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Jan Gehl vs Norman Foster: How to Make a Habitable City

Jan Gehl is keynote speaker at the RIBA’s 8th annual research symposium, which considers how the Modernist approach to designing buildings and infrastructure has not lived up to the utopian ideals in which it is so firmly rooted

‘We are in a threshold condition’ proposed Irena Bauman, ‘in between an order that is no longer working and a new order that we have not created yet.’ In opening the RIBA’s 8th annual research symposium, Bauman challenged speakers to debate the increasingly urgent need for adaptation and resilience in the built form at the thresholds, reminding the speakers and audience that these might not always be physical.

Keynote speaker Jan Gehl responded by evaluating postwar Modernist planning and its education in planning and architecture schools where they ‘were taught that if it looked good from the freeway, [they] would be good residential areas’. After rushing out to build in the model of his education he ‘married a psychologist’ and spent much of the following four decades unlearning this education.  This led to a ‘softer approach’ to architecture, planning and cities with research-led practice. Gehl criticised high-profile architects, namely Norman Foster and Frank Gehry, for their focus on form rather than context. ‘Architecture is the interaction between life and form and only if that works well is it good architecture.’ Gehry’s Brooklyn housing and Foster’s SkyCycle cycling highway don’t, it seems.

Gehl was equally critical of the Prince’s Foundation, New Urbanism and the Dutch school that seek to recreate the ‘good old days’, a sentimental rather than research-driven decision. Gehl would rather they reflected on work in Melbourne, Sydney, New York and Moscow, based on long-term involvement with Copenhagen, Gehl’s ‘original laboratory’, where the Modernist, form-led development thresholds have been softened with the expressed intention of improving Copenhageners’ quality of life.


Several measures have been taken in Copenhagen to increase ground level vibrancy. Seating, openings and glazing increase public traffic and accommodate walking and cycling in a way that is integrated within the city - unlike Foster’s SkyCycle scheme.

The vision to make Copenhagen ‘the most liveable city in the world’ through strategic goals and urban design codes was presented by Tina Saaby. The city adopted a series of design measures to increase vibrancy at ground level, including creating an entrance every 6 metres, 75 per cent glazing at ground floor level, and providing more benches and seating outside smaller cafés and restaurants. This is designed to increase pedestrian traffic and time spent outdoors by 20 per cent by 2015 compared with today, and for ’80 per cent of city residents to be satisfied with … urban life’. Time spent outdoors walking, cycling and sitting are seen as crucial to the construction of a cohesive, healthy and vibrant community.

In reviewing ownership of place creation, Oliver Marlow expressed the need to relinquish the concept of the architect as the artist, encouraging an ‘ecology of proximity’ where the growth of the city is accompanied by an alternative intensity of interactions. Marlow called for a reassessment of what, why and who are we building for with the authorship of space taking a more collaborative format to generate a greater sense of ownership.

This theme continued as Ann Marie Connolly noted that ‘where and how people live is very clearly connected to the health they experience’. The global and growing consciousness around obesity has prompted much research and many warnings for the design of the built environment. The Foresight Report identified a series of policy measures including increasing walking and cycling opportunities and controlling the availability of obesogenic foods and drinks on the high street. Connolly expanded on this stating that ‘changing obesity is about marginal gain on many different dimensions. Physical place, green and blue spaces, social interaction, living streets and spaces, good food, mental wellbeing all have a part to play’.


Marseille’s narrow streets and shuttered windows successfully equip the city for the climate on a far more basic level than attempting to future proof buildings.

By 2080, Bill Gething expects the UK climate to be similar to that of Marseille and requires immediate adaptations to buildings and built form. He rejects the notion of future proofing buildings as ‘ridiculous’ and suggests that to avoid the ‘copy and paste’ approach, architects should return to first principles taking inspiration from Marseille’s urban form with narrower streets, shutters on windows and reinstating the siesta! Gething’s co-presenter Tom Vigar detailed how this work had been applied in practice to different building typologies and questioned whether the building sector was collecting data, predicting futures and developing solutions.

Anne Power reviewed segregation in the city from post-Industrial Revolution slum clearance, construction of council estates and the escape to the suburbs, to current under-occupation in privately owned houses and rental overcrowding. Since 2008 this has been fuelled in part by investors from unstable economies such as Greece, Italy, Russia and China encouraged by the UK’s fiercely protected property rights. ‘Property is the new gold’ and controlling speculation the ‘hot potato’. Much of the well-publicised housing ‘crisis’ could be eased by not-for-profit housing associations with their focus on long-term letting, encouraging social mix in their developments and focus on high-quality design. Although she described their method of generating capital to build in the UK by building high-profit developments in Shanghai as, ‘completely stupid’. 


Low Impact Living Affordable Community (LILAC) Sustainable housing in Leeds.

Paul Chatterton focused on negotiating private and shared boundaries at his co-housing development in west Leeds. Houses with small private gardens to the rear surround a large shared garden and pool. Although residents have successfully negotiated car ownership down to 10 vehicles for 20 houses, Chatterton admitted that constantly testing notions of the private/public threshold created tensions.

On visible and invisible thresholds Anna Minton argued that the private management of public spaces had diluted trust and undermined natural surveillance. Despite having similar levels of crime, more permeable thresholds in Denmark resulted in a reduced perception of crime making for the accolade ‘happiest nation’. Minton suggested that if the controls removed in shared space traffic schemes could deliver safer roads, could the same not be applied to surveillance and physical barriers in pedestrian spaces?

Across the presentations several common themes emerged including urban density, challenging risk, design detailing and encouraging cycling and walking. The necessity to provide opportunities for greater interaction with familiar and unknown members of the community, designing thresholds between public and private to encourage informal engagement was clearly stressed as essential to establishing a more resilient, integrated and trusting community. 

The design tools used to achieve this, through more formal and informal seating and increased opportunities for safe walking and cycling routes, could be established with broader community engagement and without great expense. This is in direct contrast to Norman Foster’s £220 million vision for a sky-high, segregated cycleway that seeks to eliminate all risk, limits choice of route and isolates cyclists, also runs contrary to research that indicates that increased risk heightens awareness and reduces incidents, something Jan Gehl has spoken of previously. As Gehl noted at the start of the symposium, the Modernist approach to designing buildings and infrastructure has not lived up to the utopian ideals in which it is so firmly rooted. The built environment and the education of its creators need a new approach and Modernism, he feels, is no longer the answer.

RIBA Research Symposium 2013 - Urban Thresholds

Venue: Wren Room, RIBA, 66 Portland Place

Date: 29th November 2013

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