October 12, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: A Q&A With Architect Jan Gehl


(Originally published at FastCompany.com on September 16, 2010)

Whatever you think of the Manhattan pedestrian mall known as Times Square (love it or hate it), you have Jan Gehl to thank. The Danish architect’s name doesn’t loom as large as Jane Jacobs’ or William H. Whyte’s or even Andrés Duany’s, but no one has done more in the last decade to retrofit cities for cyclists and pedestrian than his eponymous consultancy in Copenhagen. While visiting New York this week for the American publication of his latest book Cities for People—a kind of manual for making walkable cities—Gehl invited me to sit with him in Bryant Park to observe the sidewalk ballet and discuss what he calls “the needs of the urban habitat of homo sapiens.”

Reclaiming a space like Bryant Park in the middle of Manhattan’s grid is easy; how do you do the same in auto-driven cities like Phoenix or Houston?
It’s not complicated. We can use the example of Times Square. If you look into the fabric of a city, there is so much leftover space–parking lots, or in this case a street. Why have two streets with traffic going in the same direction, and one at a funny angle? We were commissioned to survey how pedestrians and cyclists were faring in the city [in 2007] as part of PlaNYC. Two weeks after Janette Sadik-Khan was named commissioner [of the Department of Transportation], she popped up in Copenhagen to see a city that, since 1962, has done a lot of thing to invite people to walk and cycle as much as possible. It’s a city dominated by people, and not dominated by traffic.

What’s interesting about New York is that not much had happened along these lines between Jane Jacobs and 2007. Having worked with many cities [e.g. London, Melbourne, Mexico City, Seattle, and San Francisco] it all comes down to visionary leadership, and the political courage to make a change. It’s amazing that it took this long in the United States when European cities have been at it for 20, 30, 40 years, and they’ve done miracles in Australia. The same things can be done here.

In the developed world, why were Americans the last to embrace this, especially when many of our cities are older and smaller than Sydney or Melbourne?
Ever since planning was professionalized around 1960, instead of adding new streets and new houses to existing cities, they switched to big scale stuff—big buildings, new districts, and handling the influx of automobiles. They were good at handling big blocks, but weren’t paying attention to people. In the book, I talk about three levels in city planning: the big story seen from above; the medium story—the site plans, and the little story—the people landscape seen at eye-level. Planners tended to the two bigger scales, but would not come down to eye-level and see the results. And architects became more and more interested in single buildings and in forms than in society. They were concerned with the skyline than the sidewalk. But the people scale is the most important scale, because that’s where the biggest attractions are—other people—and that is exactly the scale that has for years been forgotten and mishandled. Nobody has been commissioned to look after it in any systematic way.

We know more about the habitat of panda bears and mountain gorillas than we do about cities at eye-level. It’s intriguing why so little research has been done on the urban habitat of homo sapiens in urban settings. Since Jane Jacobs, maybe 10 people have studied it seriously: Holly Whyte; Christopher Alexander; Allan Jacobs and Donald Appleyard among them. Ten years ago, we started our consultancy firm to put all of their theories to work. And we’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work. It’s partly a cultural question and partly it’s a matter of biology and what kind of animal we are—how far we can move, and see. Why is it that shops are four or five meters apart on all the good shopping streets all over the world? Because if you’re walking past, there is a new experience every four or five seconds, which is ideal from a stimulus point of view.

How do social networks, ambient awareness, augmented reality and other communication technologies change our experience of the city? It’s interesting how the surge of interest in walkable urbanism has happened in places where residents pride themselves on their connectivity.
Ever since the emergence of cyberspace, there’s been all these predictions that public space was redundant and cyberspace would take over. We have no evidence whatsoever that this is taking place. On the contrary, I think that all these indirect contacts possible inspire people to experience something themselves, rather than sit and look at pictures of it.

There’s been a renaissance in public spaces over the last 20 years worldwide—wonderful boulevards, parks, and squares. Whenever it’s done properly, we have seen people come by the thousands. If we go back a hundred years, there was enormous activity in the streets because people were forced to be there. They were forced to drag their merchandise to the street, forced to walk, forced to play. The quality of the public spaces wasn’t an issue, because people were forced to be there, regardless. Today, we have a very different situation. Sometimes we call it the “leisure time” or “experience-oriented” society—a consumer society. We live more scattered and isolated, and households are shrinking. In Australia and Denmark, every other household consists of just one person. But the one thing homo sapiens has always been interested in is other people. The number one attraction in any city isn’t the buildings, the parks, the sculptures or the statues. It’s people. First we need people, then spaces, then buildings.

But cities in the developing world are experience just the opposite. Three billion people will urbanize in the next 40 years, and countries like China face a choice of building cities as fast as they can, or else risk cities of vast slums, like Lagos. How do you apply the lessons of Copenhagen and walkable places to cities like Shenzhen or Lagos?
If we’re not looking properly after people here, the challenge is so much more urgent in these developing cities, where every day more and more traffic comes in, and people with no access to transportation become more downtrodden. We’ve seen it happen here in the 1960s and 1970s. As some people became more mobile, others became less mobile.

Many of the things I’m writing about are a mindset, and it costs nothing. The major investment is to simply think about it. We are presently working in China educating planners, because this is a set of truths they have never thought about or heard about. And they never thought it made any difference. They have these ideas that most of them should have a car and that bicycles aren’t a sign of progress. They have forbidden bicycles in a number of cities, but hopefully they’ll start to reverse this. I am absolutely sure that they can never make those cities more mobile in any conceivable way by simply adding more cars. That has already been tried. But perhaps they will have to try for a while before they realize that is not the way forward.

[Image: Flickr user Ed Yourdon]

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

September 28, 2010  |  permalink

Foxconn’s Latest Factory

From Digitimes (emphasis mine):

Foxconn has started construction of a handset-assembly plant in a 138-square kilometer business park surrounding the international airport in Zhengzhou City, northern China, with volume production to begin in first-quarter 2011, according to industry sources in Taiwan.

This will be Foxconn’s second plant in Zhengzhou, next to the existing one in the Zhengzhou Export Processing Zone that began production in August-September 2010, the sources indicated. While the existing plant currently produces handset components mainly for supply to Foxconn’s plant in Shenzhen, southern China, the new factory will also use these components to assemble handsets, with monthly capacity of 100,000 handsets in first-quarter 2011, rising to 300,000 units eventually, the sources said.

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

September 27, 2010  |  permalink

The Difference Engine

William Gibson on nostalgia and globalization:

I’m happiest with people who’ve gotten furthest from traditional ideas of nationalism. I’m happiest in wildly multicultural post-national environments, which most large world cities now are. I’m writing about places I like. Last year I thought about the first time I traveled through Europe, which was in 1970. When I traveled through Europe, each country had not only its own currency but its own brands of cigarettes, its own everything. That was such a wonderful experience. Each country in Europe was a pocket universe. That’s gone. It’s just gone. They all just have EU stuff and a lot of American stuff and a lot of Japanese stuff. It’s not as charming. But it’s the way it is. I don’t really see how we could have kept it the way it was. I don’t feel nostalgia for what it was. I’ve become convinced that nostalgia is a fundamentally unhealthy modality. When you see it, it’s usually attached to something else that’s really, seriously bad. I don’t traffic in nostalgia. We’re becoming a global culture.

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

September 27, 2010  |  permalink

“What Masdar really represents…”

...in fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance.”

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

September 26, 2010  |  permalink

China’s “Moon Shots”

In Sunday’s New York Times, Tom Friedman tolls the warning bell yet again about China: “China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say “moon shots” I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments. China has at least four going now: one is building a network of ultramodern airports…” The others includes high-speed rail, bio-sciences, and electric cars (which he spends the bulk of his column discussing).

Just how big is that network of airports? I quantify the scale and cost in the book:

Even before the crisis and China’s subsequent stimulus, the central government announced as part of its Eleventh Five-Year Plan that it would build a hundred new airports by 2020, at a cost of $62 billion. The first forty were ready last year. China is placing the single biggest bet on aviation of any country, ever. The vast majority lie inland, hugging provincial capitals and secondary cities bigger than any we have in the States. Full-scale aerotropoli are planned for China’s western hubs, Chongqing and Chengdu, and its ancient capital in the northwest, Xi’an. The others are slated for a mix of historic cities and outsourcing hubs like Changsha, Kunming, Hangzhou, Shenyang and Dalian. Shanghai built two for the crowds headed to last year’s Expo 2010, expected to be the best-attended World’s Fair in history.

Besides airports, China has laid as many miles of high-speed railroad tracks in the last five years as Europe has in the last two decades. The trains, in turn, are meant to keep people off the highways, to which it’s adding thirty thousand miles–enough to eclipse the American interstate highway system. China’s planners have internalized the lessons of America’s Eisenhower-era infrastructure boom, designing a world-class system for moving people and goods quickly, cheaply and reliably across any distance, whether locally by highway, regionally by rail, or globally by air. The plan is to pick and up move large swaths of the Delta hundreds or even thousands of miles inland. There is nothing to stop them.

If China’s leaders want to do something, they just do it. This is both their greatest strength and in the long run their greatest weakness. Remember what they said about democracy? It just gets in the way. This is how Foster’s dragon was built in five years flat, at a cost of ten thousand flattened homes. Multiply that times a hundred, and you have the initial human costs of China’s aerotropoli.


Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

September 25, 2010  |  permalink

Companies Without Propinquity

The New York Times examines the rising number of multinational executives relocating to Asia, taking special care to mention Cisco’s “Globalization Center East,” its four-year-old de facto second headquarters in Bangalore. The story makes two points especially worth noting: senior executives feel it’s necessary to spend time in the Pacific Rim (lots of time—the CEO of the German chemical company Henkel recently spent six weeks jetting across nine countries and logging more than 100 meetings); and an increasing number of executive functions are beginning to follow manufacturing and services overseas. They’re not necessarily being outsourced, but the term “outsourcing” itself—which implies there is a core to the company in just one country—is becoming obsolete.

The best testimony for both trends is given by Cisco’s chief globalization officer, Wim Elfrink. I met Wim in New Songdo last year for my Fast Company story about instant cities, and he was just as quotable then as he is in the NYT piece. Here are a pair of his quote from the story, contrasted with a quote and a relevant passage from Aerotropolis. From the NYT

“It’s not about costs and cheap labor. It’s about how can we get access to talent, how can we get access to growth and innovations, and how can we get access to new partners,” Wim Elfrink, chief globalization officer at Cisco, said in a telephone interview from Bangalore. “The demographic shifts and the massive process of urbanization here mean the region is going through a tremendous transition – and to be part of that, and to really understand it, you have to be here.”

In other words, there is no substitute for being there, either on a full-time or even part-time business. Even Cisco, which is trying to reinvent its management culture around its TelePresence, still relies of moving batteries of executives around the world by air. In Songdo, I asked Elfrink if he thought TelePresence would really kill the business trip, as some have suggested:

“The volume of travel won’t decrease,” he conceded cheerfully, “but it will become more efficient. My weekly meetings to go over numbers and projects are conducted via telepresence—why should I fly my folks in for that? But if we’re having a strategy meeting, we have to have dinner, go for walks, take breaks and be creative. People say that telepresence is killing travel, but it’s not killing it. It adds and it replaces.”

» Continue reading...

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

September 20, 2010  |  permalink

Coming To The Seatback Near You:


I’ve only had them for two days, and already Aerotropolis galleys have escaped into their natural habitat—the Monday morning consultant express to Atlanta. If you spot it, ask to borrow it—otherwise, you’re stuck waiting until March.

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

September 08, 2010  |  permalink

October 1st: Cities and Eco-Crises


I’ll be speaking about smart, green cities at Columbia on October 1st. (I promise this is not a Dungeons & Dragons tournament.)

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

September 07, 2010  |  permalink

Back To School Linkage

• On Labor Day, President Obama unveiled a $50 billion stealth stimulus to be spent on infrastructure. It includes plans to pave 150 miles’ worth of runways and finally get around to upgrading the nation’s air traffic control to the GPS-based NextGen system. We’ll see.

• Kansas City’s aerotropolis: the new American wilderness.

• USA Today is slowly dying because road warriors don’t read it anymore.

• Bloomberg BusinessWeek profiles Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, “The Duke of Discomfort.”

• Terry Gou: China’s cheap labor pool won’t be exhausted anytime soon.

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

September 07, 2010  |  permalink

Sex, Sun and Scalpels: Medical Tourists Meet Brazil


(Originally published on FastCompany.com on August 31, 2010.)

Brazilians endlessly repeat the old saw that the world thinks of only three things when it thinks of Brazil: samba, carnivale and football. But its healthcare industry would like to add a fourth—surgery. As part of Brazil’s efforts to leverage both the tourists and the infrastructure investments expected in the wake of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the country hosted its first medical tourism conference last week in São Paulo.

One of the speakers was Ruben Toral, the former marketing director of Bangkok’s Bumrungrad International Hospital who I profiled in Fast Company two years ago. Since then, the number of medical tourists leaving the United States for heart- or hip- or brain surgery abroad has risen from 540,000 in 2008 to an estimated 878,000 this year. And that will practically double to 1.6 million in 2012, according to Deloitte’s projections. But earlier this year Congress threw a monkey wrench into Toral’s grand vision for the “Toyota-ization of healthcare,” in which U.S. hospital groups would buy foreign ones and insurers like Aetna and United Health Group would offer patients discounts in exchange for outsourcing themselves and their bad knees overseas. It hasn’t happened, thanks to health care reform. Not because 47 million uninsured or underinsured Americans are suddenly covered, but because the legislation created so much complexity the insurance giants have curled into the fetal position.

Healthcare reform “sucked all of the oxygen out the industry’s hopes that insurers would engage,” Toral said Thursday during a break in the conference. “The un- and underinsured won’t be coming anymore. Instead, you’re going to see people with money leaving,” the same kinds of people who have been fleeing the long waits in socialized medicine for decades. “You’re getting the Canadian system,” in other words. “They’re better-informed medical travelers looking to meet their needs rather than head someplace that’s cheap. They’re going to be leaving for service. The industry is in the midst of transforming itself.”

» Continue reading...

Posted by Greg Lindsay  |  Categories:  |  Comments

Page 63 of 71 pages ‹ First  < 61 62 63 64 65 >  Last ›

About Greg Lindsay

» Folllow me on Twitter.
» Email me.
» See upcoming events.

Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

» More about Greg Lindsay

Articles by Greg Lindsay

-----  |  August 3, 2023

Microtargeting Unmasked

-----  |  July 1, 2023

2023 Speaking Topics

CityLab  |  June 12, 2023

Augmented Reality Is Coming for Cities

CityLab  |  April 25, 2023

The Line Is Blurring Between Remote Workers and Tourists

CityLab  |  December 7, 2021

The Dark Side of 15-Minute Grocery Delivery

Fast Company  |  June 2021

Why the Great Lakes need to be the center of our climate strategy

Fast Company  |  March 2020

How to design a smart city that’s built on empowerment–not corporate surveillance

URBAN-X  |  December 2019


CityLab  |  December 10, 2018

The State of Play: Connected Mobility in San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit

Harvard Business Review  |  September 24, 2018

Why Companies Are Creating Their Own Coworking Spaces

CityLab  |  July 2018

The State of Play: Connected Mobility + U.S. Cities

Medium  |  May 1, 2017

The Engine Room

Fast Company  |  January 19, 2017

The Collaboration Software That’s Rejuvenating The Young Global Leaders Of Davos

The Guardian  |  January 13, 2017

What If Uber Kills Public Transport Instead of Cars

Backchannel  |  January 4, 2017

The Office of the Future Is… an Office

New Cities Foundation  |  October 2016

Now Arriving: A Connected Mobility Roadmap for Public Transport

Inc.  |  October 2016

Why Every Business Should Start in a Co-Working Space

Popular Mechanics  |  May 11, 2016

Can the World’s Worst Traffic Problem Be Solved?

The New Republic  |  January/February 2016

Hacking The City

Fast Company  |  September 22, 2015

We Spent Two Weeks Wearing Employee Trackers: Here’s What We Learned

» See all articles


December 01, 2023

“The Age of Principled AI” (Video)

November 28, 2023

Fast Company & Curbed: Cars broke Los Angeles. Could a new form of transit fix it?

November 14, 2023

Have Deck, Will Travel: Fall 2023

November 13, 2023

Welcome to the Age of “Principled AI”

» More blog posts