This post is an attempt to look at how cities, from a planning perspective, can focus more on the ‘human dimension’. By looking at Jan Gehl’s four components of a future city: 1) A lively city, 2) safe city, 3) sustainable city, and 4) healthy city, I hope to be able to explain why planning for greater sustainable transport (sustainable movement) usage is key to re-addressing the balance from haphazard urban planning with a focus on the design of individual buildings and car travel, to city planning that places the human dimension and ‘everyday’ life at the core. The work of Jan Gehl, in particular his book ‘Cities for People’, forms the backbone of this argument.

The context that I view most of the planet’s cities is one of automobile dependence and lifelessness (Jocobs, 1961). The increases in car traffic since the 1960’s and the over-emphasising of individual buildings (Koolhaas, 1996) has led to many cities becoming less equipped and designed to cater for small, everyday trips due to the ease at which one can travel by car to access work, services, education, leisure etc. To many urban designers, this status quo has literally choked our cities. In response, Gehl’s four components of a future city are (2010: pp 6-7):

The Lively City:

So much of a city’s potential trade, culture and leisure opportunities are ‘strengthened when more people are invited to walk, bike and stay in city space’ (2010: pg6)

The Safe City:

Safety and security is a cornerstone of human wellbeing. A city that enables more residents to walk for the everyday/small trips and has attractive public spaces will lead to greater human activity, and by default, a feeling of security. In contrast, a street with no activity or bustling trade can attract greater crime and vandalism.

The Sustainable City:

A ‘green’ transport system i.e. transport infrastructure that supports walking, cycling and public transport, ‘provide marked benefits to the economy and the environment, reduce resource consumption, limit emissions and decrease noise levels’ (2010: pg7)

The Healthy City:

If more people are walking, riding bikes, or using public transport (and walking or cycling to/from stations, bus stops etc) then current public health issues would be less prevalent. Illnesses and diseases caused by sedentary behaviour are exacerbated by car travel. Promoting sustainable transport modes has proven to benefit health and wellbeing.

Of course, all 4 components are interrelated and influence each other, however it is clear to see, according to Gehl’s (2010) categorisation of what is need for future city planning, the need for a greater focus on the ‘human dimension’. Promoting sustainable transport directly improves the urban realm and the built environment by developing facilities for people, and thus, re-engages the city at the human level.

Linking back to the idea that planners have over emphasised the importance of individual buildings which encourages private car usage to get from A to B, the final element of this post is what Gehl refers to as ‘Life, space, buildings – in that order’ . He writes; ‘working with the human dimension requires life and space to be treated before buildings’ (2010: pg 198). This way, not only can you ensure that good design supports the ‘life’ that develops, but built environment professionals can help anticipate and steer how people chose to travel in ways that benefit their health, the environment and the economy (Sustrans, 2015). In time, cities will change and adapt, and the ways in which people chose to ‘move’ in the city will alter how the city functions. In London, for example, there is a burgeoning everyday cycle culture, and city planners have responded by designing streets at the human dimension.

A fascinating example is that of Waltham Forest’s ‘mini Holland’ project where a multi-million pound scheme is underway to radically improve conditions for sustainable transport usage. The borough council intend to reduce traffic, improve the built environment for walking and cycling, and boost the local economy. It occurs to me that the 4 components of Gehl’s future city are being considered here, and the need to put ‘life’ and ‘space’ before ‘buildings’ will have a drastic impact on the everyday experience of life.

This example will generate fascinating learning about the importance and the need to implement more of Gehl’s concepts on future city development. The focus on sustainable transport is crucial if we are to have urban realms that support human wellbeing.

street play


Gehl, J (2010) Cities for People, Island Press

Jacobs, J (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, New York

Koolhass, R (1995) The Generic City, and Whatever happened to urbanism? The Urban Design Reader, 2nd Edition, pp.358-372

London Borough of Waltham Forest (2016) ‘Creating a Mini Holland in Walthan Forest’ (Online: http://www.walthamforest.gov.uk/miniholland)

Sustrans (2015) ‘Our Vision’ (Online: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/about-us/our-vision)