Jan Gehl on How To Make Cities More Liveable and Sustainable

Jan Gehl has made himself quite a name as the "guru" of city liveability and people-friendly urban design. In this interview he shares his story: how it all began, what motivates him, the success factors of good urban planning and which challenges city developers and managers will face in the years ahead.

Also: what he thinks about "placemaking" and what helped Copenhagen to become the prototype of a livable city. 

Jan, having dedicated most of your professional career to urban design and city development projects around the world, do you remember what first drew your attention to how city planning and architecture influence public life?

In 1960 I graduated as an Architect from the Royal Academy School of Architecture in Copenhagen. And the main subject for students in the late 1950s was training to be a good Modernist: areas for living, working, recreation and communication should always be separated. Instead of a focus on spaces as in the past, the focus must by now be on the buildings. Actually a rather technocratic approach to cities and housing.

I left the School of Architecture eager to do all these new fantastic things for mankind. Then, just after my graduation, I married a psychologist and suddenly I was confronted with a completely new set of questions: “Why are you architects not interested in people?” And: “Why do they not teach you anything about people in the architecture schools?”

Very good questions indeed, which led to me going back to school of architecture for another 40 years to find out more about people and architecture. By that time nothing was known about this subject, and I (and other researchers in other countries) had to start from square one:

“How does architecture and city planning influence the conditions and quality of life for people?”

How have your views on urban design – or placemaking, as it is now often referred to – changed since then?

My first book “Life between Buildings” from 1971 was very much about Homo Sapiens and how this creature was influenced by the physical surroundings. This book is now 48 years old (and still coming out in new languages (Islandic and Arabic are the latest versions).

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