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A toolkit for the 21st century city

Jan Gehl is one of the biggest advocates of cities for people. For those who are not very familiar with who he is, he is an architect based on Denmark that promotes walkable and sustainable cities. He describes today’s cities as modernistic, a 20th century movement that became dominant after the World War II. Modern architecture is that one which uses particularly concrete, glass, steel, and that eventually gave birth to the skyscrapers that we know today. Specifically, Gehl makes a critic the extreme disconnection that modern buildings have had with the “human” scale. In other words, he advocates for a controlled scale of the city; one where the citizens feel comfortable to walk, dwell, and socialize.

Nowadays, people scale is completely neglected.

Nowadays, people scale is completely neglected.

As an architect and now urban planner (PHD candidate), I’m inspired by his work. As him, I too believe that cities should be designed more for people and less for massive concrete “art” pieces. Everyone should be able to “feel” part of the city, and enjoy its surroundings. Also, like Jane Jacobs believed (a journalist and activist in urban matters), cities should be created by everybody.

However, although it’s easy to agree with Gehl’s and Jacobs’ point of view, the challenges occur when we try to implement these ideas in the real world. So, last week I got the chance to spend some time with Jan Gehl, and I got some ideas written down that are important to take into account. Below I mention three areas that are quite important to advocate for, if we want to achieve the changes that these two urbanists promote.


Housing is a human right and it should be flexible enough to accommodate different residents with different needs and abilities. One way of doing it successfully, is adjusting the housing stock, in such a way that will allow:

  • Diversity. A well-mixed housing area combines different uses, social classes, generations, nationalities, etc. The floors on street levels should be left for commerce and businesses; these will add vitality to the streets. Mixing people with different backgrounds foments inclusiveness; in other words, it will prevent from ghettos and segregation to take place. Sure! it’s god for people with the same background to share emotions and cultural traits, yet when these differences are shared with other cultures the experience is richer. Diversity also means housing targeted to different groups like: singles, partners, families, single parents, elderly, etc.

  • Affordable rents. As a city grows, those housing areas located where services and life are, become higher. Another thing that contributes to the raise of these prices is the “gentrification” of spaces, in other words, the renovation or improvement of certain districts. Unfortunately, as long as long as we have the market economy, city improvement will go hand in hand with gentrification. What we need to do is target multiple districts/cities at a time, or “spread the wealth”. Improving different spaces at a time will help raise the level of the whole city. In the same way improving different cities, will help raise the competitiveness of the whole country.

  • Flexibility. Architecture should be designed to accommodate future uses. Avoiding a rigid master planning, and leaving a degree of ambiguity will allow communities to develop in a more flexible and dynamic way. As planners or politicians, we can’t predict the future hence we should be ready to be resilient.

  • Densification. “The whole thing about density is that it has been studied too less” – Gehl. First, let’s make clear that densification does not mean skyscrapers or congestion. Instead densification should be understood as the comfortable walking distance where a city dweller can find services, nature, city life, and housing. This is a balance that decision makers should maintain and advocate for.


In the USA, since the late 90’s the use of the car has decreased from 20,8% to 13,7%. In addition, the driving licenses issued during the last years have shown a decrease. These facts only show that generations are adopting a different lifestyle, where the car is not playing a leading role anymore. The car is disappearing; however, the transition is still very painful for the residents and car owners. Some ideas to alleviate this are:

  • Parking. Parking needs to become a luxury, rather than a right. However, it is unrealistic to expect that parking will disappear from day to night, still, we decreasing it can occur gradually and as other services are offered. For example, removing parking spaces in students’ apartments is a good start. Another way, is decreasing the parking space requirements in zones that are near public transport networks. Not only will these apartments become cheaper for tenants, but also for construction firms.

  • Bicycles. A good bicycle system is that one integrated with the public transport. In other words, we need to provide citizens with an opportunity to combine commutes with public transport. Also, the creation of bike lanes is important, but the protection of the cyclists is even more. Crossroads for example, is one place where accidents occur often.

Crossroads is one place where accidents occur often

  • Public transport. The city is responsible for the wellbeing of its residents; therefore, it makes sense that the city’s budget is destined for those services that would benefit the most, like public transport. Also by establishing a free public transport it’s possible to foment the registration of residents in the municipality. This means that more tax payers for the city.

  • Walkable network. Walking carries different benefits, one of them is health. People in cities walk more, people in suburbs drive more. Hence, that our health is improved by the decisions that we take in urban planning. However, in order to promote walking strategies to shape the spaces, plant trees, and make friendly and unique facades, need to be in place.

A sustainable city combines a walkable network and public transportation.


Lastly, a city should take care of the wellbeing of residents. Multiculturalism, art, and events, are all matters that can help increase the life within the city and the wellbeing of residents. Two things that help increase the cultural life are:

  • Embrace the strengths. Cold weather might be a challenge for the city, however, events can also be design to cope with this kind of weather. Embracing uniqueness adds character to the city, which benefits residents and tourism.

  • Cultural. Flexible and clear policies allow more happenings to take place in the city. Grassroots movements need this in order to thrive, and make a positive impact in the city’s life. The city should provide processes that are straight forward, fast, and easy.

We have an important task in front of us to address: build better cities for citizens. So, if we think of these matters as something that can be addressed locally, then we are half way to build them. Though, as Gehl mentioned, “lousy invitations do not work”, so policy makers should be bold enough to take the challenge of making significant and smart investments. For example, a good square has 10 times more life the a lousy one.

Opening of Hämeenkatu for private cars during January 2017.

Is this really what we can do for Tampere in 2017?

Lastly, before making important decisions in urban matters, let us think and answer accordingly to the following question: “Is this really what we can do for mankind in 2017?” (Gehl, J.). Or more locally, is this what we can do for Tampere in 2017?

Images: Personal archive

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