Jan Gehl.
Gene Driskell Jan Gehl.

Over breakfast at the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C. this morning, Jan Gehl, Hon. FAIA, delivered one of the best architecture burns I've ever heard. He casually described the Dubai skyline as "bird-shit architecture": "architects dropping their funny towers wherever they fly."

Gehl wasn't out to, well, poop on Dubai. The Danish architect was illustrating the principles of planning that have guided his career—principles that he has outlined in three books published in about as many years. The most recent of these, How To Study Public Life (Island Press, 2013), discusses the lessons to be learned from planning in Copenhagen, Denmark as well as newer converts to liveable urbanism, such as Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, and, yes, unreconstructed Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Brasília as seen by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite.
NASA Brasília as seen by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite.

"Cities were planned from above," Gehl said, discussing the state of the practice when he came to it, around 1960. "Architects designed cities until they had a nice composition and then people would live in them." He and his cohort, he said, were particularly enamored with Brasília, the Corbusian capital built by architect Oscar Niemeyer, planner Lúcio Costa, and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx for Brazil's president Juscelino Kubitschek in 1956. Gehl discussed the many impressive features of the city: how a bird's-eye view of the city reveals a bird-shaped plan. "Nobody thought about the fact that only if you had helicopters could you enjoy it," he reflected.

Gehl then glossed over the history of the revolt against modernist city design. In the U.S., that started, arguably, with the 1961 publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. But the following year saw Gehl and Copenhagen pedestrianizing Strøget, which remains to this day a car-free zone. "After a few months, we started to be Italians, because we had room to be Italians," Gehl recalled.

Copenhagen's Strøget.
Olga Itenberg/Wikipedia Copenhagen's Strøget.

Underscoring Gehl's humor—he made a number of cracks about Russia's peerless top-down expediency in upending planning mistakes in Moscow (which is a Gehl Architects project that is currently underway)—is unmatched pride in the city of Copenhagen. Consider that Monocle named Copenhagen the most liveable city in the world last year, he asked attendees. Or that Copenhagen's strategic vision for bicycle policy for 2011–2025 is called "Good, Better, Best."

Gehl has reason to be proud. If Jacobs, Arthur Erickson, and Bing Thom, AIA, can be credited with Vancouverism, then Gehl should take a bow for Copenhagenism. His ideas and work are at least as influential if not more so, especially as he is exporting them to places like Australia. He described Sydney's city center as "one of the worst I've come across." His latest book, How To Study Public Life, details why—and what he intends to do about it.

Times Square, before.
Gehl Architects/Island Press Times Square, before.
Times Square, after.
Gehl Architects/Island Press Times Square, after.

He was quick to caution that Copenhagen may have met its match in the city of New York, a metropolis whose transformation, he said, is unrivaled anywhere in the West. Gehl noted that there were more bicycle lanes built in the last five years in New York than there were in the last 50 years in Copenhagen. Of course, Gehl deserves some credit for this: Gehl Architects reclaimed Bryant Park and Times Square for the urban fabric. But Gehl himself was quick to credit Jacobs as well as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whom Gehl has plainly inducted into the ranks of master planners.

And while Gehl has no love for Dubai, he said that he thinks that cities across the world are generally trending in the right direction. "We used to be alone talking about this," Gehl said. "Now there is a strong tailwind."