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Interview with the world-famous Danish architect Prof. Jan Gehl, Doctor Honoris Causa of Varna Free University




Interview with the world-famous Danish architect Prof. Jan Gehl, Doctor Honoris Causa of Varna Free University


About the current trends in architecture, the ways in which the urban environment can become cosier for people and cars can give way to cyclists and pedestrians - an interview with the world-famous Danish architect Prof. Jan Gehl, Doctor Honoris Causa of Varna Free University .



 Prof. JanGehl, an architect and urbanist, in an interview for the Trud newspaper: a ton of steel and four wheels are a burden for urban people


Daniela Farhi


The world-famous urbanist Prof. Jan Gehl arrived in Bulgaria to be conferred the honorary title Doctor Honoris Causa of Varna Free University “Chernorizets Hrabar” and to present with his team a report on the project “Sofia – City for People” in which he consults the municipality of Sofia for the creation of a strategy for development of public spaces. We are talking with Prof. Gehl about the current trends in architecture, about the ways in which the urban environment could become pleasant and cosy for people and that motorcars should give way to bikers and pedestrians. 


Prof. Gehl, you were conferred the honorary title of Varna Free University “Chernorizets Hrabar” a few days ago. At the ceremony you made an appeal to the students of architecture to work not only for themselves but also for the society. Is this the prescription to improve the urban environment?


This is a mandatory condition. For 40 years in my work as a lecturer I have been trying teach my students to explore what people like before starting to design. In our sphere as in all others there are different kinds of experts. Unfortunately, there are architects who are quite arrogant who work only in compliance with their own vision and expect everyone to be grateful to them. There are others who go round the world and “produce” everywhere uniform buildings. And there are a third kind of people who care about people. When I graduated in the 1950s, modernism was gaining momentum and it not only was entering architecture but dictated   people’s lives. It was a time when provoked by developers, architects designed in a technocratic way without taking into consideration people’s desires. Fortunately, I married a psychologist and we began meeting her and my colleagues. During these meetings the psychologists asked why we did not studied the needs of people before taking up a particular project. So I began working in this sphere in the years when nobody thought about the relationship between shape and life. I will quote the ex mayor of Bogotá Enrique Peñalosa. According to him, it is a paradox that we know everything about what is a good living environment of gorillas, Siberian tigers and other animals but we know nothing about the good living environment of people. I myself reached the same conclusion. My long-time scientific research in many parts of the world contributed to a change of this situation.


Is the relationship between shape and life the main condition to fulfill the formula “city for people” to which you have dedicated to?      


That was the beginning. The city for people is busy, safe, sustainable and healthy. Walking is at the heart of all this. People are created to walk and all events in their lives occur while on foot and when they are among other people. Walking provides direct contact of people with the surrounding environment, diverse experiences, entertainments outdoors. Modernism solves the problems with the rapid urban sprawl and the increase of traffic ignoring these purely human needs. Until now more and more cities in the world focus their efforts on urban planning which makes our lives healthier and happier through drastic reduction of the consumption of fuels and materials. My conclusion, after a half a century of work, is that we shape our cities and then, they shape us. I am convinced that people prefer to see other people not to be stuck alone in traffic jams. Apart from being unhealthy, it is boring. The natural need for social communication could be satisfied by good urban and bicycle transport and more options for walking.   


You have worked as a consultant in more than 200 cities in the world, among which megapolises such as New York, London, Melbourne, Moscow. Can you give us examples for a good and bad urban planning?


A lot of the old European cities are among the good examples. The most emblematic one is Venice which over the centuries has preserved itself as a city of pedestrians. There is everything for their comfort in it – short cuts, remarkable architecture and all this has been designed on a human scale. The new cities are not beautiful, because with few exceptions they have been planned in the outdated style of modernism. This is the situation with a lot of places in China, for example. But they begin to put effort there to improve the urban environment in favour of people. One of the best examples of rapid change to better is Moscow. In 2012, when I was invited there, the Russian capital was conquered by cars. They were everywhere and there was literally no space for people. Only for 5 years Moscow fantastically changed. There are pedestrian – friendly areas and air.  Three weeks ago I was there and they were not joking when said that a baby boom has been registered and I am responsible for it, because taking my advice they have built new walking areas where young people can meet and gather. The transformation of a technocratic city takes time. In Melbourne, which for years has been in the rankings for best cities of living in the world, this process took 25 years. And in Copenhagen, where I live, the authorities have not stopped working for 55 years. The results are amazing. 41% of the employed ride bikes not only because it is cheaper and healthier, but also because they arrive faster and they way is safe. My grandchildren are 12 and they ride their bikes all over the city without this worrying their parents. I myself at the age of 81 still ride a bike. But I remember Copenhagen half a century ago which looked liked the today’s Bucharest – a city conquered by cars.      


Bulgaria is also conquered by cars but few will give up their cars because riding a bicycle is still unsafe and is unpleasant in the cold, rain and snow. How do you fight such arguments? 


Everywhere at the start of a change in the urban planning there are some doubts and misgivings. But over time people feel the advantages and quite naturally they fall out of love cars. They are out of fashion already – the boom of the car traffic passed over inmost of the developed countries almost a decade ago. It is time the rest of the countries to realize that. The automobile technology is 120 old, invented in Detroit, in the Wild West, an idea conceived to equip everyone with a ton of steel and 4 rubber wheels, to be mobile. At that time it was a good solution how to move in the rural areas but in today’s cities a ton of steel and 4 rubber wheels is not comfort but a burden.   There are so many dramatic examples of megapolises such as Mexico City, Jakarta, Mumbai, where there is a total chaos because of the terrible urban traffic. The weather conditions in Bulgaria are favourable for bicycle transport. Only the proper infrastructure must be built. Everything begins in the minds of people, in the change of citizens’ mentality and the mentality of the authorities. If they build mainly roads today, there will be fewer meeting places and heavier traffic in 10 years’ time. And vice versa, if public investments go for underground, fast bus lines, more bike lanes, it will resulted in a city for people – with intelligent, healthy, environmentally-friendly transport, agreeable to all passengers – from children to pensioners. The change affects also economy because one bus consumes 60 times more energy than one bicycle and 20 times more than one pedestrian. Two 2 metres broad bikes lanes can provide a road for 10, 000 cyclists – 5 times more than the cars which can pass on a two-way street in the rush hour. One parking space can accommodate 10 bicycles and thus a space for more greenery is open.


At the end of the year you received the invitation of the Municipality of Sofia to consult the creation of a strategy for development of public spaces in the centre of Sofia under “Sofia – City for People” project. At what stage is the research?


Personally, I am not involved with them and that is why I do not have a view of the details. A lot of people in my company are included in the research. All of them are ladies with whom I have been working for decades and they have proven experience. They have a better sense for the human aspects in the development of cities than men. My role is mostly as a mentor. I looked around Sofia. This is an interesting city with a lot of potential and a lot of valuable places that could be transformed with minimum effort. Over the next days my team will present publicly a report with an analysis of the existing situation and recommendations for short-term, medium-term and long-term initiatives to transform Sofia in a cosy, quiet and safe city with a human scale of the habitable environment.     


You were for the first time in Varna. What are your impressions and how a seaside resort city should develop?


I never afford to express an opinion about a city where I have been only for a few hours, a portion of which I have spent sleeping. But despite the short time, I saw that Varna is a beautiful seaside resort city in which tourism plays an important economic role. To develop this sector successfully, you have to create and maintain an urban environment which is friendly to the guests. Few of them roar past in their cars along the boulevards, the rest walk in order to explore the city and its sights.


 How tall should buildings be in a harmonious city?


A lot has been written on this topic. I have referred to the topic in detail in my book “Cities for People”. Our senses are oriented mainly horizontally and when we move we see the first five floors. Everything up remains hidden because we are not on a plane. Therefore, the optimum city for people has to be with more 5-6-storey buildings such as Barcelona and Paris, for example. It is important a relationship between buildings and the senses to exist. It is lost in many places in the world in the forest of tall buildings. The unbridled construction is the lazy solution of architects to the problem of the increasing population. It is to the detriment of people because tall buildings cast shadows, capture fast winds and accelerate them at the base so passing by them is not at all a pleasant experience.


Our guest


Jan Gehl is an architect and urbanist who has dedicated his career to the improvement of the quality of life in cities through creating possibilities for pedestrian and bike movement. He received his master’s degree in architecture by the Royal Academy for Fine Arts of Denmark where he is a lecturer and professor of urban planning. He is also a visiting professor in Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Mexico, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Poland and Norway. He is the author of six books translated in 37 languages one of which is “City for People” published also in Bulgarian. He has consulted concepts for improvement of public spaces in London, New York, Melbourne, Sydney, Pert and other 200 cities in the world. He is Doctor Honoris Causa of the Heriot-Watt University (Scotland), honorary academic of The Academy of Urbanism (Great Britain) and an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects. He is a winner of numerous international awards.






by ВСУ Черноризец Храбър