Walkability is a global movement: The Walk21 Conference and Jan Gehl

Walkability is a global movement. Every year walkability professionals come together at the international walking conference, Walk21. In October of this year for the first time the conference was held in Asia, in Hong Kong, where over 800 people from 38 countries gathered to learn from each other, to share their successes and to share their difficulties.

In the walkability field there is perhaps no one more persistent nor better known than Jan Gehl, the Danish urban designer and architect who has been studying walking and advocating for people-focused design of cities for over 50 years. Much has been written about Jan’s theories, methods and successes in cities like Copenhagen, New York and Melbourne, but not much is known about the man himself – how his theories progressed, who influenced him nor of his life more generally. Our new book People Cities: The Life and Legacy of Jan Gehl  shares this inside story, combining biography with personal stories of influence. For anyone wanting to be a walkability advocate the book will help you see how Jan has done this through combining academic, personal and political skills with an enormous amount of energy and gentle humour.

Despite the growing recognition of the critical role that walkable urban design plays in terms of creating health, environmental and economic benefits, enabling walkability is not easy. Car-based planning is readily entrenched within our planning systems, particularly in the United States and Australia, and the tools that put car-based transport first, such as traffic impact assessments, are hard to overcome. The recent Walk21 conference highlighted the need for policy change (presented on by Peter), large demonstration projects (such as the major transformation of New York’s Time Square as presented in People Cities) and for small interventions such as the Wray Ave Solar Parklet – a small public space that will provide free solar power currently being converted from 2 motorcycle parking bays (as presented on by Annie and parklet designer Jean-Paul Horrè). These interventions provide hope, and importantly provide a political impact. People flock to them, reinforcing that if you provide human-focused places people like them and will use them.

The conference also highlighted the need for data on how people use public space. Most cities know how many cars are using their streets, both for movement and for staying (parking). But most cities don’t know how many people are walking on their streets or where people are stopping to spend time. To make real change this data needs to be part of the regular planning process. The substantial amount of information on public life that has been collected by Jan clearly demonstrates that a sound knowledge base can enable changes to the planning system and to city design. This data empowers local decision makers and gives them the tools to overcome some of the entrenched modernistic, car-based planning strategies. Studying people breaks planning down to what it should be about–providing for healthy, vibrant and liveable places.      

That walkability is now a social and political movement is an important legacy of Jan Gehl and the Walk21 conferences.