, is that city officials should have at their fingertips meticulous data showing how reductions in vehicle access are linked to increasing cycling and pedestrian activity. Among his most interesting indicators is the number of outdoor café seats. When collected at regular intervals, such information provides a bulwark against complaints from car-friendly politicians or retailers complaining about losing customers. â€œHaving figures and facts is better than having heated discussions about pre-conceived notions that go nowhere.â€
Copenhagen is a showcase for such methods, as its unique modal split clearly indicates. According to Gehl, 36% of Copenhagen residents bike to work, 33% take transit, 5% walk and 27% drive. Indeed, he said in recent years the bike culture has become so dominant that the city has been grappling with congestion on its bike lanes (solution: they were widened at the expense of vehicle lanes). The city’s current goal is that residents should be walking 20% per day more by 2015.
Gehl noted that the City of Melbourne sought out his firm’s advice in the early 1990s to combat a hole-in-the-donut problem with its own downtown. Between 1994 and 2004, Melbourne moved to increase downtown residential and student space, invested in high quality street furniture and public art, and widened sidewalks. Today, there are 40% more people in the core, and twice as many who walk. â€œThey did everything we suggested.â€ Vacancies have plummeted while Melbourne now routinely scores in the top ten of global city livability rankings.
As for New York, this month’s radical change at Times Square signals what will eventually become the closure of much of Broadway, a truly historic development for public space advocates. â€œIf you can do it there,â€ quipped Gehl, â€œyou can do it anywhere.â€
Even Toronto? Hmmm.
As I heard it, Gehl was telling our policy makers that while pacing matters, half measures (the Jarvis Street rework being the latest pungent example) spoil the broth.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see the City begin commissioning public life surveys without making substantive changes to downtown traffic policies.
So here are a few questions for the readers of Spacing Wire: Should Toronto close off a major downtown street, and if so, which one? And where should the city begin to experiment with genuinely segregated bike lanes (i.e., between the sidewalk and parked cars)?