The city where you really want to live—that ideal place you wish your own town would become—is not some plan shining on an urban designer’s computer screen.
It actually exists, and I am almost certain sure you’ve been there. At least once. Not in your dreams, but on holiday.
Think about it—vacation is a week or two every year when we live the way we really want. Freed from the everyday worries about work, budgets, and mowing the lawn, we do just as please.
Some folks go to the mountains, some to the beach, but a lot of us head straight for a city, where we walk around all day with pleasurable stops at cafes, museums, parks, shops, nightclubs, markets, squares, gardens, waterfronts, theaters, trails, historical sites, public art, street performers and more.
We are enraptured watching people, looking at buildings, taking in the excitement going all around us. We walk more, eat more, talk more, and laugh more than we ever would at home.
So why is this so much fun? Sure, it’s great to be away from alarm clocks, bosses and household chores. But just as important, we are spending our time hanging out in public spaces— commons—which are wonderful urban spots shared by everyone. We are experiencing is what Danish urbanologist Jan Gehl calls “Cities for People.”
That’s the title of his latest book, a fascinating guide on how to create cities that local residents fall in love with, rather than simply put up with.
Gehl is nothing short of inspiring in showing us how public spaces explain the difference between a city that makes us feel alive and one that deadens our senses. Cities for People is sprinkled with revealing photos from around the world that illustrate lessons Gehl has learned in 50 years of careful observation about what heightens our happiness and comfort in an urban landscape, and what deflates it.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend a day with Gehl and his colleagues in Copenhagen where they talked at length about the importance of public spaces in making the places where we live more prosperous, interesting and satisfying. Here is a summary of what I learned, which I included in my new book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (it first appeared in in Ode magazine):
“If you asked people twenty years ago why they went to central Copenhagen, they would have said it was to shop,” observes Jan Gehl, sitting in the former navy barracks near the heart of the city that houses his urban quality consulting firm Gehl Architects. “But if you asked them today, they would say, it was because they wanted to go to town.”
That small change of phrase represents the best hope for the future of our communities. Historically, Gehl explains, public spaces were central to everyone’s lives. It’s how people traveled about town, where they shopped and socialized. Living in cramped homes, often with no yards, and certainly no cars or refrigerators, they had little choice but to use parks, downtowns, libraries and other public spaces.
But all that changed during the 20th century. Cars took over the streets—which for millennia had been a commons belonging to all—first in industrialized nations and now in the developing world. Towns and cities spread out, with many merchants moving to outlying strip and shopping malls. People moved into more spacious houses with bigger yards, and then bought televisions, computers and DVD players. Many came to feel they no longer needed the public sphere. And yet there is still a widespread yearning to break out of a privatized existence where we don’t mingle with others.
But people won’t return to public spaces that are ugly, boring, unsafe or rundown. The key to restoring life to our public spaces—and our communities as a whole—is to understand that people today have far more options for socializing and shopping and than in the past. A trip downtown or to the farmer’s market or the local library is now recreational as much as it is practical—the chance to have fun and enjoy the surroundings.
“People are not out in public spaces because they have to but because they love to,” Gehl explains. “If the place is not appealing they can go elsewhere.”
Gehl ticks off a list of places besides Copenhagen that have revitalized themselves through a dedicated program of creating great public places: Barcelona, Spain; Lyon, France; Bogota, Colombia; Vancouver, Canada; Portland, Oregon; Cordoba, Argentina; Melbourne, Australia; Curitiba, Brazil; and New York City.
“There is not a single example of a city that rebuilt its public places with quality that has not seen a renaissance,” Gehl explains.