Jan Gehl: Key to the City

By Julia Moiso

Jan Gehl
Source: Steven Siewert

Jan Gehl (80) is a Danish architect and urban designer who founded Gehl Architects – Urban Quality Consultants, based in Copenhagen, Denmark. His work and research creatively reimagines the multiple ways in which communities utilise the city and the public realm. For Gehl, design always begins with an analysis of the spaces between buildings. Only after establishing a vision of what kind of public life is desired in a city of public space, attention can then be given to the surrounding buildings and the ways the spaces can productively interact. He is a man on a mission to transform Sydney into a walking and cycling-friendly destination, has been proudly been awarded by Lord Mayor Clover Moore, the key to the City of Sydney.

He is also the second Dane to receive a Key to the City of Sydney, following Jørn Utzon who received the honour in 1998, famously known for being the Architect behind Sydney’s legendary Opera House.

While first being commissioned by the City of Sydney in 2007, more than a decade onwards, Jan Gehl has contributed driving ideas behind Sydney’s recent transformation including plans to ‘pedestrianise’ George Street, bring inner-city laneways to life, and create a greener, more liveable and better connected city as part of the Sustainable Sydney 2030 initiative.

Presenting a symbolic key to the city is the highest honour a city can give to an individual or organisation. It recognises the recipient’s contribution to furthering the ideals of a city or an outstanding achievement at an international level. Previous individuals awarded the Key to the City of Sydney have been received by Nelson Mandela (1990), Dame Joan Sutherland (1991), Juan Antonio Samaranch (2000), Aung San Suu Kyi (2003), John Bell AO (2015), and various Australian Olympic, Paralympic and other sporting teams and personalities.

Gehl comments about his role in the city’s planning; he observed that Sydney had, for too long, put cars ahead of people. This is a trait many cities often slip into subconsciously, rather than planning for people, infrastructure is often prioritised to continuously plan for upgraded road networks, a seemingly never ending investment - currently exhibited by the NSW State Government. Gehl believes that the most successful places have in fact, outgrown the automobile. This can be seen all around the world in Copenhagen, Denmark; Halifax, Canada; Melbourne, Australia; and Times Square, New York to name a few cities who have ditched the roads for pedestrian friendly environments.

Together, Gehl Architects and the City of Sydney Council under Lord Mayor Clover Moore developed a plan to unlock Sydney’s outstanding potential by making it a city for people, with walkable streets, great public spaces and a vibrant, green heart. Lord Mayor Clover Moore has commended Gehl’s work since being commissioned a decade ago and has made extensive efforts to implement his recommendations. From simple initiatives to make the streets more liveable like upgrading functional street furniture, planting more trees and incorporating more greenery into the city, to major projects like the transformation of George Street, the light rail and the improvement of laneway life throughout the city centre.

The City continues to embrace Gehl’s vision for Sydney with continual improvements to ensure a better quality public realm is accomplished and a more sustainable future for the city is achieved for future generations.

We believe that Gehl’s work in rejuvenating the city will help create a more liveable city with a primary people centric vision. Despite the continual rise in private vehicular travel seen globally, can it be said that this approach will help revolutionise cities? Is this approach seen as a global trend for a successful city? Is this seen as an ecologically, economically and socially just and fair strategy to the contribution of revitalisation to the city?


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