From Denmark with love: Jan Gehl on Moscow

January 20
Municipal services

Copenhagen-based urban planning icon Jan Gehl became interested in public spaces and their importance for modern cities in the early 1970s. Dozens of city authorities in Europe, North America and Asia, have used him as a consultant and  implemented his ideas. The Gehl Architects bureau together with Moscow architects spent 18 months studying the Russian capital. In 2013, they presented a detailed report, Moscow: Towards a Great City for People, with recommendations for creating a more inviting urban environment, many of which have been implemented.

Jan Gehl has spoken many times at the Moscow Urban Forum, a major international event on the development challenges of global megacities. Last year, he spoke about enhancing city resilience at the forum’s online conference City for All. Wellbeing, Health, Sustainability. In his interview with, Jan Gehl shared his impressions of Moscow today and ways to make it an even more user-friendly city.

Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl

Question: How do you think Moscow has changed over the past few years?

Jan Gehl: I can see that many things have changed in Moscow. Overall, I am enthralled by this rapid transformation and the high quality of designs being used. People now have more user-friendly public spaces they can go to on a daily basis and visit for festivities. I would like to congratulate the Moscow Government on its achievements in trying to improve the lives of people.  The city has also become more imposing and much more attractive for tourists too.

Question: What can you say about the changes made to the Moscow embankments?

Jan Gehl: I am happy to say that the public spaces along the Moskva River embankments have become much more user-friendly. In the past, a large chunk of places along the embankment was taken over by congested roads and parking spaces, whereas now they are good for walking, sports and also great for entertainment events. In this sense, Moscow is becoming more like some of the world’s best cities, say like Paris, Rome, London and New York, where the transformation of embankments is a vital part of urban development policies.

Question: The Garden Ring has been improved based on your recommendations: the pavements have been widened and there are also many more zebra crossings, creating a circular pedestrian route. Why is this so important?

Jan Gehl: The Garden Ring is a marvellous feature of the cityscape and it is very important for it to be circular and not to have several separate segments.

Question: One of the city’s priorities is public transport. What improvements would you suggest in this sphere?

Jan Gehl: I am really impressed by the rapid transformation.  As we wrote in our 2013 report, improving the quality of surface transport in the city centre could create a major breakthrough. Another solution could be a light railway transit system in some of Moscow’s wider streets. Tram lines could help take the burden of the already overloaded central metro stations. More people will then consider walking to their destinations if they are offered the option to cover part of the way by tram.

In 2019, we turned a central street in Sydney into a pedestrian zone with a tram line. I see this as a big achievement, and this impression is reaffirmed by the increasing prices of real estate along the new tram line. Trams have been running in Melbourne since their invention. The system is being modernised, with new routes added to the network.

Question: Mr Gehl, you advocate the development of a bicycle infrastructure. But using a bike for getting around  is not particularly ideal during the chilly season. How do Scandinavian countries get round this dilemma?

Jan Gehl: Andreas Rohl, a colleague and mobility expert, says that this problem should be addressed in stages. The first step is to create a bicycle infrastructure that can be easily kept clear of snow during the winter months. For example, cycling lanes can be separated from the main roads. There should be enough space so that snow can easily be removed and won’t get in the way. Secondly, these lanes must be regularly cleaned so that people can use them even during the winter. One of the best practices is snow removal. In Linkoping, Sweden, the most important cycling lanes are usually cleared from snow by 7 am. The next step is to build bike rack covers and to encourage winter cycling.  And the fifth step is to accept the fact that fewer people are likely to use bikes in winter in northerly cities. The figure is 80 percent of the annual average in Copenhagen.

Photo by Yulia Ivanko,

Question: What projects are you working on currently?

Jan Gehl: I resigned from my position at Gehl Architects (Jan Gehl founded the bureau in 2000 – in 2016, when I turned 80. Currently, I am chief consultant for several projects, but the company has considerably reduced the number of its projects due to the pandemic. I am in good health and give many online lectures:  I have held such events for audiences in 26 countries during the past three months. I am also involved in preparing my books for publication in a number of countries.

I believe it would be interesting to undertake a new Moscow: Towards a Great City for People survey in 2022 and 2023, ten years after the first one, to compare how the city looked then and how it looks now, and to report the transformation of public spaces and its impact on people.

Question: The Moscow Urban Forum attracts the world’s best experts in urban development and architecture. You have attended it several times. Do you plan to attend it in 2021?

Jan Gehl: I accepted the invitation long ago, and I hope the epidemiological situation will improve by then. I have put the date in my diary.

The Moscow Urban Forum has been rescheduled for 2021 because of the pandemic. The 10th Moscow Urban Forum and the 2nd Urban Health International Congress will be held at Zaryadye Park between 1 and 4 July. The theme this year is Superstar Cities. Transforming for Success. It is a story of the cities that have not just created a high quality urban environment but have also become an example of successful urban transformation for dozens of other cities. Because of the challenge of the pandemic in 2020, several events on the agenda of the Urban Health congress will be devoted to the success stories of the cities that have been acting especially effectively in these circumstances and the pandemic’s impact on urban development across the world.


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