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Danish architect Jan Gehl shares his secrets on designing liveable cities with ACT government

Cities of the world designed to be "instant capitals" like Canberra all share the same flaw of being "over scale", as if they're created for a "special species of people four metres high".

That's the view of internationally renowned Danish architect and author Jan Gehl who visited Canberra on Thursday and Friday to share his vision for making cities liveable, cultivated over his 55-year career as an architect and influenced by his psychologist wife.

Architect Jan Gehl gave the downscaling of areas like Lonsdale Street the thumbs up on his visit on Thursday.
Architect Jan Gehl gave the downscaling of areas like Lonsdale Street the thumbs up on his visit on Thursday. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Mr Gehl said he has advised city planners all over the world and all Australian cities except for Canberra.

He said making streets too wide and placing buildings too far apart was a common flaw all planners made as a way of signifying the importance of the city as a national capital.

It was a common sight in Russia, East Germany and now China.

"You should feel small and you should realise state is big," he said.

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"The challenge to me is how to bring the human scale to the bigger spaces… and that can be done."

But far from giving Canberra's planners the thumbs down Mr Gehl believes the "very devoted" powers that be are on the right track especially when it comes to the most controversial of recent decisions – light rail.

Mr Gehl was influential in driving Sydney and other areas towards the mode of transport and away from an obsession with cars which he believes was fuelled by 50 years of cheap petrol.

He said the long urban history of trams across the world showed that it worked and he was confident the 12-kilometre stretch of light rail running from Gungahlin to Civic would  be quickly followed by further stages.

"When they open the tram… I'll sit in the first car," he said. 

"We have to move to be healthy, we have to get out of the car to be more sustainable and to make cities more liveable and make them better places for our children to grow up and the growing number of elderly people."

Mr Gehl shared his thoughts with Planning Minister Mick Gentleman in the up and coming Braddon precinct on Thursday afternoon, just one of Canberra's urban renewal projects the government chose to show off along with NewActon and the Kingston Foreshore.

While Mr Gehl was reluctant to give his opinion of Canberra until he spent more time in the city since his lastvisit in 2009, the move towards scaling down urban activity to make it more intimate in areas such as Lonsdale Street was given the thumbs up.

He believes the long-held Australian dream of owning a home on a quarter-acre block was not shared by everyone and people were beginning to understand denser urban living was smarter and cheaper for changing demographics.

"The old idea of the house was a nuclear family of numerous children and service personnel and one of the grown-ups staying at home and the other going to work," he said.

"The reality now is that households are smaller, there are more broken families and more women are working… people are getting older and many of these houses are occupied by one or two elderly people who are increasingly dependent on being helped with the garden or food and shopping."

Mr Gentleman said the ACT government hoped to learn from the work Mr Gehl had done in cities around the world in Australia including Melbourne and implement the ideas to suit the changed way people wanted to live.

"It's a way of designing cities so they're pleasant places to be in and not just conforming to engineers and developers, to look at things out of the box to make it more interesting," he said.

"Jan was telling me how people want to treat their lifestyles differently, they don't want to spend hours in the car travelling to their destination… we need those resources around the places they live and work."

Mr Gentleman was confident the buzz surrounding trendy places of urban renewal like Lonsdale Street and the foreshore would not wear off.

"There may be a bit of a burst in the initial stages but there is no evidence of people deserting them," he said.

Mr Gentleman said housing affordability was up to the market and not negatively impacted by the revival of urban areas.

"Prices of apartments in Braddon are relative to the prices of three-bedroom homes on a large block down in Tuggeranong," he said.

"It's a different way you want to live."

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