People and Cities

“First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.” -Jan Gehl

This quote got me thinking. How many times do we as city advocates hang our hats on a shiny new development as a means to improve living conditions? It seems that for every perceived problem in a city- mobility, poverty, safety, etc.- we often attempt to ‘fix’ our way to prosperity.

We must never forget that cities are about people. The rest is just window dressing. Literally, in some cases. Architecture, commerce, government services and street design must aid people in improving their lives or they become part of the problem, not the solution. When perceived ‘silver bullets’ precede the collective desires of the citizens you lose.  If you think differently, I have a few empty cities in China to show you.

Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces likes to say, “when you build places around

Jan Gehl

What’s not to like?

people, everything changes.” As community leaders we need to view everything we do on behalf of the community through the human lens. Often times we fail at this simple task by choosing aesthetics over practicality and defer to passing commercial trends in lieu of human scale design. Buildings need to compliment local context, street design should help people to move freely throughout the community and public spaces must foster positive interaction.

We’ve all seen new developments that, while ambitious, dwarf a community’s character. Buildings that work perfectly in one city aren’t always a good fit for another. And if I drive by one more over-planned, over-produced park that sits idle for days at a time because its designers forgot that parks are supposed to be accessible and active places, I may scream. Sadly, these are the ones that often win awards. “Have you seen the lovely gazebo, sir?”


A perfect compliment of new and old in the Northville Town Square

The lessons that local leaders can learn from Gehl and Kent are numerous- involve the people, design for the people, create for the people. I’m all for new strategies and pushing the envelope in every direction imaginable, but new ideas are only great when they fit the community and obtain a degree of acceptance from the citizenry.

Achieving a consensus around issues can be difficult, but moving forward without one is dangerous.