Onward... into the Middle Ages!

“There is no other city in the world that is changing for the best as quickly as Moscow is today,” says Jan Gehl, a professor of design and architecture from Denmark.

It would be tough to find a Moscow Government official who doesn’t know Jan Gehl. After all, he has a lot to do with what’s happening in the capital. But many people all over the world are familiar with the 80-year old architect and designer from Copenhagen, a “remarkably kind man.” This doesn’t come as a surprise. Jan helped make a lot of cities more comfortable, including London, New York, Melbourne and Sydney. He was the one who urged Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, to clear Times Square of traffic, turning it into a phenomenal pedestrian area that is pleasant to visit any time of the day.

Getting rid of cars in public areas in cities is a key principle in Jan Gehl’s urban philosophy. He is convinced that people need to move around cities on foot or ride bicycles. “I think that we needed cars 120 years ago, maybe in Detroit, in the Wild West somewhere. Now it’s a completely inefficient mode of transportation. At least in cities this is definitely the case. We spend more time in traffic than moving in cities. It seems like people all over the world are starting to realize this now and are using cars less,” Gehl said in Moscow during a presentation of his book How to Study Public Life, published with support from the city government.

Jan brought up his native city of Copenhagen as a classic example of a city that’s good for people and bad for cars. According to official statistics, last year was the first year in the history of the Danish capital that the number of bicycles was higher than the number of cars (by 13,000)! For the average Dane, riding a bike is as natural as brushing your teeth.

Of course, Moscow is no Copenhagen. It would most likely be impossible to implement the same solutions in this mega-city, right? “No, I don’t agree,” Jan Gehl objects, “People are people everywhere, which means they basically like and hate the same things everywhere. This is why the principles of urban planning that I apply are the same everywhere - be it Greenland or an Arab country, where I have also done work. I have twelve such principles. They include, first and foremost, safety, comfort, and an enjoyment of everything that surrounds you.”

Interestingly, Jan considers the Piazza del Campo, the central square in the Italian city of Siena built in the Middle Ages, to be a classic example of a totally comfortable urban space. According to him, back then city life and urban spaces were thought of as a whole. Cities in the Middle Ages expanded slowly and were in tune with the changing needs of people. This is a big contrast compared to the rapid speeds of large-scale design and construction, which took over in the beginning of the 1960s. In a rush to complete new buildings in record time, architects and urban planners completely forgot to take into account the life that was supposed to take place between these high-rise buildings. This is why cities all over the world all of a sudden acquired so-called “bed and breakfast communities,” which served as proof of cultural degradation in urban planning.

However, people all over the world failed to understand this, until Jan Gehl from Copenhagen, Jane Jacobs and William White from New York, Christopher Alexander from Berkeley and others started to speak up about it.

“No, of course they were not suggesting we go back to the Middle Ages. Of course, this is nonsense. A lot has changed since then,” says Jan’s colleague Birgitte Svarre, “The solution is not to re-create pre-modern cities, but to develop contemporary tools that can be applied analytically to once again forge an alliance between life and space in cities.”

The same thought was expressed in an original way by Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota: “We know almost everything about the habitats of tigers, gorillas and many other animals, but very little about the spaces people inhabit!”. Penalosa was one of the mayors who was able to change his city completely. For example, he refused to invest in roads for cars and instead built pedestrian areas, bike lanes, parks and squares, kindergartens, schools and libraries. When he was mayor, one of the best public transportation systems in the world was established in Bogota - TransMilenio allowed the city to decrease traffic by 40%. One of his main guiding principles is that the best cities are the ones where people want to spend time on the streets. This is also a guiding principle in Jan Gehl’s worldview.

This seemingly simple principle did not cross the minds of Moscow city officials for a long time. Everything changed when, at the end of 2010, Sergey Sobyanin became the Mayor of Moscow. Mr. Sobyanin decided to make it his mission to transform Moscow into a comfortable city to live in. “The new team needed new ideas and original information about how to change public space,” says Anton Kulbachevsky, head of the Moscow Department for Environmental Management and Protection. In 2011, a Moscow delegation headed to Montreal for an international urban planning forum. One of the speakers turned out to be of particular interest to the Muscovites - Jan Gehl. “This is how we met and I invited Jan to Moscow so that he could see everything for himself. We looked at the city together in order to understand what needs to be changed and improved,” Anton Kulbachevsky says. At first, Jan was of course horrified by the number of cars, parking lots, and the embankment of the Moscow River, which had also been taken over by cars. Gehl expressed his opinion and work on improving the city started. Tverskaya street, the courtyard next to the Tretyakov Gallery, Mayakovsky Square - this is just the beginning of the list of ideas that were thought of by the Danish architect and have already been implemented.

“Only a lazy person wouldn’t notice everything that has been done in Moscow over the past five years,” Anton Kulbachevsky says, “In other cities, the same kinds of changes took thirty years to implement. I won’t hide that not everybody was excited about the changes. Some people were apprehensive about them. They would ask, for example, why we need a swing set on Mayakovsky Square. But it turned out to be for the best. A record number of people is out enjoying the city streets today. People talk to each other and become kinder, more tolerant. I can say for sure - we won’t stop here. We will continue to do everything necessary to make sure that Moscow is a comfortable city for people to live in.



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