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December 15, 2005

Plan for Life

Put People First Says Streetscape Champion Jan Gehl On Brooklyn Walking Tour

Civic News, a monthly newsletter published by the Park Slope Civic Council by Ezra Goldstein

jan-gehl.jpg You could almost hear Jan Gehl clicking his tongue in disapproval as he surveyed Metro Tech’s sterile, un-populated central space. Granted, it was a cold November morning, but nearby Fulton Mall had been teeming with activity. Here, besides the 15 people accompanying one of the world’s best-known urban planners on a walking tour of downtown Brooklyn and Atlantic Yards, there were precisely two signs of life: a woman, possibly homeless, sitting on a metal bench, and a police officer keeping anyone from straying past the barriers walling off Metro Tech 9, home of the New York City Fire Department.

Gehl was disappointed by Metro Tech — and dismayed to hear that Fulton Mall may soon give way to high-rise office buildings — because he is a champion of street life. His landmark book, Life Between Buildings, first published in 1971 and now in its fourth edition, has become a bible to urban planners who share his vision that high-density development and quality of life need not be oxymorons. Gehl and his architectural firm have helped transform the streetscape of cities from Copenhagen (his hometown) to Melbourne, and London is now implementing his plan called, “Towards a Fine City for People: Public Spaces and Public Life.” A key element of the London plan is establishing a comfortable balance among pedestrians, bicycles and automobiles.

As the group worked its way up Flatbush Avenue toward the proposed site of Atlantic Yards, people clustered around Gehl, straining to hear his observations above the din of traffic. “I am not opposed to development,” he stressed, “but there is development that destroys and there is development that adds. The ultimate question you have to ask about new buildings is whether they make your city a better place or a worse place than it used to be.”

Transportation Alternatives had brought the urban planner to New York to attend the premier of the group’s documentary film, Contested Streets: Breaking New York City Gridlock, in which Gehl is prominently featured. He delivered a lecture at NYU and gave a breakfast talk for the leaders of Business Improvement Districts, which was also attended by City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden and Department of Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall. His Brooklyn guide was Hunter College Urban Planning Professor Tom Angotti, who used to teach at the Pratt Institute and who lives in Windsor Terrace.

On the walk, Gehl talked about how, at street level, a solid wall of high rise buildings blocks the sun and creates a wind tunnel effect. He told his listeners how Vancouver, British Columbia, has surrounded skyscrapers with lower buildings that let in light and deflect down-currents of air from the towers. He described how builders in Oslo discovered that a lively frontage of small shops draws more street life than big-box stores, because “pedestrians like choice, and like having something new to look at every few seconds.” And he offered his formula for good urban design, which he said “turns the normal process upside down,” and which has become a kind of mantra among his many followers.

Instead of planning large buildings and then working down, he said, “you look first at the space you want to develop and ask what kind of life can be envisaged there. Then you ask what kind of public space will create that life. And only then do you design the buildings that create the public space you want.

“You want development that invites people in,” he observed, “that interacts with the city that surrounds it.”

Gehl argued that the Oslo experience proves that everyone benefits from good urban design, including builders. “Developers discovered in Oslo that by offering lower rents on the ground floors of their new buildings, they attracted a rich mixture of small businesses, which drew more customers and increased the value of their properties. They spun gold from good planning.”

It would be hard to imagine urban design more in contrast to what Gehl recommends than Metro Tech, which is a walled campus having virtually no interaction with surrounding Brooklyn. Its developer, Forest City Ratner, defends Metro Tech as the only kind of development that would have drawn white-collar workers to downtown Brooklyn, which was still perceived as a high-crime area when plans were drawn in the 1980s.

But as Gehl surveyed drawings of Forest City Ratner’s multi-billion-dollar, skyscraper-dominated Atlantic Yards development, he wondered if corporate thinking had changed in the intervening decades. “These buildings will look good from a passing airplane,” he quipped, “but I wonder if they will look nearly as good from the ground.

”Just as there is good furniture and bad furniture, good schools and bad schools, there is good development and bad development. The way you get good development is to start at eye level and work up.”

Posted by lumi at December 15, 2005 5:36 PM