Urban design expert Jan Gehl on spaces that are good to be old in

Livable, lively, healthy, and sustainable cities of the 21st century

Concrete spikes under a road bridge in Guangzhou city, Guangdong, China (Photograph by Imagine China)

Various anti-homeless architecture or defensive architecture have cropped up online recently. Spike-laden floors, steep benches, and rocky pavements are some of these modern-day torture devices incorporated in the streets and streetcorners of cities that have anti-homeless policies such as loitering laws and sit-lie ordinances. The trend, as many millennials and Gen Zs would put it, is unsympathetic and cruel. For sure, there are other means to keep the homeless away from loitering in public spaces including the actions of government by establishing shelters, or supporting the less fortunate via building career paths and opportunities, and even fostering a solid education and healthcare system. Luckily, anti-homeless architecture is not yet a problem in the Philippines.

Instead, the country is, and has been for the longest time, faced with congested streets and heavy traffic, faulty transport systems, unsafe housing, and the lack of technology and proper urban planning.

To address the systemic transport and city planning concerns, internationally renowned Danish urban design expert and architect Jan Gehl talked about planning livable cities with University of Santo Tomas (UST) Architecture students. This special video session was conducted through the collaboration of the Royal Danish Embassy in Manila, the UST Office of Public Affairs, and the UST College of Architecture.

Ambassador Grete Sillasen of Denmark intimated her experience growing up in Copenhagen, a city that was designed through Gehl’s methodology of “Cities for People.”  

“ got better year by year, and we are all very proud that it is considered one of the most livable cities in the world. For that, we can thank Jan Gehl,” said Ambassador Sillasen, adding that “’Cities for People’ is not only about traffic, but I noticed that when we talk about livability, traffic is often an issue because it affects us as much as it does. Part of the livability of Copenhagen is that it’s a city for bikers and pedestrians.”

The Danish Ambassador challenged the online audience. “I hope that you will walk along the footsteps of Jan Gehl,” she said. “I dare you to be the ones to make Manila a city for the people.” 

This webinar with Gehl was part of a series of programs under the celebration of 75 years of diplomatic relations between Denmark and the Philippines.

Jan Gehl, whom the ambassador called “the Grand Old Man of Urban Planning for People,” is an award-winning architect and expert on urban planning with over 50 years of experience. He is a recipient of the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2015, and the Sir Patrick Abercrombie Prize for exemplary contributions to Town Planning in 1993, among others. Gehl is also professor emeritus of Urban Design at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts-School of Architecture. In the last 50 years, he has published several books, including, “Life Between Buildings,” “Cities for People,” “New City Spaces,” “Public Spaces–Public Life,” “New City Life,” and most recently, “How to Study Public Life.”

‘I hope that you will walk along the footsteps of Jan Gehl. I dare you to be the ones to make Manila a city for the people.’

The famous architect centered his lecture titled “Livable Cities of the 21st Century,” on the people-oriented approach to city planning. By keeping the people’s experience or “the patterns of public life” in urban environments at the heart of urban design, Gehl envisions lively, safe, sustainable, and healthy cityscapes that are not so dependent on motor vehicles. In the course of his decades-long career, he has created such spaces in Copenhagen, Melbourne, New York, and other urban centers around the globe.

This idea was echoed by the UST College of Architecture dean Rodolfo Ventura. “We are always challenged not just to create inspiring and functional works of art, but also to be mindful of the spaces we use and create,” explained the educator to the architecture students and fellow faculty members who attended the session.

Gehl emphasized that planning and building for urban centers needed three main points of consideration, namely, the protection, comfort, and enjoyment of the people who would inhabit or pass through the space.

“First, we shape the cities, then they shape us,” said Gehl, adding, “Architecture is the interplay between form and life. If life and form interact in a successful way, then that is good architecture.”

He advised that architects should study public life or the behavior of inhabitants within and around the planned space to see their habits and needs instead of building a city space that would merely look good from above, or as a 3D model. 

Architects should also design for protection against traffic accidents, crime, and inconvenient sense-experiences involving pollution and weather. A clean and unobstructed street layout, defined spots for staying, sufficient lighting and unhindered views, and open spaces for talkscapes and group physical activities should also be added. The scale, ventilation, and insulation are necessary, as positive sense-experiences and aesthetic qualities are also key points.

When these key factors successfully come together, the result is a livable, lively, healthy, and sustainable city that would also be “good to be old in,” Gehl said. 

UST College of Architecture faculty members and architects Ruth Marie Equipaje, Cesar Concio III, and Luis Ferrer, former dean, served as the panel discussants. 

Aside from being known for producing topnotchers in the national licensure examinations in Architecture, the famous university in Manila has produced National Artists and celebrated architects within its ranks of alumni namely, Leandro Locsin, Ildefonso Santos, Jr., and Francisco Mañosa.