Ideas that Gehl

Jan Gehl from Copenhagen was speaking last night at the Museum of Nature to an over-flow crowd. His is the gospel of new urbanism, taming the car, focussing on pedestrians and cyclists.

Here are some of his observations I thought particularly apt, with some of my comments in [ ].

  • planners have lost the sense of human scale and make spaces too big for the size of the population expected. [ I think this is a direct result of planning for buildings to be admired from cruising cars, and the feeling, shared by politicians, that big must be better]. [in Ottawa, throw in another complication: the NCC loves huge spaces for once-a-year celebration crowds and makes posters of these … the rest of the year, spaces languish in over-sized splendor]
  • indulge in happiness — a good city is where people stay and linger [this is in direct contrast to Ottawa’s commuter attitude where downtown office dwellers simply cannot wait to get out, to get away, to flee. I am reminded of a prominent real estate manger who told me civil servants were the kiss of death to any building. Complexes like Constitution Sq made a big deal — at first — that they would be private sector-tennanted buildings, but eventually the cubicles crept in. Place de Ville mall is dead, 90 Sparks dying, Esplanade Laurier dying, 240 Sparks shrinking. Certainly Ottawa office workers don’t linger — is it the worker? the employer? the geographic space?the reality of commuter life?]
  • 1930-1960 planning was the era of segregated land uses, of high rises in the park. Since 1955 planning has been all about cars: the purpose of planning was to make more room for cars. Traffic planners exist to make cars happy. [certainly this mindset continues to prevail at city hall, amongst a number of councillors, and at least one mayoral candidate. Bronson Avenue as the epitome of city planning anyone??]
  • some developers hover over the city in helicopters, spot an empty lot, and drop down a high rise building. This is bird-shit planning. [it’s also Ottawa’s version of smart growth…]
  • a key test to apply to any scheme is the “eight to eighty” measure: will it meet the needs of an eight year old? of an eighty year old? If it meets those groups’s needs, it is likely to meet everyone’s. [ alas, another metric most Ottawa schemes, projects, and planning philosophies flunk totally, whether downtown, near the core, or in older and newer suburbs].
  • after 50 years with the old car-centric grand-building model, there is a new paradigm, with five key tennents: a lively city has people, an attractive city is pedestrian scaled, a safe city is mobile via public transit and enticing to walkers, it is sustainable, and it is healthy. [the new Preston and West Wellie streets almost meet these criteria, King Eddy flunks, as does Merivale road and BC]
  • more asphalt always leads to more traffic. Planning must reduce the asphalt, supply less parking, and charge for traffic rather than subsidizing it.

My main take away: why isn’t Marie LeMay running for mayor of Ottawa? She is the only one of the lot with a modern vision that has worked in Europe and is now working in NYC and could be fashioned to work in Ottawa.

Gehl’s book Cities for People can be ordered from at a coupon #5737-20 price of $39.60 plus $8.50 shipping plus 5% HST. It is also available through Amazon and for $49.50.

I asked the OPL to buy it for frugal urban dreamers.

5 thoughts on “Ideas that Gehl

  1. Hey Eric,

    Great post again. I have lived in Belgium (bikers’ paradise), and biked in Copenhagen (another biker’s dream) so it was great to get the rundown on Jan Gehl’s perspective. Since there are many of us who think like this why are our choices for mayor so dismal? Full disclosure: I am youngish with a young family, I bike basically everywhere I go, including work, live just west of Preston on Gladstone. I love trains, fully support the downtown tunnel – your post about why Ottawa needs one said it all – I want better support for cyclists and pedestrians; if it were up to me, in my pipe dream, that is, I’d toll the Queensway and put that money into building a 6 line LRT with a tunnel under Rideau Street as well. That said, who should I support for mayor? I think Clive Doucet is wrong on transit (no tunnel in his vision). Larry O’Brien, I trust to build the tunnel (or ram it down everyone’s throat but that’s fine with me) but he also wants an outer ring road which I cannot fathom the need for. Do people from Kanata, Orleans and Barrhaven really need a better route to get to each other’s Costco’s? Jim Watson, was against the tunnel before he was for it so I am not sure if I trust him to stick to it if he gets elected. Might he just be trying to get support from tunnel supporters only to turn around and push the reset button on transit again? AGAIN?!?! Only a couple of weeks to go and I don’t know who to vote for…..

    1. And exactly why do you need a tunnel for light rail?

      The entire argument for putting light rail in a tunnel seems to revolve around “it’s not working for buses on the surface so it won’t for light rail either”.

      Buses (and cars) so dominate our thinking in Ottawa that few apparently can conceive of things working any differently for other modes.

  2. From the NCC’s website, LeMay is from Gatineau.

    Although the question was not relevant (and should have politely been shunted aside as such), I was dismayed by LeMay’s rambling and buck-passing to the question from the man who asked about the dismal and dangerous lack of safe cycle and pedestrian crossings of the two NCC parkways along the canal. As much as hiring Gehl and his team is a plus, her ramble about interjurisdictionality made me wonder why the cities were not there (or if they were invited to co-sponsor the event). (Also, I am hard pressed to see how putting a stoplight on an NCC road requires the city, though I am not surprised if it does.)

    It still seems like there are too many hands in the pot, and the individual relative impotence of each will lead to more of the same, regardless of LeMay’s best intentions.

  3. As a quick post-script–if the NCC is limited to act in even making safe pedestrian crossings between the Canal trail and the city streets across Col By or Queen Elizabeth, what good will come from her hiring a consultant? Where is the City of Ottawa and the City of Gatineau?

  4. Eric,

    Here’s a link to a nice little inspiring video about what New York City has been able to do in three short years. It’s relevent and on topic as I think Jan Gehl was involved in the transformation of Time Square (which is featured in the video).


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