Speaker Suggests NYC Department of Pedestrians and Public Life

Event: Livable Streets: A New Vision for the Upper West Side
Location: Jewish Community Center, 11.06.07
Speakers: Jan Gehl, Dr. Litt., Architect MAA, FRIBA — Professor Emeritus of Urban Design, School of Architecture, Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, & Founding Partner, Gehl Architects; Janette Sadik-Khan — Commissioner, NYC Department of Transportation; Mark Gorton — Executive Director, The Open Planning Project (TOPP); Paul Steely White — Executive Director, Transportation Alternatives
Organizers: NYC Streets Renaissance; Transportation Alternatives; TOPP; Project for Public Spaces

Upper West Side Streets Renaissance

Courtesy Upper West Side Streets Renaissance

The challenge of reshaping city streets, and New York City government’s newfound willingness to rise to that challenge, can be explained by two photos shown by Jan Gehl, Dr. Litt., Architect MAA, FRIBA. One, distilling the bodily effects of neglected public space, showed a staircase leading to a San Diego building labeled “FITNESS,” with escalators on the sides; the only human figures were riding the up escalator. The other, taken during city officials’ recent fact-finding trip to Gehl’s hometown of Copenhagen, shows NYC Department of City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, Hon, AIANY, and NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan on bikes, beaming. For an audience packed with Upper West Siders and Transportation Alternativists, the commissioners’ smiles carried news that they get it, and now they’re the ones calling the shots.

The “tsunami of cars” in recent decades, Gehl points out, has fostered large-scale collective amnesia about the historic purposes and joys of cities: as meeting places, marketplaces, sites of cultural mixing, and all-around enjoyment. Every city has a traffic department, he notes, but none has a Department of Pedestrians and Public Life. For cars to figure so prominently in planning processes, everything moving at a slower pace steps aside. The result is abandoned public space, mechanized human movement, and other ills compounding the consequences, environmental and otherwise.

Gehl’s studies of “the re-conquered city,” particularly those featured in his 2001 book New City Spaces (Barcelona, Lyon, Strasbourg, Freiburg, Portland, Curitiba, Cordoba, Melbourne, and Copenhagen), focuses on how these communities have won back public space through a combination of defensive and constructive measures. To slow down the onslaught, he advocates a range of traffic-calming strategies, including limits on free parking, congestion pricing where applicable, and incremental narrowing of high-speed streets; the corresponding positive steps include expansion of pedestrian plazas, upgrading of street furniture, support for art and other amenities in public space, and promotion of bicycling, which statistics suggest becomes dramatically safer as numbers of cyclists rise.

The success of Gehl’s approach is evident in soaring rates of bike commuting even in snow-prone Copenhagen, repeated high rankings for Melbourne (“one of the most dull and lifeless city centers in the world” just 10 years earlier) in global livability polls, and the sharp reduction of auto traffic in London’s congestion-pricing zone. Now, as consultant to PlaNYC 2030, he aims to bring similar results to NYC.

Each of the combined efforts can make headway, and NYC has taken one significant step in this direction with the new Ninth Avenue bike lane. But the most critical change, Gehl insists, is in the public mindset: to build a more livable and sustainable city, people need to overcome fatalism about the inevitability of auto traffic. The crowd’s uproarious support indicates that at least parts of NYC are more than ready for change. The UWS community has historically been progressive enough to serve as a testbed for Gehl’s strategies. The real challenge, of course, will come when he brings his message to audiences whose ideologies and interests still favor King Car’s single melody over the rich harmonies of human-scale city life.