In recent years, pedestrianised streets have been turned into motorways in the Chinese metropolis Chongqing. Now the city council is returning the streets to pedestrians and cyclists, and has teamed up with a Danish urban planner.
By Jeppe Villadsen Focus Denmark no. 4, 2012
Although largely unknown to most people outside China, Chongqing is one of China’s biggest and fastest growing cities with a population of around 11 million people.
Chongqing has developed in the same way as hundreds of other Chinese metropolises: skyscrapers shoot up everywhere, while old buildings are demolished. Cars have taken over with multi-lane motorways, while pedestrians and cyclists have been displaced.
But now the citizens of Chongqing are about to reclaim their streets. Chongqing city council has teamed up with the Danish urban research and design consulting firm Gehl Architects, which pecialises in pedestrianised streets and pedestrian-friendly urban spaces.
A horticultural worker in Chongqing. For many years, urban planning in the Chinese megacity has been anything but pedestrian-friendly. Photo: Wu Hong/Scanpix
“In China’s new metropolises they still create urban squares and parks, but the streets – which have always been the core of Chinese cities and the hub of street life – have been replaced from one day to the next with motorways,” says Kristian Villadsen, a partner in Gehl Architects who heads the firm’s activities in China.
The objective is to create an interconnected pedestrian network through central Chongqing, which like Manhattan in New York, consists of a peninsula between two rivers.
For many years, urban planning in Chongqing has been anything but pedestrian-friendly. Eight-lane motorways plough through the city, with no places for pedestrians to cross; Metro and bus stations are placed in the middle of busy junctions; pavements are lacking or are suddenly terminated; and public transport does not extend to where people live.
“With lightning speed, cycling culture has been transformed into car culture. But there are still many people who walk, so it is important to maintain the pedestrian culture by making it more attractive to move around on foot,” says Kristian Villadsen.
This can be achieved by making urban routes recognisable and easy to navigate, for example by using uniform paving, good lighting and signposting, and setting up benches and similar urban furniture.
But according to Chongqing Planning and Design Institute, the city council’s representative in the project, it is easier said than done to return the streets to the citizens:
“The objectives of the programme – to improve the quality of urban public space, revitalise street life and orient the urban development of Chongqing in a sustainable direction – are quite a challenge for us at a time when automobiles dominate city life,” says Yu Jun, director of the Chief Engineer’s Office at the Institute.
“However, things have been changed positively following the implementation of the street quality improvement project,” says Yu Jun, referring to the Institute’s collaboration with Gehl Architects.
Cycle lanes on Manhattan
The Danish consulting firm is using an approach in Chongqing which it has applied all over the world. The firm has for example designed cycle-friendly and pedestrian-friendly zones in Mexico City and Cape Town, created cycle lanes in New York and made Times Square carfree, and established recreational car-free urban spaces in Oman and Jordan.
“Today all major Australian cities use our principles for urban planning, which are now also being applied in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia. In our domicile in Copenhagen we have 35 architects working in this field, which hardly existed ten years ago,” says the founder of Gehl Architects, Jan Gehl, who has specialised in pedestrian-friendly design for over 40 years.
“We look at the human dimension in urban planning. And the strange thing is that we actually have no competitors, even though we have been active in this area for years,” he says.
The common denominator of the projects is the great mantra of contemporary urban planning: liveability – making cities attractive to live and move around in.
“We need to get more people to walk because it is good in every sense: it makes a city more vibrant, more safe, more sustainable and healthier. That is positive, but it is actually also the cheapest policy because it is less expensive to invest in design on a human scale than in infrastructure for cars. And we also benefit from lower healthcare costs,” says Jan Gehl.
Strøget in Copenhagen is one of Europe’s longest pedestrianised streets. Photo: Cees van Roeden/www.copenhagenmediacenter.com.
Infrastructure for Pedestrians
Denmark has long had a liking for pedestrian-friendly city spaces. 50 years ago, one of the world’s first carfree pedestrianised streets, Strøget, was established in the capital city Copenhagen. At 1.1 kilometres in length, it remains one of Europe’s longest pedestrianised streets.
“For the last 50 years we have been introducing pedestrianised streets and infrastructure for pedestrians, which have made Copenhagen one of the most liveable cities in the world,” says Jan
The same backlash against the domination of the car is being seen in China. Urban planners, mayors and citizens are all insisting on better conditions for pedestrians in cities.
Kristian Villadsen comments that the same themes which have developed in the West are also emerging in China today, i.e. to create attractive, vibrant, safe, sustainable and healthy cities:
“In China, people are very good at using public transport, but if public transport is seen only as a means of transporting the greatest possible number of people from A to B and it is forgotten that people don’t live at the station but also have to get there, it won’t function. Public transport then becomes solely for those who don’t have a car”.
Photo: Peter Helles Eriksen/Scanpix.
Born 17 September 1936.
Danish architect and urban planner focusing on analysis and improvement of urban spaces.
In 2000, he founded Gehl Architects, an international urban research and design consulting firm which improves the quality of urban life by reorienting city design towards pedestrians and cyclists.
He has published a number of books on creating attractive urban spaces. The most well-known is ‘Life between buildings’ from 1971. His latest ‘Cities for people’ from 2010 has been published in 16 languages, including Chinese.
Gehl uses the phrase “copenhagenize” to describe his vision of how urban centres can embrace bicycle culture.
Read more: www.gehlarchitects.com