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Clare Melhuish reviews Gehl's thinking on the quality of life in the city

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Jan Gehl's lecture for the Urban Design Alliance provided an appropriate prelude to London's 'NoCar Day', showing how the city of Copenhagen has, since 1962, been successfully pushing back the car, so that by now 'the city is totally dominated by people having a good time'. The planners' policy of removing two per cent of parking each year was based on the premise that 'if you do it slowly, noone will notice'. Today there is 'seven times more space for people than in the early '60s'.

Gehl believes that 'being on your feet is the key to quality in the city', and 'whether people are sitting or walking is the sign of the quality of a city'.

His 'laboratory' at the school of architecture of Copenhagen University has been engaged in surveying and documenting the public life of the city for many years, and feeding back that data to the city's planners.

According to Gehl, very few cities have that kind of data, and Copenhagen's planners have said that without it they 'would never have had the courage to go on'. Gehl points out that with an architectural project or traffic proposal the starting point would always be a thorough survey, and argues that that should also be the case in developing strategies for public space management.

However, Gehl's evocation of public life in the city seems to be a slightly uncritical endorsement of 'cappuccino culture'. It is all about cafe chairs out on the street, creating opportunities for informal meetings and people-watching - 'seeing and being seen' - which become all the more important as the number of single-person households continue to rise.

By all accounts, this kind of lifestyle was not so easily acquired by the citizens of Copenhagen, but had to be learnt 'in small installments', so that only today have they at last become 'more Italian than the Italians', wrapping themselves in blankets to keep themselves warm on their cafe chairs as winter approaches.

The other key aspect is walking - and, as Gehl points out, 'there is more to walking than walking':

it is a social process. Apparently walking has become such a hot subject in Copenhagen that whole conferences are dedicated to it, where once they would have been dedicated to traffic.

It is certainly very hard to imagine this happening in London, with its deeply ingrained car culture and inability to take any steps at all to resist the car's domination of public life - bar the bitterly controversial congestion charge. But it seems that Gehl has his eye on London too, with his remark that it 'would be very interesting to do something in the city centre'.

Gehl says 'usual practice is to make the buildings first', but 'best practice is to consider life, spaces and buildings simultaneously'. Maybe, as another 'No-Car Day' goes by without any significant reduction of traffic, that is a message London's boroughs might give some thought to.

Jan Gehl delivered the Urban Design Alliance lecture at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in London last Tuesday to mark Urban Design Week

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