Making Boulder into one of Jan Gehl’s Cities for People

A couple of months ago I finished reading Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People, and I’ve seen Boulder differently ever since. I’m both more frustrated with it as it is today and more excited about what it could be in 20 years. Where before I might have been diffusely irritated by or in love with a place, I’m now explicitly aware of details that enhance or degrade its functionality for humans. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s short, it’s filled with pictures, and unless you’re a die-hard motorist or collapsitarian neo-primitivist, I think you’ll find its case persuasive. You can watch him give a talk about the book in NYC on YouTube too, if you want another preview.

Copenhagen Cafe Culture

Gehl is a Danish architect who’s lived and worked in Copenhagen for the last 40 years, designing urban spaces for human beings. His first memory of the bicycle is riding away from the city as a small boy with his father, all day and all night, to escape the Nazi occupation. In his childhood, Copenhagen was dominated by pedestrians and bicycles. By the time he’d become a young man, the city was being occupied not by an invading army, but by automobiles. He was trained as a modernist architect, in the tradition of Le Corbusier’s isolated towers surrounded by parklands and freeways — a tradition Gehl almost immediately rebelled against — but in the 1960s, few wanted to hear about cities for people. Somehow, human and humane cities were not part of society’s vision of The Future. A devastated continent was being re-built in the modernist mold, and re-designed to accommodate cars, but by the early 1970s citizens across northern Europe had begun to question that vision. A lot of the resistance to transforming Europe’s cities into automobile friendly spaces didn’t come from environmental concerns as we see them today. Rather, re-making cities to work well for cars ended up degrading the quality of urban life dramatically. Jane Jacobs said we’d either erode our cities with cars, or the cars would suffer attrition at the hand of good cities. Then the first OPEC embargo highlighted the economic risks associated with oil dependence. We chose erosion in the US, but many European cities chose attrition. Energy economics, the quality of urban life, and environmental concerns together were enough to convince these nations to re-consider their Modernist visions of the future, and they revolted against the automobile invasion.

In the ensuing four decades, Gehl has studied what makes cities work for people on the ground. He may have been trained as an architect, but what he and his firm do is much more like anthropology — data driven urban experimental anthropology. They’ve collaborated with the city of Copenhagen, using it as a living laboratory, observing people and how they interact with its urban fabric, how the form of the city affects the social life of the city. They’ve changed things slowly, and measured the effects. The data have given the city government the courage to keep experimenting, even in instances where a vocal minority has opposed changes. The opportunities for a data-driven understanding of how cities work (or fail) in the 21st century are staggering, given how easy it is now to collect vast amounts of information about people’s behavior from mobile devices and social networks. Creepy? Sure. But we don’t seem to care about our mobile phones constantly tracking and reporting our locations to the telcos, or Facebook, Amazon and Target tracking our every interaction to sell us more stuff we don’t need. If we’re going to give up our privacy to these people, we might as well use the same dataset for our own benefit. Here he is telling the story, in a clip from the soon to be released documentary The Human Scale:

Our client: Homo sapiens

Bushmen family - Ghanzi, Botswana

Gehl sees cities at their best as habitats designed for the social ape, Homo sapiens — habitats designed to keep us healthy, happy and safe. If that sounds like creepy social engineering, well, consider the alternative. Cities are clearly habitats for humanity — more than half us at this point — and by their nature they are designed. If we’re not designing them to keep us healthy, happy and safe, then what the hell are we designing them for?

The kind of city that emerges from those design criteria and several decades of careful observation is very familiar. It’s familiar because we are today the same organism that we have been for the last 50,000 years, and for ~5,000 of those years, we’ve been building cities to accommodate certain immutable qualities of being human. An entire chapter at the beginning of the book looks at these qualities. Our evolution, has made us linear, frontal, horizontal beings. We can move easily forward, less easily back, and not much side to side or vertically. We see in front of ourselves well, including the ground. Our peripheral vision detects motion mostly, and we are blissfully unaware of anything going on overhead or behind us. Our visual and aural acuity is such that we can identify gross motions of other people at up to 100 m. Facial expressions, emotion and body language can be conveyed across distances of about 25 m. Normal conversations take place over distances of 7 m or less. These sensory limitations are expressed in the scale and design of dinner tables and park benches, town squares and traditional streets, theaters and opera houses, church cloisters, amphitheaters and stadiums around the world, and across millennia. The result is that large physical venues from the Colosseum of Rome to the Bird’s Nest in Beijing hold 50,000-100,000 people. Any larger and the furthest seats can’t see what’s happening on the field. You can have a conversation with somebody on a 3rd floor balcony, but much higher and they fade out of your normal visual field and even if they can get your attention down below, conversation is hopeless. Open spaces more than 100 m across become inhuman expanses with no sensible far side. Streets with more than 25 m separating the building faces are socially one-sided — you can’t recognize, much less catch the eye of, someone on the other side of 6 lanes of traffic.

Humans also have an natural speed. Under our own power we usually move at ~5 km/hr (3 mi/hr). Riding a bike at a leisurely pace takes you to human running speeds with walking effort, up to 20 km/hr (12 mi/hr). These speeds determine how much information we evolved to take in during travel — how much change and detail it takes to keep our senses and brains engaged as we move through space. A street built to be deciphered and enjoyed by pedestrians is much richer and more complex than a road that’s meant to be taken in by someone driving by at arterial or freeway speeds. Signage and design idioms aimed at drivers seem cartoonishly enormous and exaggerated to a pedestrian. Big box building faces that pass quickly at 60 km/hr (40 mi/hr) are mind numbingly monotonous if you have to walk along them. I mean, seriously, which of the following shopping areas would you rather walk through?

Melbourne Campbell Arcade

As social animals, we have different spheres of social space, though these are more culturally moderated than the physiological parameters above. More than 3 m (10 ft) of separation and you’re in public space — a classroom setting, or the distance you might try to put between your picnic blanket and that of your neighbor’s at an uncrowded beach or park. At 1-2 m (3-6 feet) you’re in social contact. Less than a meter and it’s getting personal, until finally you are close enough to touch, to hold, to strike, to embrace, to smell one another.

With these basic human parameters in mind, Gehl describes design features that create lively, safe, sustainable, healthy cities.


By “lively”, he means I think not a city where one simply can walk between destinations, but one in which people actually do, because more than just being physically possible, it’s a joyful experience. A city that’s not just “livable”, but actually lived-in. How much activity and how many people it takes to get this feeling depends strongly on how much space you’re trying to activate, as anybody who’s ever had a decent dinner party can tell you. Ten people scattered throughout an enormous house or yard can feel dead. Get them all sitting around the same table with a glass of wine, and suddenly it’s non-stop. More than anything else, people in public space like to watch other people. They’ll take the cafe chairs and re-arrange them to point out onto the sidewalk or square unless you bolt them to the ground. People go where people are; just look at the activity on Pearl Street compared to half a block away, or the throngs that surround the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays in the summer, even when they don’t want to buy anything.

Parks are for People

Having small spaces — narrow streets, small courtyards — makes it easier to activate those spaces with a few people, and as with parties, it’s better to have things be slightly too busy than sparse. In a city context, the party can overflow, and activate larger parts of the city if you let it. But if you never reach a critical mass, you have no activity to work with. Given a fixed number of people, encouraging them to go slowly also increases activity. What really matters from the point of view of activity is the number of person-hours spent in public space, not the number of people. Inviting people to linger and watch, or interact, increases overall activity without needing more people.


Liveliness is its own end, in that it contributes to an enjoyable experience of the city, and thus to people’s quality of life, but it’s also a key to making cities safe. Jane Jacobs called this “eyes on the street”. Most people are decent. If you’re in a public space with a hundred, or even a dozen strangers, it’s very unlikely that anything socially unacceptable will happen. If you’re in a public space with only one other person, then the odds change dramatically. Having city streets that are actively and continuously occupied throughout the day, and even long into the night, means having safer streets.

However, malicious people aren’t actually the main danger in most US cities: motor vehicles are, killing 30-45,000 people every year, with about a third of them not being inside cars. Gehl is adamant that in mixed traffic, vulnerable users should have priority at all times. Cars might be allowed on narrow city center streets sometimes, but they have no illusion that they really belong there. They behave and are treated as guests. On streets where cars are not guests, bikes and pedestrians are given ample space, physically separated from the motor vehicles (and each other), and they get priority at most intersections.


In the US, bike and pedestrian advocates lean heavily on environmental and energy security concerns to make their case. In Gehl’s view, the fact that cities built for human beings are also vastly more sustainable than cities built for cars seems almost to be a happy accident. The features and benefits of “lively” cities are given about 30 pages, while sustainability gets only 6. Our focus on the tailpipe rather than the cars themselves has led a lot of people to look forward to electric cars, which still have almost all of the problems of oil cars, in terms the indirect energy consequences of sprawling land-use patterns, healthcare and infrastructure costs, traffic congestion and fatalities, parking costs and subsidies, intrinsic energy intensity of large, fast-moving vehicles, etc. Designing cities for people first, and squeezing the cars in where it’s convenient not only makes for more enjoyable cities (since that’s the primary goal), it also does a far better job of addressing the unsustainability of car-dependence than just focusing on tailpipe emissions. Quality of life issues are also less politicized than environmental ones in the US.

There are other kinds of sustainability to be addressed in cities too, and Gehl clearly believes that encouraging enjoyable face-to-face interaction in shared public spaces contributes to better civic engagement and social cohesion. He calls it “social sustainability”. He doesn’t go into it in the book, but there’s also a very strong argument that cities built for people are more financially sustainable. Your transportation system isn’t subject to disruption by unpredictable fuel prices. The infrastructure itself is much cheaper to build and maintain — cycle tracks take up the same space as urban light rail, can move roughly half as many people, and cost a thousand times less. The compact urban form that works well for human powered transportation also minimizes other infrastructural expenses — all the pipes and wires are shorter too.


Another common trope in North American active transportation advocacy is the health benefits of walking and biking, and these benefits are substantial (see this short PBS series on the link between sprawl and poor health). A very modest level of physical activity integrated into your daily existence goes a long way toward wiping out the chronic and totally avoidable lifestyle diseases that drive up our healthcare costs — obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. But we tend to use this as justification to try and guilt people into walking and biking “because it’s good for them”, and that tone only goes so far, especially when a lot of the US has been built to preclude walking and biking as viable options.


The “lively city” is clearly the primary focus of Gehl’s work, with the other criteria being some combination of pre-conditions for and consequences of creating that kind of urban space. I’ve heard people criticize prioritizing “place making” because they think it has to somehow degrade the economic competitiveness of the city — that a liveable city is a nice idea, but kind of quaint, and not compatible with a good business climate. I don’t understand this position unless they’re thinking of heavy industry, which we’ve got virtually none of at this point. Lively cities are clearly great for ground-floor retail and the lingering third-space businesses — coffee houses, restaurants, pubs and clubs. They’re also great for knowledge and creativity intensive design and technology firms, who compete to attract and retain high quality talent in part on the basis of the quality of life and collaborative environment available in the surrounding community. ZĂŒrich, Switzerland (pop. 350k, same area as Boulder) is certainly no business slouch and yet it’s one of the most livable cities in the world. A couple of scenes from their downtown:


The 19th century steel, paper and textile mills that inspired 20th century separated land-use zoning might not be particularly welcome in a city striving for livability, but they’re already not particularly welcome in many cities in the developed world. Light industry and manufacturing are entirely compatible with cities that are inviting to human beings. They need power, floorspace, access to the workforce, and some level of material cargo connectivity. That might move them out of the most urban core, but they don’t have to be exiled to the hinterlands as they are today.

I can’t help but think we’d do better if we avoided focusing on green guilt and health benefits, and instead offered a more aspirational vision of just how incredibly awesome cities can be. Would you like to live in a city where it’s safe and convenient for all third graders to walk or ride their bikes to school? Would you like to meet your friends randomly on the street more often? Would you like a city that encourages community and civic engagement? That invites you out into the warm winter sunshine to sip a cup of tea? Where at rush hour on a busy street, you can still have a hushed conversation with a friend, because the traffic is primarily bikes and walking people? Oh and also your healthcare and infrastructure costs will drop dramatically, and you’ll cut your greenhouse gas emissions in half. This is an available Future, it’s just not one we’ve been pitched by most Futurists.

Eye Level

Up until the last century, the planning and construction of cities was done from a human point of view, literally. It was done at eye level, and Gehl argues that eye level is still by far the most important perspective to take into account if you want to build a good urban habitat. It’s a practice of treating outdoor urban spaces much more like we treat indoor architectural spaces, which are obviously meant to be inhabited and enjoyed by humans. Good streets are like wide hallways that happen to have no ceiling. It’s on this smallest human scale that urban quality is evident or absent, but this scale is the one most frequently ignored by our current planning practices. Instead we focus on the site plan and the city plan, and ever since the 1960s this has been done increasingly from an aerial perspective, with little attention to the eye-level view. The poster child catastrophe of this kind of design is Brasilia, the modern, master-planned capital of Brazil, which was carved de novo out of the forest in the 1960s. It looks pretty on a map or from an airplane (see above… it’s an eagle!), but on the ground it’s inhospitable (see below). Site and city plans are important, but if you have to pick only one scale to succeed at, it’s eye-level.

There’s a section of Copenhagen, northwest of the city center, that Gehl likes to hold up as an example of this. It’s a district composed of 19th century brick row houses. In plan view, it’s a series of long, monotonous blocks. At the site level, the buildings themselves are nearly indistinguishable and clearly mass produced. You’d think that the place would bore any city planner or architect to tears, but it turns out that it’s packed with architects, planners and their families! Wander around via Google for a few minutes and you’ll see why:

At the city and site plan level it’s homely, but at eye level, it’s a wonderful human space relatively close to the city center. The long blocks are access-only for cars — you can’t drive through — so they’re extremely calm, and essentially used only by residents. The row houses are all three stories tall, and so any window that faces out onto the street is still socially connected to the street itself. You can recognize people in the windows and have conversations with them if you want to. There are picnic benches and chairs and bicycles lining the street alongside parked cars, sandboxes, and small garden plots for kids to play in. It’s neighborhood-as-hallway, and you can easily imagine walking or biking out in the morning, and seeing the same faces every day enjoying their coffee and morning websurf. On the back-side of the houses are small private gardens. One end of the long blocks faces out onto a series of lakes with a trail along their edge and a relatively quiet street with a cycletrack. The other end of the long blocks meets a busy thoroughfare (also with cycletracks), and the end of each block, instead of being a residence, is a neighborhood business — a cafe or a restaurant or a small grocer. Look at the pavement at the end of the blocks, and you’ll notice that the cycletracks and sidewalks are continuous, while any vehicle entering or exiting the side street has to change grade, obviously signalling the entry into a different, calmer zone and making the experience of the pedestrian or cyclist just as continuous as it is for a driver on the busier road. There’s a narrow deceleration lane that allows vehicles turning into the quiet streets to come to a complete stop before turning across the cycletrack and sidewalk, and good sight lines for a car coming out, so it doesn’t have to block the way while it waits for traffic to clear. It looks like a great place to have a family, despite the boring bird’s eye view.

Walking, Lingering, Meeting and Talking

Gehl says that if you make city space good for walking, encourage people to linger and inhabit it, make it easy to meet people, and talk to them, the city will become lively. These are things that nearly all humans like to do, given the opportunity. College campuses are great examples in the US.

How far we’ll choose to walk (or bike) depends on a lot of things. When the route is appealing, when the city is interesting and engaging to the human senses, people can enjoyably walk miles. This summer there was a good discussion of Walk Appeal as a qualitative measure of walkability to complement the algorithmic Walk Score that has recently been influencing urban property values. Often in the US even in places with lots of foot traffic, pedestrians can end up spending half their time waiting for walk signals at intersections, which means people bunch up into crowds, and end up going much slower than they would otherwise. They’re traffic just as much as cars are traffic, and they’re being given a very low level of service. Sidewalks are frequently cluttered with signs and utility boxes, with the assumption that pedestrians can squeeze through somehow, which is true, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good policy. Gehl is also not a fan of bike and pedestrian over and underpasses, which he sees as detours for people that facilitate more and faster car traffic, which ends up degrading the city. Especially when stairs are involved, people often ignore these facilities and choose to jaywalk, to the point of climbing over barriers placed in their way to prevent just this behavior. Beyond just having a continuous, unobstructed space though, making the walk actually interesting is important. Pedestrian cities all over the world have chosen to have narrow building faces opening onto the street because this lets people browse easily at walking speed, with a new opportunity every few seconds of motion. Fine scale development (small lots), detailed façades, little pieces of beauty.

Walking & Roads

Fewer people staying longer creates a lively city too, and it’s easy to encourage lingering behavior. People are attracted to the edges of spaces, to alcoves and niches. Given a slightly protected view of public space, we’ll sit on just about anything and watch other people. In contrast, benches in the middle of open spaces tend to be left vacant, especially if they take the form of cold, hard granite slabs, which architects are fond of for some reason. A lot of cafĂ© culture, which has certainly blossomed on Pearl St. in the last decade, is about giving people a token excuse to sit and hang out.

Being able to easily meet people — both new acquaintances and old friends, planned and unplanned — is one of the great things about cities. It’s virtually impossible when everyone drives everywhere, but walking or biking, it’s easy to recognize others, and spontaneously stop to chat, or to overhear a conversation and engage with someone new. Buildings can facilitate this too, by having permeable edges — patio seating and open walls in the warmer months, balconies that overlook well used space. Being in both sight and voice contact if possible, rather than feeling cut-off and isolated.

The largest pedestrian city centre

Once you’ve lingered and met, most people will end up chatting. Along any major arterial road, this is frustrating because noise levels are both high and variable, especially when trucks and buses are involved. The new residential developments along major roads in Boulder, like the townhouses with balconies that open on to North Broadway or Canyon, or the Twentynine North development, near Pearl Parkway and 30th St., or the 300 units going in at 3100 Pearl Parkway seem doomed in this respect. As long as they’re facing onto busy 4+ lane roads carrying tens of thousands of cars a day, they’ll never become human social spaces. Nobody wants to sit on their balcony drinking a glass of wine having a conversation right over a freeway.


The way we build our cities also affects the climate at eye level. San Francisco voted against re-zoning near the financial district to allow more skyscrapers in large part because of the shadows and wind it would have created. People complain about downtown Boulder having a monotonous skyline when developers uniformly build right up to the height limit, but densely packed buildings with uniform heights allow the wind to pass over, and there are plenty of great cities with uniform skylines. Almost all of Paris is built right up to their slightly higher height limit. Big chunks of 19th century Copenhagen are uniformly 5-6 stories tall. When you’ve got calm air and sun at street level in the winter here in Colorado, people want to bask. Twenty or thirty years ago, nobody thought you could have cafĂ© culture in Scandinavia, because of the weather, and because of the supposedly closed-in culture. “We are not Italians” they said. With good human streets, a few windscreens, and blankets, it turns out even people in Norway can be turned into Italians. Today some patio seating is used some 10 months out of the year.

Summer cafes in Copehagen

When it’s cool, people want sunshine. When it’s hot, they want shade. This isn’t rocket science. These are desires that can easily be satisfied if we prioritize them when we’re designing buildings and streets.

Life, Space, Buildings — In That Order

Gehl’s design process begins with understanding the patterns of urban life — what behaviors the built environment are meant to invite, and what activities are vital to the city’s functioning. These activities take place in the space between buildings, and so it is that space that must extend those invitations and enable the city to function. Once the boundaries of those spaces, and the necessary characteristics of their edges have been worked out, then you can work on designing the building at hand. This, he says, is pretty close to the opposite of how most urban planning and design takes place, with buildings generally being dropped out of the sky with at best a poor understanding of how they will fit into their surrounding space and the activities that take place around them.

At eye level, the ground floor has a special role. It’s the interface between a building and the space and life around it. If you get the ground floor right, then the city around it will function, almost no matter what the rest of the building looks like. Some cities, like Vancouver, BC that want more density than the walk-up 3-6 stories can provide have taken to putting towers on top of plateaus of low-rise buildings, which serve as the interface with the street. Conversely if you screw up the ground floor, nothing the rest of the building does can redeem it. Looking at the ground floors of all the buildings around downtown Boulder, this seems to be true. Where the ground floor is active, and directly integrated with the sidewalk, downtown is enjoyable. Where the ground floor is separated by hedges, or steps, or where it’s occupied by an inactive, impermeable bank, it’s dead.

One exception is the One Colorado Plaza, the oval courtyard that has an ice-rink in the winter, next to the 13th St. contra-flow bike lane. It’s a good public space, but it’s almost completely dead. I’ve often wondered why this is. It’s only a block off of Pearl, but it’s sandwiched between the Wells Fargo parking lot, and Canyon, neither of which is particularly pleasant. There’s never been a strong anchor establishment in there — a local favorite like the Mountain Sun or The Cup. Why is this?

I’ve also been astonished to notice how many awful buildings there are downtown, with no street orientation whatsoever, that totally kill any desire to be there as a person. The building to the west across 9th St. from the St. Julien is one of them. Underground parking that’s not completely underground, giving a half a story lift to the ground floor also totally destroys the building’s connection to the street. This is what’s being built at 3100 Pearl Parkway. Boulder typically demands a street orientation from developers today, but the way things end up getting built, I feel like we don’t actually know what to ask for. Doors that nobody uses, that sometimes end up permanently locked, do not qualify as “street orientation”. Residential units with ground floor patios and doors onto the street could work, but if the apartments also have an indoor exit, that goes directly to the parking structure, then the street-facing door is usually treated like their back door, and infrequently used, like here:

Antisocial Facades

There are also some great little human spaces that aren’t being utilized, but could be. The walkway between Pearl and Walnut just to the east of the St. Julien is awesome, and could totally have a quiet little courtyard cafe along it, but it doesn’t, and the east side of the passage fronts onto a parking structure and the Daily Camera parking lot. Hopefully when that property is re-developed, it will be turned into something more interesting and active. The little plaza next to the Chop House is another underutilized space. At the other end of downtown, there’s a small space near Walnut and 17th that’s gorgeous, especially in the fall when the leaves change, with some outdoor tables that never seem to be occupied. But a very similar space by Spruce Confections is well used.

Autumnal Cafe Courtyard

The success of our urban spaces seems haphazard, and it makes me think we might not really know what we’re doing. I have to wonder whether we’ve crossed some threshold, where it’s been so long since we had human cities in the US that the option isn’t remembered by most people, and so it’s dismissed, or misunderstood. Whereas in Europe, in the 1960s and 70s, lots of people would have been familiar with pre-car development patterns. Many, even most, people advocating for human cities in the US seem to have lived overseas at some point.

Developing Cities

The end of the book examines whether and how these design principles could be applied to the explosively growing cities of the developing world. It would be so much cheaper and better to just leapfrog over the entire auto-centric development period, and build these cities for people from the beginning, but with few exceptions, the current trajectory is one aimed at expensive gridlock and poor facilities for human beings, the majority of which in many of these cities can’t afford cars anyway. The forests of towers being plunked down in Dubai or Mumbai or Shanghai don’t create human spaces or facilitate city life.

I also got the sense that the author is ambivalent about the existence of megacities — do the benefits of cities really continue to scale up as we go beyond ten million people? The urban areas surrounding the Pearl River delta in southern China are merging, with a population approaching 100 million people in total — a city with more people than all of Germany? Could such a city be made to work at the human scale? If so, it’s not clear we’ve developed the tools to do it yet. Thankfully Boulder, one thousand times smaller, is clearly within the ranks of easily humanized settlements.

Nothing New Under the Sun

In the end, the kind of city that Gehl describes is nothing new, even if our more quantitative and explicit understanding of it is. These design guidelines held sway for thousands of years. Ancient cities, some having populations of millions of people, were built at the human scale — there was no other scale to consider. Over the last century we’ve run an experiment, trying out another way to design and organize cities, focused mainly on the car. It’s been expensive, unhealthy, hasn’t made us any happier, and so far it’s been highly dependent on fossil fuels. Some cities, mostly in Europe, have decided to head back toward what originally made cities work, even in areas not constrained by a medieval street plan. Melbourne, Australia has also done a great job in the last decade of aggressively re-vitalizing their central business district by making it much more pedestrian friendly. Given that great cities can be built at the human scale, I don’t know why we would keep choosing not to build them that way. We just have to choose to move in that direction.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

13 thoughts on “Making Boulder into one of Jan Gehl’s Cities for People”

  1. The soon-to-be Daily Camera plaza is a crucial chance to apply Gehl’s ideas on the small scale, to try to avoid the odd emptiness of the Chop House plaza. It will be a great day when we start to apply his ideas on a larger scale!

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