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Lessons from Jan Gehl

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For the fifth consecutive year, Melbourne has been named the world’s most liveable city by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual survey. While the ranking is based on a range of factors such as healthcare, culture, education and infrastructure, Secret Agent believes that Melbourne’s success is due to thoughtful urban design.

We owe it to Jan Gehl, the Danish architect and urban designer who worked together with Melbourne City Council in the early 1990s to transform the city from, in his own words, “neutron-bombed, not a soul – not even a cat”, into a place for people. Much of our laneway culture and outdoor dining today can be attributed to Gehl’s visionary thinking and humanistic approach to urban design.

Three main principles can be drawn from Gehl’s work:

1. Design the city at 5km/h

Cities had always been designed for people, who move at a modest speed of about 5km/h, up until the boom of the automobile in the 1960s. New cities were then designed at 60km/h – wider, further apart, less accessible by foot. Gehl’s intervention in Melbourne applied the human scale of the older, 5km/h cities, giving birth to our laneway culture that is now inseparable from the city’s identity. Narrow, dense and brimming with life, there is a certain magic that comes with compact spaces.

Thanks to Gehl and planning changes, Melbourne CBD has gained 20 hectares of footpaths over 15 years. Designing walkable urban spaces encourages people to do so, resulting in a healthier population. Think about how far a person has to walk to get from A to B; is it a comfortable distance? If it necessarily becomes a lengthy walk, can it be a safe, pleasant and eventful journey?

2. Design the city at eye level

The city at 5km/h, naturally, becomes the city at eye level. There must be visual interest or the opportunity for interaction at eye level to enrich the experience of a space. When Gehl suggested to Melbourne city planners in 1978 that it needed more sidewalk cafes, he was met with disapproval, due to its health risks and Melbourne’s harsh weather. Today, the city has over 200 outdoor cafes.

Imagine yourself walking along Swanston Street or Bourke Street Mall on any given afternoon of the week. Chances are you’ve also thought about the large crowds, buskers, outdoor diners and corporate workers having their takeaway lunches out in the sun. Our city presents many opportunities to stop and have a conversation, or simply sit and enjoy people-watching.

3. Life > Space > Buildings

Start by designing for life. What will people be doing; eating, walking, playing? Where can people stand or sit; will there be an opportunity to sit in the afternoon sun? By first painting a picture of how people will feel and behave, we can craft urban spaces to accommodate them. Only then do we consider how buildings can enrich the environment and preserve the flow of daily life.

Urban developments that fail typically suffer from the same syndrome: they’re bland and stark, where buildings are just objects in space. There’s nothing to do or see, and they fall short of making that transition from spaces to places.

As Melbourne’s population grows, Secret Agent hopes that we continue to build liveable and walkable places for people. Let’s not forget the most important lesson from Gehl:

“Every time we build something, we manipulate the conditions of people’s lives, but most planners don’t know enough about this manipulation. We are manipulating every time we put down a stone.”

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