Jan Gehl and grandmothers

October 12, 2014

It wasn’t Gehl himself, but someone dressed in black from his consultancy firm, hired by the developer. In October 2014, they stood on the street and studied the block-long lane way, shaded by overgrown Caragana and French lilacs. I remember thinking that I was pleased the bearded Irises, that bordered the north-side of the lane, were in bloom. At the community association meeting when his name was first mentioned, I could not quite believe it. But there they were four days later. Could this little stretch of pot-holed lane in a city known for its passionate embrace of large and/or powerful vehicles, become a canvas for an urban project inspired by Gehl? A few years earlier, for a number of different reasons, I had begun reading as much as I could on complex interlinked issues and concepts such as affordable housing, densification, walkability, new urbanism, etc. Gehl’s name appeared in many of the documents I was reading. His influence in the real world, not just in theory was visible in many urban spaces. Gehl acknowledged the influence of Jane Jacobs and her iconic 1961 publication The Death and Life of Great American Cities in his work. He cautioned that although “everyone” has read the book its lessons were not learned very quickly or widely(Hill 2014). Jane Jacobs (1961) had critiqued the Post WWII urban rationalist modernist planning policy which drove urban renewal projects that separated city areas based upon usage-commercial, industrial and residential (Flint 2009). She focused specifically on Robert Moses and other city planners like him who favoured cars over people.

“Moses] was responsible for 13 bridges, 2 tunnels, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, 10 giant public swimming pools, 17 state parks and dozens of new or renovated city parks (Flint 2009 cited in Garner 2009).”

It was very personal. In the 1930’s when Jacobs moved from Pennsylvania to New York she chose to live in Greenwich Village, a neighbourhood which at that time had,

storefronts with awnings shading cluttered sidewalks, kids chasing one another in front of a grocery, delivery trucks stopping and starting their way up the street.” Although the midtown skyscrapers and the cluster of financial district tall buildings were visible from Greenwich, most of the Greenwich buildings were  simple, two or three stories-high with a few with five or six stories (Flint 2009).

“Everywhere she looked she saw people-people talking to one another, it seemed, every few feet, casually dressed women window-shopping, old men with hands clasped on canes sitting on the benches in a triangular park. Everyone looked, she thought, the way she felt: unpretentious genuine, living their lives. This was home (Flint 2009).”

In his book entitled Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder, former Boston Globe journalist, Anthony Flint (2009:4) described how Jacobs defied Moses over three huge public works projects Moses had attempted to impose on Manhattan and won:

  • a four-lane highway through the middle of Washington Square Park
  • an urban renewal project that would raze 14 blocks in the heart of Greenwich Village
  • the proposed construction of Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane elevated superhighway, that would have gone through SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

In this YouTube video, “Intelligent Cities: Jan Gehl on the Neighborhood” by National Building Museum, Gehl described his vision. As they perused the lane way I was already enjoying infusions of rose petals, stevia and cat mint from the garden on the other side of the lane way of the lot, the proposed site of 24 luxury condos. I had thought of offering them some but mentally calculated how much such a consultancy cost an hour or a minute. Months later with architectural drawings in place, the reality of the construction taking over the sun-filled empty lot noisy with gossipy house sparrows, magpies and squirrels, sinks in little by little. It’s not quite a blank canvas… References

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