Rediscovering urban design through walkability : an assessment of the contribution of Jan Gehl
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Urban design is being rediscovered. For most of the past 50 years it has lacked the concrete theory necessary to guide praxis. As a field it has related only sporadically and selectively to experiential knowledge and was essentially still entrenched within formulistic Modernist approaches. This has limited urban design as practiced to a design profession focused on aesthetics and individual projects without being part of the mainstream city-shaping process. The vacuum in city politics has been filled by modernist traffic engineering and car-based planning. This has limited urban design’s ability as a field to respond to the need for sustainable, vibrant and inclusive urban environments. In particular, it has failed to address the force and power of car-based planning. However, there is scope for a profession of urban design that considers a city holistically and is an advocate for the needs of pedestrians. In particular, there is scope for an urban design practice that is able to challenge the pre-eminence of the auto-focused shaping of cities. These determinations necessitate a different approach to designing our cities. Through work in over 40 cities, Danish urban designer Jan Gehl has begun to demonstrate a new theory and practice of urban design that rediscovers it potency through an emphasis on walkability.This study considers the theory and practice of urban design from a walkability perspective in order to facilitate a more effective, sustainable, humanistic and responsive approach, developing an evaluation framework based on Jon Lang’s (1994) call for a more encompassing urban design approach. This framework is then applied to the work of Gehl, as a case study of an urban designer who has constantly focused on the needs of people within city design, asking what is the significance of Gehl’s work and theory to urban design?Fundamentally urban design is concluded to be about creating cities, or improving existing ones, to be vibrant and sustainable places that relate to people’s use and needs—especially pedestrians—using the skills and theories of various disciplines and depending to a large degree on the public and political process to define the values and priorities. It is about creating hopeful resilient places that are able to adapt and respond to varying social, environmental and economic needs and about creating positive changes in urban environments. The study concludes that there is scope for urban design to move beyond its current limitations to work from a base of experiential knowledge about the city and its use that is focused on a reflective and experiential approach, building on solid practice based theory and on planning for pedestrians.Gehl’s work, both in theory and practice, is explicitly humanist, offering normative urban design theories based on substantive research, is part of organic urban theory and is embedded in ideas of pedestrian based transport planning. As a practitioner, Gehl’s methods enable experiential knowledge to come to the forefront of urban design concerns. Building from Gehl’s focus on the need to overcome formulistic and automobile-dominated urban planning would enable urban design’s aesthetic and prescriptive based theories to have a new and deeper meaning: sustainable urban design is at its heart planning and designing for walkability. This thesis determines that a core component of urban design theory and practice is advocating for the needs of pedestrians.
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