Want to improve pedestrian experience? Jan Gehl urges attention to achievements of traffic engineers

According to Danish architect Jan Gehl, a global leader in the development of active streets and successful public space, those who want to improve the lot of pedestrians and cyclists should follow the example of traffic engineers. They should assemble data.

By studying what people were doing on streets — for example, that they walk in spaces and stop at edges — Gehl was able to predict and plan what would enliven and animate streets.

“We asked why people stop walking, what they are doing was that means for homo sapiens, democracy, social inclusion.”

In an engaging workshop today with faculty and students from the UBC School of Architecture, Gehl urged his audience to “focus on people.” It is easy to discuss buildings, he told them, but much more difficult to understand the “life and interaction” of the people in and between them.

Gehl’s work, summarized in his new book Cities are for People, emerged from his experience in Copenhagen, where the data collected from a street closure inspired politicians to “clean up the city” to make it more useful to pedestrians and cyclists. Traffic engineers had long used data to move the political agenda, Gehl noted, and facts were needed to help other city users.

The result is an emerging global movement in many cities to “have citizens, face to face, getting to know each other,” in public space and streets. The results are good: for people, for business, for the community overall.