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Walk the talk

Danish pedestrianisation guru Jan Gehl is bringing his ideas to Britain. Damian Arnold reports.

WHEN THOSE charged with regenerating urban life in Britain need inspiration on how to replace car-clogged urban streets with happy pedestrians, a Danish academic often heads their itinerary.

Earlier this month, Urban Taskforce chairman Lord Rogers was the latest British dignitary to visit Copenhagen to learn about the methods famously employed by Jan Gehl.

From the city's School of Architecture, Gehl has worked closely with a succession of city engineers to orchestrate a 'theme park' for the pedestrian at the core of Denmark's capital city.

Sixty four year old Gehl is a typically affable but straight talking Dane with an evangelical desire to create public spaces where people can enjoy themselves in a car free environment.

'We are adamant that if you treat the people well in your city they will improve the public spaces for you by enjoying themselves.

They will start to do all the fun things like kiss, dance, talk and of course look at other people, ' he says.

Gehl's recipe for 'treating people well' has resulted in a 2% cut in parking spaces in central Copenhagen every year between 1962 and 1988, creating around 100,000m 2of car free streets.

Public squares have sprung up filled with trees, sculptures benches and street performers.

They have also become venues for public festivals which encourage pedestrians to break up their journeys.

'Encouraging people to walk is only half of what's going on, ' says Gehl, 'People need an incentive to stop.'

Pedestrians in Copenhagen have increased the number of journey breaks four-fold in the last 20 years, he says.

In Copenhagen pedestrianisation has contributed to keeping the city centre alive. The city centre has a big residential population, having avoided destruction in the Second World War and drastic redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s. A strict planning regime has also prevented shopping trade from migrating out of town. 'In Copenhagen we still have 9,000 residents living in the city centre which keeps it vibrant at night time. It's also important to keep some businesses in the centre. In the UK some retail dominated town centres are deserted after 6pm, ' Gehl says.

The creation of this pedestrian 'paradise' is being analysed by the director of the UK's Pedestrian Association Ben Plowden, who has won a transport scholarship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to research pedestrianisation methods on the Continent. Plowden is currently in Copenhagen to 'understand the situations that allowed change in Copenhagen to take place' and take the lessons back to the UK.

Gehl told him that the starting point was persuading a succession of mayors in Copenhagen to accept his philosophies. Gehl says: 'We are the only city that has systematically reduced parking spaces because we have had a succession of mayors who've seen what we were trying to do and supported us.'

Politicians were won over by robust information produced by the School of Architecture. This before and after data swayed them to ignore hostile businesses worried that trade would suffer. Gehl says: 'There have always been close ties between the city council and the university. We surveyed pedestrian movements before the changes were made, studied the effects, showed that it worked and encouraged the council to extend the policy.'

Plowden picks up the theme: 'Very few UK local authorities have reliable information about pedestrian movements. The only data on walking that is recorded nationally is on journeys to work. That needs to change.'

Pedestrianisation has also been complemented by the development of a well used city cycling network. A metro system is being built to encourage greater use of public transport, but already only a third of residents travel around the city by car.

When asked about Britain, Gehl says he is encouraged that the Greater London Authority, among others, is learning the lessons of Copenhagen after showing the political will to finish the 2,000km London Cycle Network (NCE 21 September) and take on pedestrianisation projects like Trafalgar Square.

Researchers from University College London are already 'following people around Trafalgar Square' to analyse pedestrian movements.

But much of Gehl's work as a consultant on pedestrian projects in the UK, including Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Middlesborough, makes him pessimistic about British local authorities' commitment to transform urban life for the pedestrian. He is frustrated that a report he produced for one UK local authority on how to improve a street by widening the footpath and making it one way was ignored.

'They wanted to concentrate on subways underneath the road which is madness when you have this beautiful boulevard which you need to celebrate, ' he says. 'It's a world heritage site but they talked about increasing the sidewalk by only 100mm or 200mm. In another city they set up a group to discuss reasons why pedestrianisation projects could not be set up which shows an appalling lack of confidence.'

Plowden agrees there is still much work to be done and, like Gehl, he believes it is possible even though Britain is a far more car dependent society.

'Seventy per cent of car journeys in the UK are five miles in length. Half of those are two miles. But I am optimistic that the best value regime (under which local government services are measured by quality and cost rather than just lowest cost) will make a difference, ' he says.

British local authorities are already beginning to carry out customer satisfaction surveys on the experience of being a pedestrian. Opinion polls in York have already shown that the public attaches great importance to the quality of the street environment.'

Plowden predicts a better future for UK pedestrians if local authorities follow the Danish example of doing 'a bit here and a bit there' over a long period, while investing in maintenance.

'We already know what best practice is and use it. The money is there from urban regeneration funds but unless local authorities spend money maintaining pedestrianised streets, it will all go to waste, ' he says.

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