One of the highlights of Sheffield Design Week was the film The Human Scale, showcasing the work of Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and planner.
Gehl has spent 40 years studying how we live in cities, how we move around, where we meet – what works for us, and what doesn’t. Across cities in different continents, a constant message emerged. Most people prefer to live, work and socialise in local areas, without a long commute, and with easily accessible public spaces.
A lot of urban planning is based on different values. Cities invest in ‘prestige’ retail/corporate buildings in the city centre, with large roads to transport workers as they commute by car to suburbs. The model seems like a natural state of affairs, but it isn’t. It is dependent upon a particular set of choices and it doesn’t actually work very well. Even for car-owning workers the expense and time taken by increasingly congested commuting journeys is not an attractive option.
For older people and families with younger children, the model is even less attractive. Daytime in outlying areas, when commuters have left for work, can be a lonely experience, and many communities have been sliced up by the roads needed to keep commuting cars on the move. As public transport deteriorates those without cars are increasingly isolated.
How does Sheffield match up? We don’t have London’s semi-permanent gridlock, but the ring road and main routes are heavily congested morning and evening. The pollution has resulted in Sheffield being one of nine UK cities named by the World Health Organisation for breaching safe levels of air quality. 500 deaths per year in Sheffield are linked to pollution.
Small steps have been taken to promote public transport and cycling, but cars, and a ‘commuting to work’ model appears to take priority in planning decisions. If we want a better quality of life, with less congestion and pollution, we could take heed of a key message from The Human Scale, and ask people across Sheffield how they want to live and work now and in the future. We could then base our planning decisions on a more coherent vision for the future developed by and for those who live here. st because the thouggs.