According to William H. Whyte, the city street is the river of life. Whyte is the mentor for the Project for Public Spaces organisation (PPS) who are behind the Future of Places conference in Stockholm at the end of June.
They are proponents of a living cityscape and an urban environment with the human being as the starting point, and they are trying to influence city planners to shape future growth to suit our ever-growing cities and especially the people within.
As the urbanization movement marches relentlessly on, policymakers must shift focus and rethink their approach to city planning. It’s no longer as simple as how to move as many vehicles sufficiently between A – the satellite residential areas – to B – an inner city working space.
A lot of what PPS advocates is simple logic and common sense, and their school of thought is finally making inroads with policymakers the world over.
The Stockholm conference is the first in a series of three events aimed at creating a blueprint, a new urban agenda around people and places, in preparation for UN’s Habitat III conference in 2016.
Although urban planning has changed, the theories of the PPS haven’t always struck a chord with people in power. There was a time when the humans in urban areas were about to be drowned in modernist ideals, obsessions with concrete and traffic systems leading to satellite towns. It was a time when the car was king and people a mere footnote; if they were ever given a thought at all, it was mostly to do with how they could be relocated from the city centre to the fast-growing suburbs as quickly as possible. The idea was to make room for new office buildings with too much concrete and a marked under-use of windows.
But at that precise moment when the modernist way of thinking ruled supreme, if you listened carefully enough, you could hear whispers from a free-thinking few who didn’t see the logic in giving free rein and the keys to the city to vehicles instead of to the people.
This handful of strong-minded individuals didn’t understand the “machine over man” school of thought and voiced their concern, more often than not being ridiculed along the way.
In New York, urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs released the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in the early 60s. There was William “Holly” Whyte, who began studying human behaviour in urban settings when working with New York City planning commission later in the 60s.
At the same time, in Copenhagen, architect Jan Gehl annoyed all his architectural colleagues – while they were practising their profession, Gehl was criticizing all they did and devoting all his time to research. His barely-concealed disgust at the five ridiculous 16-storey high rise buildings in the suburb of Høje Gladsaxe made him an outcast, and after the publication of his best-selling book Life Between Buildings in 1971 (which continues to sell well today), Gehl was prohibited from continuing to teach at the Art Academy Architect School in Copenhagen.
Today, 40 years on, the ideas of Gehl, Whyte and Jacobs are now accepted as common sense and the way forward. Cities from all around the world hire Gehl as an advisor and he is showered in awards and prizes.
“If we had given someone an assignment to make a model that will kill city life, it could not have been made any better than what the modernists did,” the urban design professor claims.
“We know more about the habitat of panda bears and mountain gorillas than we do about the quality for homo sapiens in urban settings,” he continues. Considering how much it affects us, it’s a wonder only a handful of people have really studied the subject of people within the urban setting.
So in short – it’s about time we sit down to create this new urban agenda around people and places.