May 11, 2020

Jan Gehl, the Covid Crisis & The Future of Tomorrow

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Toronto’s Janes Walk did a Covid required  shift from their usual fine walks and included an online experience which they could of course share across the country. They had some great virtual walks, some great panels, and they had a plenary opener that included Jan Gehl, who with his writing and his interest in people and places personifies much of what placemaking should be.

In these Covid times it was inspiring to have Jan talk about his perspective on the Covid crisis, and also hear  what the post-Covid city will look like. Jan married  psychologist Ingrid Mundt in 1961. It was her influence that completely changed his work as an architect and as a designer. Jan’s formal training had taught him the importance of modernity in design, with sweeping lawns, high rise buildings and public spaces, but he now sees that as “windy”. They are activated not by people but by weather and perception.

Ingrid’s influence taught him that public space needed to be personable, and in his practice he now sees public space as an important essential service. She also drew his attention to the gap between the built environment and how people FELT about being in places.

In 1965 Jan and Ingrid spent six months in public squares in Italy observing behaviour. An article in the local paper explained why people in Asconi might see a “beatnik” sitting in a corner of one of the town squares. This work became the basis for his books and for his philosophy behind Gehl Architects.

Jan  had a written correspondence with Jane Jacobs, and first met her in 2001. He said one of their central discussions had been about the “New Urbanism” movement, and in Jan’s words “Whether it had clothes or not” or was just a rehash of what was tried and true.

And that brings Jan to the Covid discussion. In Denmark the Covid motto translates to “All have to be close together to stay apart”.

His “doctor daughter” has told Jan that he will be in lock down and physically isolating until the end of the year. With this news Jan and Ingrid Gehl have been going to and exploring various parts of Copenhagen on their own, rediscovering city spaces and revisiting favourites. Jan has an unwavering faith in “Homo sapiens” and says we will have our lively places back. Jan sees the Covid crisis as a wakeup call, asking for redirecting resources to a greener, more sustainable way of living.

Jan expects the following as new trends:

  1. there will be an  increase in home deliveries and “those bloody vans” as people stay behind the screens of their house.
  2. the increase in personal car usage post -Covid will be temporary. You cannot dismiss that every kilometer ridden by a bike gives 25 cents back to society, while every car kilometer takes away 17 cents.
  3. Bicycle usage will increase, and smart cities will provide dedicated road space for that increased usage.
  4. There will be a major shift in storefront and in shop use as businesses struggle to survive.  Storefronts need to be animated and occupied, and a fulsome discussion needs to occur about who will pay to ensure that storefronts remain operating in some type of business or use.
  5. There will be less “senseless travelling” with air fares increasing. People need to realize that previously air travel has been “unrealistically cheap“. “Mass tourism ruin places”.
  6. Cruise ships don’t give to the economy of places other than quick daytime retail transactions. They pollute and they need to stop.

Jan sees the link between public health and planning as self-evident and perceives that public space needs to be designed for good times and bad, as an experience individually, with small family groups, or in crowds. Resiliency is key in his messaging.

As Jan states:
“In a Society becoming steadily more privatized with private homes, cars, computers, offices and shopping centers, the public component of our lives is disappearing. It is more and more important to make the cities inviting, so we can meet our fellow citizens face to face and experience directly through our senses. Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life.”

You can check out the Jane’s Walk Festival in Toronto here.

And here is one of the snappy videos advertising Toronto’s Jane’s Walks from last year.

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Comments

  1. Trends? “Senseless travel” occurs when someone travels by air half way around the world to tell us what we already know. Grab a brain people, this is stupidity in action. This is how we destroy the biosphere. And then there is the audience, the hero worshipping enablers, the architects, planners, urbanists and what nots, the cult of the assembled. And what did they learn that they did not already know? [On Feb. 03, 2011 Jen Gehl traveled to Vancouver where he delivered a lecture at the Vancouver Playhouse.]

    On this occasion Gehl travels by webinar, a new businesses model in the covid-19 era? A trend?

    It is tragic enough that 4.3 million folks have been infected worldwide, that 300,000 souls have lost their lives, cut short on average by ten years, each of them mourned by mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, partners, lovers, and sometimes strangers. This is indiscriminate carnage on a global scale, but it pales in comparison to the carnage that will follow if we should manage a return to business as usual which now seems increasingly improbable as covid-19 has entered into the human genome, hijacking our biology, taking us places that we have never known.

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