Gehl-O-Rama: City Agencies Take Lessons From Copenhagen

gehl_workshop.jpgAfter evaluating downtown streets, city staff reported their findings on public life. Photo: Shin-pei Tsay.
Before hitting the "World Class Streets" launch Thursday night, Jan Gehl addressed about 70 staffers from DOT, City Planning, and NYCEDC, part of a day-long exercise that introduced participants to the Danish planner's site evaluation methods. Commissioners Amanda Burden and Janette Sadik-Khan gave a hero's welcome to Gehl, whom they called "instrumental" to revamping New York's approach to planning.

Calling the assembled city staff "the pied pipers of the new way of doing business," Sadik-Khan touted the city's transition to more human-centered street metrics. "The tools that we've used in the past have done a really good job of helping us measure cars and traffic," she said, "but as we're looking to improve the condition of our streets for other users of the system -- for pedestrians, for cyclists, for people whether they're walking around, riding around, chatting, strolling, having lunch -- we need a much more comprehensive approach."

After a powerpoint from team Gehl, everyone got a feel for what Sadik-Khan was referring to. Fanning out from City Planning's Reade Street headquarters, 11 groups headed to different sites downtown, timers in hand, to see how well New York's streets and public spaces serve the people who use them. The evaluation combines hard stats like pedestrian and cyclist counts with open-ended questions that touch on the quality of the public environment and how well it supports social activity. The same technique underlies much of the data presented in World Class Streets.

DOT Assistant Commissioner Andy Wiley-Schwartz, who heads up the Public Plaza Program, said that the day's events presage permanent changes. "We are going to be working on different ways of building some of these methodologies into our standard operating procedure," he said, "so that we are more versed in studying street life." DOT will both perform the evaluations on its own, he added, and insert the work into consultant contracts.

Many of the city's urban planning advocacy groups were on hand, including the Regional Plan Association, Project for Public Spaces, and the Municipal Art Society. The multi-agency get-together drew their praise. "I think it's great that DOT, DCP, and EDC are collaborating on this initiative to create more sustainable streets in New York City," wrote MAS's Elizabeth Werbe in an email message. "This inter-agency cooperation bodes well for the city, considering the expertise of Gehl Architects in providing innovative tools to measure the conditions that allow for the development of pedestrian and bicycle friendly environments, in addition to the analysis and methodology needed to translate these findings into recommendations that will improve the public realm."

Another thing that bodes well, says Gehl, is simply the act of observing places close-up -- "to get people out there to see with their own eyes what's going on... by the end of the day, you know a lot about the city beyond the figures that you got."