Public Space – the final frontier

Went to the Hackney Empire last night to see Jan Gehl in concert: not a member of A-ha starting a solo career, but a Danish architect and urban designer who (as he repeatedly reminded us) has written books about the quality of ‘public space’ and ‘liveable cities’.  The main feature of the evening was a film – ‘The Human Scale’ – about Gehl’s work, but also more generally about the state of cities.  It was very interesting and depending on how apocalyptic you’re feeling, very worrying.  Mr Gehl, who came on stage after the film to do a presentation, seemed like a nice bloke and was quite funny, in an urbane, Garrison Keillor-like way and he obviously knows his urban onions, but there are problems.  We all have to make a living and occasionally sell our wares, but there was an element of self-promotion that I found irritating because it’s typical of a breed of messianic urban ‘visionary’ who not only think they know best, but are going to tell you (and sell you) so.  There was also a sense that these were the confessions of a repentant Modernist – that post-war tendency in planning, design and building that has become synonymous with the perceived failures of State-led urban and housing policy.  This is a whole other blog post, but suffice to say that I tend to er on the side of ‘Modernism’, not for aesthetic reasons, but because it reflected a genuine, if sometimes misguided and abused, attempt to subvert the whims of the private property fixation and provide homes and facilities for working class people based on public ownership.  Ironically, one of the main criticisms of Modernism is that it was deterministic: founded on the idea that social processes can be predicted and controlled via the built environment, but this is exactly what Jan Gehl does.  It’s great to have more bike lanes and benches, wider pavements with more space for cafes and fewer roads, but as my recent trips to Milton Keynes demonstrate, a comprehensive cycle path network does not a community of cyclists make.  Above all, the fault of Gehl and others who see cities as competing in a league table of ‘liveability’ is that they present cities as classless entities in which citizens enjoy equal access to al fresco dining, cappuccino and warehouse art galleries.  The pseudo ‘public realm’ that forms an appendage to most new property developments is invariably circumscribed by overt or covert controls of people and behaviour.   When Mr Gehl was asked a question about gentrification last night he dodged it, but it is naive and ultimately dishonest to suggest that better design can transcend the inequalities that increasingly characterise city life.

What we need is neither Le Corbusier or Jane Jacobs, but cities planned, designed and built by and for all.

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