5 km/h Cities VS 60 km/h Cities
by Eugene Quinn, Walk21 Vienna Ambassador
As we approach the 16th Walk21 conference, I think it’s worth returning to the first, in London in 2000, and to an idea which did not get the attention it should have. As urbanists, we have so much to thank Danish architect and city-planner Jan Gehl for. From being a radical outsider when he started, he has moved the agenda, to push ideas of a more liveable, social and fun space for everyone to enjoy into mainstream thinking (only car drivers could dislike him). He is playful and fresh, and always right. Back then, he explored the differences that make some cities so much more enjoyable to experience, visually, than others.
For readers unfamiliar with metric systems, the two speeds of the headline equate to the average walking and driving pace – though of course many drivers move very slowly, through congested modern metropolises.
He cites Venice as a key 5km/h place. And we can assume that many historic cities sit alongside it, since they were designed in a pre-car age, when life was slower. Though he is too diplomatic to list the 60km/h towns, which he dislikes, we can assume he would include in that category many modern US cities, and also the typical Soviet-designed plainness. His central idea is that 5km/h cities are good to walk through, because they are rich in detail, present things on a very human scale, have small spaces, and do not feel rushed.
By contrast, newer cities are often viewed by car, and designers respond to that with much less detail, fast ideas, often loud advertising, and no subtlety. Public space is built much bigger and simpler, to be understood in seconds and at speed. And if there are any people walking those streets, they are almost invisible at that speed. Walking in such spaces is uninteresting and tiring. Central Vienna is certainly the first kind, though some of the northern suburbs are 60km/h locations.
The distinction is partly about age, because it is the contrasts in architecture which age brings, that add curiosity and surprise. But some new build add lots of architects and colours into the mix, to keep visual interest high.
If you can see inside windows – for example in Netherlands – then so much the better. People watching also helps, and having enough interesting and varied types to observe adds a spicy twist, beyond the architecture. And we can add in the scents of some places, as important reasons to get out there and know them on foot. Weather makes a difference of course. When the temperature pushes plus -or minus – 40C, it might be wise to move quickly to your destination.
To end with one of Gehl’s lovely phrases, ‘[A 5km/h metropolis] is a sensual city where one is close to buildings and people. Most of us take great joy in moving around in 5 km/h cities.’ To slow down one’s life has benefits not just for stress, but also optimism, creativity, better relationships and more time to analyse and anticipate. The street is where people can meet, not just drive by.