Jan Gehl: the liveable city and death of car culture

| May 9, 2016
Credit: Ashley Bristowe & Gehl Architects

Credit: Ashley Bristowe & Gehl Architects

This article is based on an interview conducted of Jan Gehl by kommunen.dk. All quotes are translated from Danish, and the original interview can be found here.

Jan Gehl has throughout his 50 year career shaped the development of Copenhagen and dozens of other cities across the world. Today his concept of the liveable city centred on human needs, is widely accepted as the new goal for urban planners to strive for, an idea which started off as a break with modern car-centric top-down managed urbanism. But what does the man behind this major postmodern urbanist movement has to say about the phenomena now?

Healthy inhabitants

Recently the scientific journal The Lancet published a study of 14 cities throughout the world, clearly correlating the physical aspects of neighbourhoods with the physical activity of inhabitants, despite cultural and geographical differences. This does not come as a surprise for Gehl who states that:

“The dense city is simply healthier. And it is interesting that the Municipality of Copenhagen has a very exact policy of increasing cycling and walking as much as possible” Gehl goes on to say that: “We know that urban planning which promotes an hour of physical activity each day results in an increased life expectancy of 7 years. It is a very important goal for today’s urban planning to create healthy cities”.

Municipalities’ focus on healthy inhabitants is no shock, as obesity, diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases flourish throughout the developed world. Proper urban planning can be a decisive blow against these problems, but according to Gehl this involves getting rid of the “car invasion” in cities.

The death of car culture (and suburbs?)

Jan Gehl is not fond of cars, to say the least. According to Gehl the car is outdated and no longer makes sense as a type of mobility in contemporary cities:

“The car is a lousy technical solution today. It is 115 years old and comes from the Wild West in Detroit. It was probably a good idea back when cities were small and you actually lived in the Wild West. But if you go to Tokyo which houses 30 million, then the car is a completely insane mobility solution when that many people have to get around every day. It is simply impossible”.

But what about the suburbs who rely on cars? In Denmark the ideas used to be a suburban house, a car for both mom and dad, and a dog for the kids to play with in the big green garden that comes with low density housing. However the 21st century has proved to cause massive problems for rural and suburban areas, as a new generation of families no longer long for this segregated lifestyle due to the massive improvements to quality of life in cities. This is an obvious effect of today’s cities being more ‘liveable’ but according to Gehl, the suburbs have one other fundamental issue:

“Suburbs are built on the principle of cheap petrol. If there is less petrol, or not so cheap petrol, the suburbs have a problem. Currently oil has fallen in prize, but it the prize will increase again. I am sure of it because it’s a limited resource, and there is a hefty demand on it”.

Gehl predicts that in the future, even the well-off suburbs will experience problems with congestion and long travel times as roads are filled up with cars. Implying that liveability is not something we only need to think about in the city, but very much in the suburbs as well. After all not everyone can live in downtown Copenhagen, and there is no reason for why some of the larger suburbs can’t develop thriving downtown area as well.

In the end Gehl himself is quite pleased with what has happened the last 50 years in urban planning, and remarks:

“For me personally, it is fantastic to watch that after 50 years we have slowly began studying people in cities, and to observe that one city after another strive towards liveability – they want to be people friendly. That is very joyous”.


Jan Gehl is the co-founder of Gehl Architects, you can read more on Jan Gehl and Gehl Architects here.


Category: Danish Cycling Know How, Health, Infrastructure, Intermodality, Meet the Members, Planning, Policy, Presentation of The Members, Private Companies, Uncategorized

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  1. Jan Gehl: The Livable City | Bike 5 | August 12, 2016