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Gehl Architects & Studio wish you a wonderful summer. Make sure to take some time to relax and enjoy the public realm. ...

  • We focus on how the built environment connects to people’s quality
    of life.

  • Our work crosses the fields of architecture, urban design, landscape design and
    city planning.

  • We work on
    global projects which always aim
    to create ‘cities
    for people’.

  • Our services
    span across all scales, from strategic visions,
    to design.

  • Our clients are mayors, city administrators, NGOs, developers, private and public organizations.

  • We have been researching quality of life in public spaces, around the world, for over
    40 years.

  • We work in
    over 50 countries
    and 250 cities around the world.

Learn more about our past and present here

Learn more about our services here

Learn more about our past and present here

  • We focus on how the built environment connects to people’s quality
    of life.

  • Our work crosses the fields of architecture, urban design, landscape design and
    city planning.

  • We work on
    global projects which always aim
    to create ‘cities
    for people’.

  • Our services
    span across all scales, from strategic visions,
    to design.

  • Our clients are mayors, city administrators, NGOs, developers, private and public organizations.

  • We have been researching quality of life in public spaces, around the world, for over
    40 years.

  • We work in
    over 50 countries
    and 250 cities around the world.

Learn more about our services here

Blog

News

Talks

Films

Shopfront

Books

Contact Guide

Requests for talks & info
Eva Martinus, Business Development Coordinator
eva@gehlarchitects.dk

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Livable City seminar

Birgitte Bundesen Svarre

Associate

Sep 17, 2015

Espoo, Finland

'Conference on livability in cities today'

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“Shaping European Cities”

Kristian Villadsen

Sep 15, 2015

Brussels, Belgium

'at BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts - organized by the Mies van der Rohe Foundation'

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Bienal Internacional de Arquitectura de Buenos Aires

Jan Gehl

Sep 11, 2015

Buenos Aires

'Public lecture at 7pm'

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University of Buenos Aires

Jan Gehl

Sep 9, 2015

Buenos Aires

'at 7pm; a public lecture at the School of Architecture, Design and Urbanism'

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Lund International Architecture Film Festival 2015

Lærke Jul Gagner

Sep 7, 2015

Lund, Sweden

'Deltagelse i paneldiskussion'

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The ‘Superpath’ project

Ewa Westermark

Partner

Sep 5, 2015

Cracow, Poland

'Debate at Krakow's Variete Theater'

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Hurray for Smart Montrealers!

Over the last couple of months I have written about the different aspects of smart cities, the pros and cons, the dos ...

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Why smart cities – what about happy?

— August 24, 2015

Yet another of our Gehl profiles has had the privilege of giving a TEDx Talk, this time in Maastricht. Riccardo spoke ...

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Gehl Director Riccardo Marini in The Guardian

— August 24, 2015

Successful communities of the future will be inclusive places that cater for all sections of society. Our Director ...

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We are the Tools for Change!

This is the third summer that Gehl has hosted the ‘Tools for Change’ masterclass in our Copenhagen office. Having ...

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News

Yet another of our Gehl profiles has had the privilege of giving a TEDx Talk, this time in Maastricht. Riccardo spoke ...

4

The City at Eye Level

This liveability powerhouse has one clear vision that started with a fresh state of mind. We often talk about the ...

6

Talks

Livable City seminar

Birgitte Bundesen Svarre

Associate

Sep 17, 2015

Espoo, Finland

Conference on livability in cities today

REQUEST A TALK
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Shopfront

How to Study Public Life

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Jan Gehl Wins Prestigious International Award!

— August 17, 2015

“For his inspirational leadership in improving the quality of urban life by designing Cities for People – ...

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The Human Scale in Urban Design

Imagine visiting the iconic city of reconquered public space in a citizen-oriented country most concerned with human ...

5

Reflections on the Guggenheim Competition

The result of the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition was announced a couple of weeks ago. At Gehl Architects, we were ...

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Masterclass

New Masterclass in September!

— July 9, 2015

PEOPLE FIRST DESIGN – a new Gehl Masterclass Our next 'Tools for Change’ will be on the 9, 10, 11 of September, ...

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Almaty is going places

— July 6, 2015

Gehl Architects was asked to look at this intriguing city by its visionary ‘Akim’ (Mayor) Mr. Akhmetzhan Yessimo. For ...

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How do we design healthy cities for people?

In many cities, despite advancements in healthcare and legislative victories, inequities in health outcomes are getting ...

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US Ambassador visits Gehl

— June 29, 2015

Gehl CPH had an important visitor last week! The American ambassador to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, dropped by to have lunch ...

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Hurray for Smart Montrealers!

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Over the last couple of months I have written about the different aspects of smart cities, the pros and cons, the dos and don’ts. The outcome of these musings suggests that we ought to discard the idea of a smart city for the sake of promoting smart communities, in which smartness is a tool for benefitting and improving the local social sustainability. However, within this approach lies a fundamental challenge: how do we actually make communities engage with and take responsibility for the shaping of the public realm, using tools and methods they have never known before? Enter Montreal.

Montreal uses pilot projects to kick-start the regeneration of the urban spaces. A vacant parking lot on the outskirts of Downtown was turned into an urban beach thanks to the local organization l’ADUQ.

 

Public Life in Montreal

To understand the social life of Montrealers, one must first understand the basic history of the city’s public spaces. During the era of modernisation, more than 1/3 of the downtown core was demolished to make way for massive super-complexes embodying offices, car pars, underground malls and cafes. In the industrial suburbs, thousands of housing units were torn down to allow vehicular traffic an easy access into the city. These “renovations” were carried out in less than two decades, but they still managed to methodically get in the way of public life. Since then, the city has taken a completely different approach to urban planning, superseding even today’s hype for attractive, green and lively metropolises.

“My colleagues and I, we based our entire careers around reconstructing the city from where it was left after the 1970’s and 1980’s demolitions (…) we want Montreal to be a network of public spaces.”

– Wade Eide, Montreal Urban Planning Department, private interview July 15, 2014

 

Throughout the year, Montreal hosts hundreds of events that all contribute to a lively and active public life.

Today, the effects of Wade Eide and his colleagues’ efforts are absolutely visible in the streets and squares of Montreal, which have indeed been transformed into a coherent experience of activities and life. The most remarkable part of this transformation is the effect that it has had in the mentality of the citizens (or maybe it was the other way around?): in Montreal, the city truly is for its people, and people care for and participate in public matters to a degree that I have rarely seen. I believe, because of this mentality, Montreal has a serious chance of actually fulfilling the vision of a smart city built for and by communities.

The steps of Place des Arts serve as a public space, popular with everyone on a sunny day.

 

The Montreal Model

Montreal’s outstanding mentality for public participation has – luckily – also been recognized by the current smart Montreal’s front-runners, mayor Denis Coderre and Vice-President of the Smart and Digital Office, Harout Chitilian. In their campaigns for a smarter Montreal, they enthusiastically encourage the citizens to voice their opinions and share their ideas:

“This ambitious project of making a smart and digital city will take advantage of new technologies, but above all it will draw on the collective intelligence to create a specific Montreal model. I count on you, Montrealers to give your opinions on the various forums that are available to you. I invite you to participate today. The floor is yours!”

– (translated from French) Denis Coderre, Mayor of Montreal, 2014

 

Focus on citizens is visible in the public space. In this project residents of Montreal share their unique stories in a virtual exhibition.

As part of the public participation process, the city has developed a web portal, “Faire MTL” (Make Montreal), where Montrealers are offered the chance to contribute to, comment on, collaborate with and follow 180 tangible projects that are to be implemented over the next couple of years. The ambitious plans also include the creation of physical spaces for innovation and co-creation, along with the use of public spaces as living laboratories for the growing smart communities.

The fusion of a genuinely open and inclusive government and the natural participatory spirit of the Montrealers, makes Montreal a key player to follow in the game of defining how future (smart) cities could be shaped and function at the hands of the citizens.

Every summer Sainte-Catherine Street (the city’s commercial high street) transforms into a pedestrian street, allowing citizens to walk, shop, eat and enjoy the city life.

Find more about Montreal’s projects here.

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We are the Tools for Change!

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This is the third summer that Gehl has hosted the ‘Tools for Change’ masterclass in our Copenhagen office. Having completed the three day session in June, one of our participants urban planner Zeynep Cakir blogs about her experience.

As built environment specialists, we must approach our projects for people first. Understanding the human scale and how we as humans use our spaces is a vital tool in creating and improving our cities. My time at the ‘Tools for Change’ masterclass has reinforced for me the importance of the eye-level experience before approaching the drawing board.

Having trained as an architect I have always wanted to learn more about how we, as built environment specialists, can influence urban design outcomes. When I discovered the ‘Tools for Change’ masterclass, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity. At the time, I was only planning on going to Europe for a friend’s wedding and to visit family. Attendance at the masterclass was the catalyst for me to extend my leave and turn my trip into a mini study tour of an array of European cities.

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It was great to be in a room filled with people from different cultures, ages and professional backgrounds, all with similar values. It made discussions more diverse and interesting. The principal theme that was discussed throughout the three days was the importance of understanding human behavior and designing for people. We must ensure our physical design outcomes provide a great eye-level experience as opposed to falling into the Brasilia Syndrome of only designing with plans.

When we broke up into groups and went on site to analyse the city, it really proved that we should focus more on the human dimension in contrast to simply defining the characteristics of the space. During my formal architectural training, the focus was primarily on built form qualities and what was on site. Not once did I venture out and really understand how people were using the space. Simply being within the city fabric and observing how people used a particular space allowed me to understand what was more necessary for the site, rather than just creating an aesthetically interesting form.

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Despite the inclement wet weather, the bike tour of Copenhagen proved how easy it is to cycle with a well-integrated cycle network in place. It reaffirmed the adage; “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes” right!

One of my Melbourne colleagues is always amazed whenever I do a hook turn in my car in the city. I surprised myself that I could do a hook turn on a bike, in the opposite direction, on the other side of the world! Even something as thoughtful as having bins, which lean towards cyclists, are simple gestures that enhance user experience.

I also learnt that as humans, we can all multitask. We can do stuff with our hands while walking and balancing on two legs. We are small, slow, sensitive and curious creatures. We are also lazy beings. We tend to take the shortest route, often avoiding stairs. The creation of a beautifully paved footpath may look attractive, but if there is desire line to get from A to B – we will take the shortcut. We are prone to sitting a lot and want to be offered flexible social distances with moveable furniture and spots to just sit and observe. Might I add, we love trees and they are a cheap investment too!

Since returning home I look at the built environment around me much more intently. Even the photos I have been taking focus more on people using the space as opposed to the built form. It is important to understand human behaviour in order to shape good urban design solutions. It is an effective method that is tailor made for us…. to comfortably inhabit the space.

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To sign up to our masterclass focusing on masterplanning and people-first urban space, please send an email to – masterclass@gehlarchitects.dk

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The City at Eye Level

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This liveability powerhouse has one clear vision that started with a fresh state of mind.

We often talk about the importance of how buildings ‘land’ at the street level. By that we mean are the first few floors big blank walls, or are they smaller and more intimate units that grab our interest? Do the façades vary widely, or are they monotonous? Is there something nice to see, something to smell, something to hear, something to touch?

The great inventor Thomas Edison spoke about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. For cities, this can be translated as how do the common inspiring ambitions of being lively, attractive, safe, sustainable and healthy actually ‘land’ at the street level – at our everyday eye level? How do we get from an understanding of these common inspiring ambitions, to actually creating the results on the ground?

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Source: Auckland Council

One city that has been bridging the gap between the idea of people-first design and the actual delivery of people-first design is Auckland in New Zealand. Our relationship with Auckland Council spans many years and involves a Public Realm Health Check published in 2009, followed by a Public Life Survey in 2010.

Since then, Auckland has adopted a new governance framework that sees a shared vision of ‘Creating the World’s Most Liveable City’ filter through its decision-making, budgeting and planning. With a recognition that liveability starts with an understanding of people’s behaviour and needs, this approach has underpinned important longer-term strategic policies such as The Auckland Plan, The City Centre Masterplan, The Economic Development Strategy, and The Waterfront Plan.

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Source: Auckland Council

Auckland is already a powerhouse on the world liveability rankings and much of its non-tangible change is today complemented with tangible change: the city is looking and feeling different. Our recent May visit revealed an appetite for the Gehl approach in measuring the city to document change, and to inform an ongoing evidence-based strategic direction. It revealed an expanded pedestrian network, many more invitations to stay in the city, and a more than doubling of pedestrian activity at selected locations in just 5 years.

But perhaps most importantly, it revealed institutional and organisational cultures that are willing to tweak and transform conventional process. By doing so, Auckland is paving the way for a high quality city that is experienced at the street level – at our everyday eye level.

Like the renowned journeys of Copenhagen or Melbourne, Auckland’s shift began with cultural change working towards a city for people. Whether it be Copenhagen, Melbourne, or more recently Auckland, we have seen that city improvement does not have to be complicated, but it is naturally complex. The ‘99% phase’ may not be the most glamorous phase of city change, but it is where much of the magic happens. Arguably, it is where the city is won or lost.

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Source: Auckland Council

Auckland in 2015: Key Highlights

• A strong shared vision and strategic direction lays the platform for policies, processes, projects and people to flourish
• A recognition that institutional and organisational cultures are fundamental to delivering cities for people outcomes: knowing why something is needed, what is needed, where, when and how
• In collaboration with diverse stakeholders, an appreciation that city governments can assume multiple roles as facilitators, coordinators, entrepreneurs and stimulators
• An emphasis on balancing the urgency for city improvement with having the patience to ensure high quality implementation – having a clear understanding of the role of ‘now, soon and later projects’ in an iterative and incremental environment
• An acceptance that (1) high quality, liveable and sustainable cities are not created overnight; (2) high quality implementation is holistic, integrated and interdisciplinary; (3) a sound evidence-base is critical to inform ongoing decision-making; and (4) culture is dynamic, but persistence and determination towards the shared vision is vital.

See more at Auckland: The rise of a design led city

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The Human Scale in Urban Design

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Imagine visiting the iconic city of reconquered public space in a citizen-oriented country most concerned with human well-being. Imagine hanging out at one of the design practices that have contributed to making Copenhagen a city recognised as one of the most liveable worldwide. Now you have an idea of what 23 professionals from all over the world experienced in the ‘Tools for Change’ Masterclass in June 2015.

We were welcomed into the warm and friendly atmosphere, of Gehl Architects, an atmosphere focused on community life and the concept of ‘hygge’. ‘Hyggelig’ translates roughly into the word ‘cosy’; in Danish, it indicates enjoying the communal small moments in life, making what we already have a little bit better. Perhaps this helps to understand the principle of democracy – a better life spent between buildings: everyday things like a well-placed bench, an opportunity to take a break and enjoy a sunbeam or people watching in the public space.

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Around fifty years ago, Jan Gehl and his wife travelled to Italy to study human behaviour in public space. I have now come to Denmark from Italy to study the methodology they developed, of prioritising people in urban planning. In the three-day masterclass I gained a panoramic view of all the strategies, the good practises, the investigative tools and the quality criteria essential in making our cities more liveable, fair and equal. The design team shared their varied expertise and personal experiences with us through inspired talks, international case studies, passionate discussions and at a Q&A-session following a screening of the film ‘The Human Scale’. Copenhagen served as our ‘living laboratory’. We used the Urban Toolbox from the book ‘How to Study Public Life’ by Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre, to investigate the city also with a cycle tour.

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The Gehl team travels to the cities of the world with the purpose of changing mindsets. They share an optimistic message: keep the process open, and put the life of the city at the heart of the debate. During the masterclass, they kept the debate with us open, observing our curiosity, seeking our opinions. This contributed to strengthening our conviction and made us feel part of a full, rounded urban community.

For someone like me, who has studied urban design and applied Gehl’s tools, having the opportunity to talk to the people who developed them, listen to their stories, just being part of this masterclass, made me feel like a kid in a candy store.

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I already felt public life was the most important factor for creating successful public space. This masterclass provided me with the methods and tools to continue working with this conviction, but the conversations with the Gehl team and all the international fellow participants made it truly out of the ordinary.

Thank you everyone and good luck with continuing your work!

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Reflections on the Guggenheim Competition

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The result of the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition was announced a couple of weeks ago. At Gehl Architects, we were part of the team led by haascookzemmrich STUDIO2050. Although we did not win the 1st prize, it was an honour to participate as one of the 6 finalist teams out of 1715 entries. Louise shares her thoughts on the process of working with museums in a contemporary context.

Tucked away in a secret corner of the studio, we worked for 2 intense months overlooking the Copenhagen lakes. This meant sketching, discussing, debating, and skype calls back and forth with Martin and his team in Stuttgart. 3 months after the deadline I can finally unlock the cabinet, which holds all our sketches, drawings, research images and briefing documents. I find early concept sketches from the very first meetings in Stuttgart, a collection of reference images focusing on program and materials, meeting minutes, drawing lists and cost schedules.

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Giving something back to the city of Helsinki

We were particularly engaged with public life in this project. We aimed towards the new museum really bringing something to the people of Helsinki. Focusing on the context, the site’s relationship with the city and the connection to Tähtitorninvuori Park; a geological balcony or terrace that overlooked not only the city, but also the site itself. In addition studying the wider context of the site, the Helsinki archipelago revealed itself to the south, and then to the north the city parks and Finnish forests. This unique landscape setting was firmly at the forefront of my mind throughout the competition.

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And then of course the harbour setting itself – how could we design a landscape that responded to the harbour’s edge, existing materiality, weather conditions and perhaps most importantly the present use – a working harbour with passenger ferries arriving several times a day, endless queues of cars waiting to board, cargo lorries lining up off the main road, Laivasillankatu. Adding to that would be art delivery trucks and the general hustle and bustle of a working world-class art gallery.

 

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In the process, we met the awkward change in level between the main road and the harbour hard standing. Then creating the connection to Tähtitorninvuori Park – followed by endless discussions of the placement of the bridge – should it come straight out from the park in one strong gesture creating a viewing point out over the harbour – or rather wind its way slowly down to the water’s edge meandering through the tree canopy?

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We were interested in dealing with on the one hand the poetry of the existing site and on the other the complexities of transport, building on a harbour, pedestrian’s movements, cyclists and traffic flow coupled with curating a strong year round public space program.

Designing for public life

The final landscape proposal gave us 3 clear public city spaces; The Square, The Park and The Promenade.

The Park – a series of clearings tightly enclosed in a frame referencing the geometries of the old harbour. Each clearing framed by a long bench together with a programmed series of events / outdoor sculpture exhibitions would create opportunities to stay and experience the park. A landscape strong enough to contrast both the harbour setting and the new iconic Guggenheim Museum.

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The Promenade – the strand that links the narrative – con­necting water with urban, working harbour with cultural harbour, landscape with built, and the near event with the distant view. The promenade also relates to a wider city vision for walking along the edge of the harbour.

The Square – The square itself was envisioned as a composed space where large groups could gather as a forecourt to the museum. A water sculpture creates a focal point and the Harbour Basin becomes a destination in itself with a long bench along the water’s edge and a planted plaza that could be used by the existing market in the summer months. Water steps cut into the basin – one placed below the water level to get your feet wet in the summer – extending the square literally into the harbour.

The question is now – how do we work towards making the museum a truly public space?

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A Love Letter to San Jose

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In the past few years, the city of San Jose has invested great efforts and resources in redefining its urban core as a more dense and walkable environment. The area has changed considerably and will continue to do so thanks to the very anticipated extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) that will reach downtown San Jose by 2025. The creation of the new San Jose City Hall was a fundamental move in this new vision for downtown.

 

Removed from the heart of the city and rebuilt far from the urban core as an automobile-only accessible Office Park in 1958, City Hall has for a long time been waiting for the opportunity to fully function as a place for people. Relocated back to the north-eastern side of downtown in 2005, and redesigned by the Californian architect Richard Meier, the plaza now seeks to function as the epicenter of city’s public life. Yet this aspiration is far from been fully realized. A decade after opening, the plaza still feels barren and often remains empty and the complex stands like a shimmering cathedral in the desert.

 

With the support of the Knight Foundation and the help of the City of San Jose, The Tech Museum of Innovation and Gehl Studio have joined forces to shape a new vision for the space for the site. The aim is to develop a project to assess the present state of the plaza, to activate it by prototyping new creative uses of the space, to test tools for public engagement in the process of its future transformation, and to formulate recommendations.

 

The project began with a campaign of interviews conducted by The Tech Museum that sought to delineate a qualitative understanding of the space through an an ethnographic study of the plaza. The Tech Museum conducted 12 weeks of research, including over two hundred hours of observations at City Hall and 45 in-depth interviews (30-90 min) with City Hall Plaza users and stakeholders, including City employees, community members, local business owners, and event producers.

Subsequently, Gehl Studio conducted a Public Space / Public Life survey (PSPL), following the methodology that has been perfected through decades of experimentation and that is at the core of Gehl’s approach. This meant extensive counting of pedestrians’ flow and lingering in the area, during both weekdays and weekends. Through the Favorite Places Survey we experimented with a newly developed method for gauging the makeup of the public places that people love in their city and by identifying the fundamental characteristics of these places, in order to offer inspirations for future interventions. The survey collected 223 responses, 45 of which were gathered first-hand by Gehl Studio’s researcher during intercept interviews across the urban area.

Half-way into the project, we held a public forum to share the preliminary results of our research with community, to learn first-hand how San Jose residents feel about downtown and City Hall, and to discover how we can infuse the plaza with some of the characteristics of the places people love most in their city. We decided on hosting an event that, while harnessing the passion and even the charged emotions of the most heated community meetings, could focus on the things we like about the places our community inhabits. With Valentine’s Day the following weekend, we framed the public workshop as a love letter, written to the city by its citizens, describing all of our wishes and aspirations for the future. A Love Letter to San Jose was an evening of storytelling, passionate discussion, sharing, and fun. Thanks to a strong show of over 120 San Jose participants, from the mayor and several other city officials to families from cultural organizers to city’s urbanists, we had an energetic evening of discussion in which we mapped out the aspirations that San Jose’s citizens have for public life in their city.

 

The occasion was also the first opportunity to test two of our urban prototypes. For the first time, we deployed Crate+, a modular furniture system made from milk crates and digitally fabricated maple plywood parts that can be assembled to support a variety of functions. This system transformed day-to-day industrial objects into seats, a stage, a welcome desk, a podium, and two sets of bleachers. Our Crate+ prototypes were supplemented by Park Spots, another social furniture kit of parts made with high-quality synthetic turf patches and colorful giant bean bag pillows, softening the hardscape of concrete and marble of the plaza and the rotunda.

 

Back in our office in San Francisco, we are now working on meshing the results of the different components of the research, in order to share them with Knight, San Jose city officials, and the broader public. We look forward to sharing the results of this articulate and exciting project with you all!

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How do we design healthy cities for people?

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In many cities, despite advancements in healthcare and legislative victories, inequities in health outcomes are getting worse. In this slow epidemic, what is the role of urban design?

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Cyclists gather at the Stone Arch Bridge for a tour of Portland Avenue in Downtown Minneapolis, MN

Cities face many public health challenges, from obesity, asthma, mental health issues, heart disease, to wide disparities in life expectancy, streets that discourage walking and biking, intersections that cause traffic fatalities, and disempowered communities.

Last month, Blaine Merker and I had the opportunity to look at how a vibrant public realm can influence public health as guests of the 4th Annual Placemaking Residency, organized by the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation in St Paul, MN. We were joined by distinguished leaders in the field of public health, Dr. Richard Jackson, former Environmental Health Director at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and Dr. Anthony Iton, Vice President for Healthy Communities at the California Endowment. Together for one week, we visited communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul working on projects addressing the impact of place on health.

Several factors are converging in the U.S. that forefront the impact of place on health, including new rules that require hospitals to conduct community health needs assessments and meet goals for serving their constituents, and a renewed focus on place in other fields. Perhaps the biggest reason health was our focus is that public policy experts are finally getting through to the general public that our current methods of ensuring the health of our communities aren’t cutting it.

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Blaine Merker leads a workshop at the East Side Enterprise Center in St. Paul’s East Side

During the week, we learned that the US spends $3 trillion each year treating health problems. That’s the cost to care for people in the hospital, emergency room visits, to buy medication, pay for tests, and more. Health care costs constitute 17% of our entire gross domestic product. We need to find ways to address people’s health before they get to the emergency room.
Design and a vibrant public life have an important role to play in facing this health crisis.

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Dr. Iton, in his keynote at Metropolitan State University, explained that we are spending more money than ever on health, yet health outcomes are more unequally distributed than ever. “Genes are relatively irrelevant when it comes to the health status of populations,“ Iton explained.  “Instead, most health status has a lot to do with the communities where people live and the choices they have available to them. Eighty percent of what influences your life expectancy happens outside of the medical system, and that’s a conservative estimate.”

And who’s in charge of that 80%?

Dr. Jackson in his keynote at St. Paul’s Great River Gathering, emphasized the environmental factors that influence health. We have learned a lot in the last few decades about the behavioral and genetic determinants of health. If I smoke, that’s going to predict my health outcomes. If my grandmother lived to be 90, that’s going to predict my health outcomes too. However, what if I live in the suburbs and have nowhere to walk to? What if I ride my bicycle on a treacherous street because there is nowhere else for me to ride? What if there is nowhere safe for me to play after school? Just as there are behavioral and genetic determinants of health, there are design determinants of health.

If a car while crossing the street hits an elderly person, their diagnosis will be vehicular trauma, not the fact that the crossing light was too short. Dr. Jackson explained, “We look at the cause of death – but what is the cause of the cause of death?”

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Portland Avenue in Downtown Minneapolis

These are serious and systemic challenges, and there is no silver bullet. But, at a time when ‘downstream’ resources seem to have hit a point of diminishing returns, role of the built environment and other ‘upstream’ factors of health are crucial in making healthy cities for people.

Blaine and I spent five days on walking tours, workshops, and panel discussions talking with communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN about the physical changes and changes of mindset that are important to making Minneapolis and St. Paul healthy cities for people.

We met with the people behind placemaking efforts at a wildlife refuge in the southern suburbs, we learned about initiatives on food, nature and community systems on St. Paul’s East Side, as well as plans to transform downtown Minneapolis’ Portland Avenue. There were ideas to activate a vacant lot near the Minneapolis bicycle greenway, visions for St. Paul’s ecodistrict, and community arts and culture projects along University Avenue’s new light rail corridor. It was an inspiring, heartfelt week.

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St. Paul City Councilmember Bill Finney welcomes guests to Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary

 

Pilot projects as community empowerment

One of the things we talked about was how pilot projects are a community empowerment tool that also create a safer and more enjoyable public realm. In Downtown Minneapolis we discussed how designing networks that encourage biking and walking between people’s favorite places and where they live and work allows our cities to be connected by healthy streets.

Foregrounding people in the planning process by measuring and telling stories about public life could ensure that we always begin with our goals for a healthy public life. Using public life diversity as a benchmark for quality is another way we could make sure that the social mixing that builds tolerance and understanding is part of design decisions.

One thing I am taking away from this week is that making a healthy city is not only about good design, but also about empowerment of people in the city-making process. One of Gehl’s contributions to this conversation is the way our practice speaks to both the physical design and people-focused transformations. Both of these aspects must be addressed in our city-making process in order to make healthy cities for all.

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Prototyping a narrower street on Downtown Minneapolis’ Portland Avenue

What does a healthy street look like in the 21st century?  We hope to continue our involvement in this important conversation.

 


Thanks to the kind folks at the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation for hosting us, to the dedicated civic leaders and organizers for sharing their communities’ visions and challenges, and to our wonderful fellow residents. Learn more about the Placemaking Residency here.
Thanks to journalist Bill Lindeke for capturing Dr. Iton’s quotes in his article.

 

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What is the good life in cities?

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The way we work, the way we play, the way we communicate and engage with other people, the way we move – in short the way we live our lives – all this is in a state of rapid change.

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And it might not be easy to define just what constitutes the good life in cities. But that should not prevent us from asking the questions. Nor should it prevent us from developing new solutions that will meet the many new demands.

The Foundation Nordea-fonden recently launched a campaign ‘Good lives in the city’ supporting projects and initiatives that in various ways contribute to a more inspiring and active everyday life in the city. The 13 projects selected represent a wide range of initiatives encouraging people to use urban space, where they can enjoy fresh air, use their bodies and meet a variety of fellow citizens. In addition to supporting these new ideas Nordea-fonden has asked Gehl Architects to measure the effects of some of these projects in order to share important learnings and experiences. We’re very excited to follow the many remarkable activities, the impact they will have on local people, but also how they each in their own way might contribute to meeting important challenges of today.


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Nordea-fonden supports initiatives encouraging people to use urban space, where they can enjoy fresh air, use their bodies and meet their fellow citizens.


As more and more people choose to live in the city, new requirements and demands are put on the urban landscape: How can cities accommodate the need for nature and green spaces in people’s everyday lives? How can the city provide space for individual self-expression as well as supporting the need for a sense of community? How can the urban spaces act as a democratic meeting place that transcends the segregation tendencies in many cities? How can the city provide meaningful living spaces in a time where many parts of our lives become increasingly globalised? And perhaps most importantly: how can urban citizens take on an active role in shaping their everyday life and the environment that surrounds them?

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Copenhagen harbour front will become a living arena for a variety of cultural activities.

The evaluation will draw on our multi-disciplinary approach to studying public life in cities, and together with Social Action we will experiment with a variety of methods including both quantitative and qualitative investigation tools. It will be exciting to see how residents in a social housing estate turn an underused green area into a community garden, how a derelict space in front of a small town library potentially becomes a new active hot spot for the whole community, how children will learn that the city is in fact a living space for small creatures and how the Copenhagen harbour front will become a living arena for a variety of cultural activities all year round.

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One artist designed a ’wishing well’ where people could comment on how they would like the harbour to be.

 

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Public Transport for People #2

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– An Approach for Cities

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We have created these images to illustrate our approach, which puts people first in planning infrastructure for a city. Here we see an area of industrial and rail land in a city that has been identified for redevelopment. This particular city is growing and expanding and consequently there is demand for more housing and more jobs in the region. It wants to attract economic investment from public and private partners to stimulate the local economy and politicians are promising to create jobs. This area is poorly connected to the rest of the city and at its centerpiece will be a new station and transport interchange, which will better connect future residents and workers across the region. The wish list also includes public transport service improvements, new streets, public spaces and new landmark developments for a growing city.

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LIFE comes first…

This old industrial land and rail infrastructure has been a barrier to movement for many decades and the city sets a vision to stitch the area back together and improve mobility in the whole area. The city surveys how people use the streets and public spaces today, who uses them and how they move about the area and where they want to go. The vision for the area is informed by this evidence-based research into the types of activities the people enjoy doing today. It can also become the foundation of a vision for new and complementing urban life in the area.

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Then comes SPACE…

The city recognizes the importance of movement and connections between the existing and new areas. It provides spaces and places that support the vision for better connected urban life in the area. It envisions new and improved streets and public spaces that connect the old and new seamlessly with the new transport interchange. It sets locations and clear design briefs for the variety of streets and public spaces the area needs. The city’s vision for these spaces to provide for the richness and diversity of urban life together with others, will guide the location for the station and the development plots.

Then comes the STATION…

The transport interchange provides for a seamless and high-quality connection that welcomes people from farther afield in the city and region. It taps in to the improved and integrated mobility network in the city and adds value to the daily experience of the commuter and citizen. It not only helps people get to where they want to go faster, more efficiently and more conveniently, but it also improves the overall experience of walking, cycling and interchanging between public transport in the area.
The new station offers spaces to meet and wait and provides for complementing commercial and retail activities that people need in their daily life and commute. It is located to not dominate and restrict movement in the area through its complex infrastructure demands, but strike a balance with these competing demands to achieve a seamless interface with the city. The station location and its activity support high-quality streets, public spaces and activities in the development in and around it.

Then the BUILDINGS…

The city supports building development that reinforces the urban life desired in the area and the broader movement patterns through its streets and public spaces. New development plots integrate seamlessly in and around the station. Requirements for ground floor activation, façade quality and building program are built in to the planning approval and spaces for retail, commercial, residential, educational and community uses are all provided for within walking distance from the station to ensure a diverse mix of activities in the area. The timing and phasing of each development site in relation to the new station becomes an integrated part of the redevelopment framework.
This process can help a new piece of city work better together as a whole. With this approach, we can achieve a balance between the competing demands on infrastructure planning, economic investment, development and overall improvements to amenity and opportunity in the urban life of its citizens. A city that wants to be a better city for people will have a vision for how this investment in public transport infrastructure should positively contribute to urban life in the city. The long-lasting benefits of planning infrastructure for people will see these investments contribute to improvements in the everyday quality of life of its citizens.

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Smart Copenhagen – What’s in it for me?

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For years, Copenhagen has exported its Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale-like quaintness with an added spice of a generous welfare system and a profound respect for recreational time. For the 21st century, Copenhagen will not just be exporting world-class ‘livability'; it will also brand itself on being a ‘smart city’.

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‘Superkilen’ in Nørrebro, Copenhagen. How could the ‘smart city’ contribute to people’s experience of the social public space?

The Solutions Lab

During the last few years, Copenhagen’s municipality has undertaken a series of projects aimed at creating smart solutions for the daily organisation of the city. These initiatives range from the careful controlling of traffic, to monitoring of air quality, publicised open city data, and fun informative apps. Last year, the City of Copenhagen’s smart city incubator ‘Copenhagen Solutions Lab’ received the ‘World Smart Cities Award’ for their project ‘Copenhagen Connecting’; a system that monitors and compares traffic, air quality, waste management, energy use etc. in real time. The idea is that this data will help the city (and its citizens) by for instance reducing the time it might take for an ambulance to reach an accident, by warning people against a possible flood or by informing authorities in case the environment of a certain area reaches a critical level of pollution. The ability of this new grid to measure and compare many different kinds of data could open up a completely new efficiency level in the organisation of the city. From the city of Copenhagen’s point of view, it all sounds very smart. But what does it have to do with me?

Has the Smart City reached its full potential when computers control every mechanism, and environmental challenges, accidents and our waste collection all take care of themselves? I think not. There must be something in the smart city that benefits human interaction, the experience of spaces in the city and the connectivity between people in otherwise notoriously anonymous metropolises. But what could this “something” be?

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This image created by Copenhagen Solutions Lab, depicts the city as a living organism wired into an electronic data system that collects and compares data in real-time. The picture shows people at a picnic table – but how does the smart city change their experience of having lunch in a public plaza?

Street-smart bicycling culture

In Copenhagen, I have managed to find a couple of examples within the bicycle community that restore my faith in smart technology and the digitisation of society. The strong bicycling culture has, I think, inspired a series of smart initiatives within this field that are not just smart for city organisation but for people too. Here’s a list of my favourite smart bicycling initiatives:

  •  ‘I BIKE CPH’ has launched a route-planner app, which utilizes user-feedback in order to improve its recommendations. Soon, it will also be able to measure how many kilometres you’ve cycled as well as the number of calories you’ve burned. These features could contribute to motivating more people to cycle, improving the health and the environment in the city – a pretty smart use of technology, right?
  • A couple of students from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) have used the city’s public data from traffic signals to create a beta-app that guides cyclists on how fast they need to ride to hit the green lights. This app is currently being developed to cover the entire city. I am especially fond of this initiative, because it shows that anyone can contribute to the smart city, as long as the data is open and accessible. In addition, it manifests the possibility of new creative collaborations between the city and its citizens.
  • My absolute favourite example of smart technology use when cycling in Copenhagen is on Facebook. Thousands of Copenhageners have formed a group on Facebook (and on Twitter) warning each other of bicycle-related police activity, to avoid silly fines. I think it is very promising for the community feeling in cities that strangers are able to use their smartphones to form alliances and help each other abide the law and navigate the streets.

 

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The bicycle traffic is monitored and displayed all over the city, so even on a snowy, cold day, you can see you are no. 2937 to cycle along. The city collects this data and uses it to motivate more bicycling.

Real-time or real-space?

Still, the link between what goes on in the ethereal spaces of technology and the actual life in real public spaces is weak. Smart Copenhagen enables us to interact with each other and with the city in “real-time”, but what I would really like to see is some “real-space” action. In terms of space, there are not many physical examples of how smart technology improves our phenomenological experience of the city – as is the case in soon-to-be-smart cities all over the world. As a Copenhagener, I shall hold my breath while I wait to see how the smart movement will influence and change the city’s public life and public spaces.

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On my way home the other day, I noticed an advertisement for a Yellow-Pages type service because of the caption: “Discover the closeness. Search locally.” It is nice to see that technology is not just connecting us on a global scale, but can in fact be used to strengthen local connectivity.

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Tragic news from Nepal

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Whenever I hear the word ‘earthquake’ my heart misses a beat.

I wasn’t in New Zealand when the big earthquake hit in 2011, but working with Gehl Architects, my modest role in the Christchurch central city recovery plan has been one of the most significant periods in my life – a time when I learned so much about what’s really important. So the news of the earthquake in Nepal touched me in a very personal way.

We see shocking pictures of destruction in Nepal on the television, we hear the incomprehensible number of deaths and there are vague figures put on the cost of rebuilding. We struggle to understand the terrible loss of lives and livelihoods, not just dead bodies, but real people, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances as well as all the roles in society these people had, growing food and making useful things, delivering goods and running businesses, teaching and caring.

We can lament the loss of historic monuments and the impact on the tourist industry, but how do we put a number on the loss of someone’s own home, their place of learning, of work and of worship. How can you begin to reinstate all these places and all the memories of everyday and exceptional events, and the behaviours and rituals that went with them?

Right now there is the immediate challenge of survival – saving the lives that can be saved, getting the most basic essentials in place and ensuring water, food and shelter for the coming months. But the next challenge is how to set in motion a process of rebuilding and recovery in a way that puts the people first?

What I learned from the people of Christchurch is that communities are brought together by a disaster. Through adversity people can discover the true resilience of their community, re-identify the real priorities for everyday life and the simple value and importance of having good neighbours.

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Through the community engagement programme “Share an idea” and the 106,000 ideas generated, the people of Christchurch established not just the content for a recovery plan, but more importantly a set of basic values to built their hometown on. Since then there have been political games and market interference, but the strong vision and values for rebuilding a better, more people-orientated Christchurch remain.

I hope the people of Kathmandu and the other towns and villages in Nepal destroyed or damaged by the earthquake, will get a say and the chance to influence the rebuilding of the place they live. My hope is that in some way they can manage to use the hardship of this terrible disaster as a platform to build a more sustainable future and a better place to call home.

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Visions for Vienna’s Ringstrasse

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The Ringstrasse celebrates its 150 years anniversary – Gehl Architects would like a say in its future!

The development of Vienna during the early 19th century was shaped by its confrontation with Napoleon. During Napoleon’s occupation of the city in 1809 the old bastions were blown up, thus anticipating the later razing of the old city fortifications, and their replacement by a layout that altered the urban design of the city centre. In 1857 the Emperor Franz Josef started to demolish the old city walls and to lay out a monumental street. This would provide a link between the city and the suburbs and would enhance the amenities and image of the imperial residence and capital.

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The project consisted of a double avenue 57 m wide and 4 km long encircling the inner city, along which the most important cultural and administrative buildings of the empire were to be arranged. Demolition of the walls, levelling of the Glacis and new construction began, and the street was ceremonially opened in 1865. A series of monumental structures in a variety of styles, including Greek Revival, Renaissance Revival and Gothic Revival, surrounded by squares and parks, gave this imperial via triumphalis its character.

The Ringstrasse is still an essential part of Vienna’s history and it represents the emperor’s vision of how the city should display all of what it had to offer in terms of culture, education and civic functions – as well as the palace. As such, Ringstrasse is defining the identity of Vienna, not only to residents but also to visitors. The Ringstrasse was one of the largest and most important urban planning achievements of the 19th century and, together with Haussmann’s rationalization of Paris, one of the most original. It is a unique urban design element, manifesting a strong vision of how buildings and public spaces has developed and form the characteristics of Vienna. It was bold and made to impress.

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Today the Ringstrasse is less impressive

Over the years, the Ringstrasse has worn down and layers and layers of former decades’ design traditions have been added as well as their gloomy transport decisions and interventions.

A glorious Vienna Ringstrasse for the future

In our sketch for Ringstrasse 2030, we wish to restore the former splendour of Ringstrasse by creating a public space – a street – that responds to the grandness of the buildings lining it. Providing them with generous forecourts and plazas as well as with a beautiful street design will make it suitably iconic. Re-instating design principles for street trees, paving, pavilions, light rail stops and crossings that cover the entire length of Ringstrasse could be an essential part of celebrating the street as a living place – as well as add aesthetic value to the buildings surrounding it.

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Our focus has been on the areas between the buildings and the tramlines, which were meant to be an elegant interface between the first-rate street of Vienna and some very spectacular buildings. In stead, this strip is now occupied by parking spaces, service lanes, clutter and unutilized road space. We suggest rethinking this ‘in-between area’ to become the most important part of Ringstrasse, in which the hidden treasures from within the buildings would be reflected in the new open foyer space of the street.

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Ringstrasse should again be a place for people to meet, where flâneurs could observe society, and everyone can fully enjoy and experience the urban landscape of Vienna. A Ringstrasse to be proud of as a unique, world-class street, something no other city can equal – A symphony between city, street, buildings, people, culture and knowledge.

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Who you gonna call?

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Do you remember the old movie Ghostbusters? And that catchy theme song? ”Who you gonna call?…” Those guys were always reliable when someone needed a helping hand. Well, at Gehl Architects we have our very own hero…

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…who always saves, well maybe not the world, but certainly a presentation, by having the perfect picture of anything you need: a green mailbox next to a woman with a red shirt, riding a bike in Lisbon? Sure thing… Lars Gemzøe is the Gehl office picture-pusher and an invaluable part of the way we communicate our stories about Cities for People through images.IBM-Atrium-Ophold-3

Lars has a profound love for anything bicycle-related, and he has travelled the world speaking at universities and conferences all over, telling the marvellous story of Copenhagen and its bicycling culture before anyone ever thought of the word ‘Copenhagenize’. He has taught generations of students – at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Architecture School, DIS and at the University of Copenhagen as well as through external professorships at Pratt University, Université de Montréal, Université de Rouen, Hannover University, Universidad Católica de Colombia, Bogota and Universidad de Montevideo in Uruguay.

I think that the finest cadeau to his excellent teaching skills is the high number of former students who have chosen to enter the professional field of urban design after experiencing Lars´s passionate lectures on Public Spaces and Public Life. I myself was a student of Lars’ almost 20 years ago, and I remember that he always came to the classroom with something to share with me: an article, a picture (naturally) or a reference project he had seen on one of his many travels. Lars was and is a teacher who truly cares about his students.

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Lars has extensively documented his many travels in notebooks and beautiful watercolour drawings, many of which today form the research documentation that we turn to at Gehl when we dig into the past material for some of the numerous books Lars has contributed to: Copenhagen 1996, New City Spaces and New City Life. Lars has contributed, to a voluminous amount of projects throughout the past 15 years of Gehl Architects’ existence, and he has inspired many clients and groups of visitors to come by our office. He is both innovative and creative in developing tools for measuring the impact of people in cities, since this has been the passion and core focus of his entire professional life.

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While Lars will always be young at heart and mind, recently Lars has devoted most of his time to his beloved Hanne and the ever-growing flock of grandchildren. Luckily we can still call him and get that special picture whenever we need it. Congratulations Lars on your 70th Birthday on Saturday. We look forward to seeing the pictures…

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Reclaiming pedestrian priority with neuroscience

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Parts of St. George street closed for people to enjoy the Science Rendezvous festival on campus.

The study of the mind is witnessing yet another paradigm shift, as it marches into the previously unexplored terrains of architecture and urban planning. Last year, the neuroscientists who shared a Nobel Prize revealed to the world an astoundingly organic relationship that binds people with their physical surroundings.

Essentially, their research has demonstrated that the human brain seems to be naturally equipped with its own navigation apparatus – a sophisticated, internal Global Positioning System. If only Baudelaire and the flâneurs of the 19th century had been alive to learn of such a discovery! Consider what this largely supports: the public spaces we design, the urban landscapes we plan, and the architectural form we implement have variegated effects on our physiology, psychology, and sociology. The responsibilities of urban planners and architects – the planning and design of sustainable cities, infrastructures, and spaces – then, take on a whole new level of significance.

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Philosopher’s Walk at the St. George campus

Traditionally, the pervading relationship between man and city has been one-sided at best; that is, the focus has been on how urban dwellers shape their milieu through various modes of living – work, transportation, leisure, community, public life, creative production, and so forth. Until recently, however, the converse of that relationship has been overlooked: how does the city shape its citizens? How does public space affect mood, emotion, interaction, bodily health, sociability, habit? Questions like these mark the beginning of a multidisciplinary alliance among neuroscience, psychology, urban planning, and architecture, whereby new corpora of knowledge can be felt across the horizon. A growing offshoot of such an alliance is a field known as neuroarchitecture.

“Does the way we build cities invite for human interaction, inclusion and intimacy? Where is the scale for measuring happiness in a city?”

Jan Gehl, The Human Scale

In the opening minutes of Andreas Dalsgaard’s The Human Scale, professor Jan Gehl, contemplating the future of the city, asks two pertinent questions: “Does the way we build cities invite for human interaction, inclusion and intimacy? Where is the scale for measuring happiness in a city?”

By 2030, it is estimated that approximately sixty percent of the world’s population will live in cities. It is noteworthy to mention that at the turn of the 19th century, that figure was as low as five percent. Clearly, there has been an ongoing surge in the urban population all around the world; the city has become a global phenomenon. Yet, I find that many of the landmark cities of the 21st century are still modelled on a very dangerous assumption: pedestrians (and their experiences) are secondary to the efficiency of mass-transportation and practicality of suburbanization. Fortunately, scientific progress is, quite painstakingly, unveiling the folly of such an assumption, and reclaiming the pedestrian’s long lost priority.

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Pedestrianized strip of public space on campus of University of Toronto. Photo: Life @ UofT

If we are to optimize the liveability and sustainability of our cities and spaces, and thus our quality of life, understanding how the city transforms people is just as crucial as understanding how people utilize and shape the city. If we are, in the words of professor Gehl, to envision cities for people – and not industrial wastelands fitted with dizzying highway complexes for automobiles – we must find out how different features of the city play a role in our individual and collective change.

“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

The great American urbanist, William H. Whyte  in The Exploding Metropolis

Here at the University of Toronto in Canada, a recently proposed revitalization initiative aims precisely to prioritize pedestrians and bicyclists, thereby potentially refining the quality of public student life. Having always revelled in the creative diversity of public life, I am certainly thrilled to recreate my pedestrian experience on the historic, urban campus.

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Bringing Ideas Across the Atlantic

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And here we are – a small practice working with urban design. We have won the Danish Transatlantic Company of the year. We are a small company, but we are having a big impact.

Not only are we exporting knowledge, but also an approach and a way of seeing the environment in which we live. This approach treats our clients and the citizens our projects affect as active agents for positive change in their cities.  We are idealistic; we want quality, but we are pragmatic as we are open to various contextual expressions of quality rather than imposing a single rigid form of quality.  Planting seeds that flourish differently in different cultures, allows us to scale up our impact through our clients and stakeholders needs in an exponential way we could never do alone.

This is what we call an ‘idealistically pragmatic’ approach blending some of the best characteristics of each side of the Atlantic. We work to infuse Danish modesty with carefully placed audacity and a belief that anything is possible.  We work to facilitate an unique set of civic innovation that combines The Danish tradition of simple, clean solutions with American civic activism and ‘can do’ spirit.

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Ambassadors Gifford and Taksøe-Jensen, CEO Helle Søholt, Managing Director Jeff Risom, Jury Chairman Jørgen Bardenfleth and Executive Director Stephen Brugger.

By putting the people that actually live in neighborhoods and communities first – we can help ensure cities are sustainable for future generations through design, strategy and policy that improves quality of life today. This way of seeing our cities allows high-level decisions about investments, governance, and equity to be made from an ‘eye-level’ perspective.

So, while small, we think of ourselves as a platform for some of the best thinking from both sides of the Atlantic to accelerate innovation from mutually beneficial knowledge exchange – and we plan to continue to do so!

“We all love to talk about innovation, but what that really means is taking the best ideas available and putting them to use in a new area. We like to think about this award as a celebration of bringing ideas across the Atlantic”

 AmCham Denmark’s Executive Director, Stephen Brugger
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What is a SMART city anyway?

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IBM Simple is Smart by Ogilvy & Mather France

Sometimes the smartest solution is also the simplest.

I am not a smart person. At least not in the technological sense of the word. I reluctantly acquired my first smartphone about a month ago, but when I need to find a destination, I still bring an actual map or I just ask people for directions. And I definitely won’t allow apps to “access my location”; no matter how smart they claim to be.

Still, I am fascinated by the prospects of ‘smart technology’, and especially by how it will change our cities. I recently completed my master’s thesis on this exact subject, and after six months of research I am still not sure if I am a sceptic or a believer. But I do know one thing: if we want the world to be smart, we need to be really smart about it.

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View of the waterfront in Sainte-Marie, Montreal. The neighbourhood is separated from the river by 19th and 20th century infrastructure.

 

Technology has always been “smart”

Firstly, it is important to understand that the development of information technology and the advances of human society have always been connected; as our world gets more complicated, we invent means to control, govern and interact with the underlying systems. We invented the carrier pigeon, the postal service, the telephone and the internet (to name a few things), and now we’re inventing ubiquitous computing. Today, Smart Cities are most commonly defined by their ability to collect data, analyse data and manage resources, and as such they are really just a natural extension of the infrastructural system that has developed since the beginning of our civilisation. The technology is here and I do not believe that it is possible to stop its advances. That is why it is crucial to discuss how it will influence our society, before we’ve replaced the current systems with something “smarter”.

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The 21st century’s infrastructure (telecommunication) in a courtyard in Montreal.

 

Hard vs soft infrastructure

Secondly, it is relevant to consider the impact of these inevitable infrastructural upgrades. In the pre-modern city, (hard) infrastructure primarily existed to connect local networks of people and goods. With urbanisation, the necessity for national connections increased, which led to the establishment of railways and roads. While this development improved the links between cities, the effects of train-tracks cutting through local fabric, and of highways separating neighbourhoods, are observable in most places.

Today, the internet (soft infrastructure) has made it possible to transcend both time and place. To exemplify this statement, allow me to share a few facts from my life;

  • I have more friends on social media than in my entire neighbourhood.
  • I buy most of my clothes from international online boutiques rather than from the shop on the corner of my street.
  • I read more news about other countries than about what goes on in Copenhagen.

In other words, our environment has become predominantly externally (un)focused.

 

Smarter to empower local communities?

The way I see it, the implementation of smart technologies in cities is just the next (soft) infrastructural upgrade. The interesting question is not whether “smart” is the right choice, but rather how it can be applied in the right way. I am not convinced that it is especially clever to centralise and computerise emergency management, the public health sector, waste resourcing or transportation systems, as so many Smart Cities claim to do, supporting the “system’s” control over the city and (ultimately) over its citizens. What I would like to see instead, is a bottom-up revolution of how we interact with each other and with the built environment.

A truly Smart City should aim to strengthen local infrastructures, to reconnect internal links and it should empower communities with the tools to shape their own neighbourhoods and lives. New technology in the public realm could make it easy for people to do good. And wouldn’t that be smart?

Stay tuned for my follow-up post with more insights on cities working with and implementing smart technologies.

Read my thesis right here! 

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What Your Instagram Feed Has in Common With a Ballot Box

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Union Square’s global reach.

At first, it seems like voting and taking pictures have little in common. But begin with the idea that a photo helps one memory stand taller than the others in the same way a vote bumps a candidate ahead in the race. And remember that a ballot box is a collection of people’s votes, sort of like Instagram is a collection of people’s photos.

What if we could tally up these public photos like they were votes in a ballot box?

This idea is worth exploring because there’s something about photos. I don’t take a lot of them. But when I do, I take pictures of the people I love, special events, and scenic places. My favorites combine all three.

And when I take a photo, my phone invisibly stamps it with mechanical notes, sort of like the clues written by hand on the back of an old Polaroid. Sometimes this metadata includes the location of where the photo was taken. This means that some photos can be mapped.

When an Instagrammer’s photos of a city are mapped together, an interesting thing happens: Parts of the map are empty, and others are crowded with photos. The best example I’ve found of this is a series of maps by data artist Eric Fischer. Fischer mapped photos he found on Flickr of San Francisco according to whether the photo was taken by a local or a tourist, based on the the invisible digital stamps embedded in the photos. The two sets of maps were completely different; tourists traveled one San Francisco, while locals saw another.

These maps hint at a new form of public engagement that can include not only the 100 people who show up at a community meeting, but also the 10,000 people who skip the meeting to spend time at nearby public spaces.

Building upon Eric’s work, my colleagues at Gehl Studio and I recently experimented with using photos to learn about the mixture of people at different places in San Francisco. We looked at Union Square, a central plaza in downtown surrounded by shopping and hotels; and Patricia’s Green, a grassy neighborhood park with benches and a playground. We were curious about the social life and demographic mixing at each of these public spaces.

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Our curiosity was piqued when we went looking for a census for city streets. Unlike the census that captures where people live, there is no regularly collected dataset for where people spend time in public spaces. Places that welcome a good mixture of different people can help foster connections between cultures and across social strata. But if diversity in public space is so important, why don’t we have the tools to find it? We asked ourselves, how could people help us build this dataset automatically?

To do this, we decided to use Instagram because it is simple and popular, and there’s something special about its photos. Instagram provides a reliable, fine-grained, frequently updated dataset without any forms or complicated opt-in mechanisms. Many of us participate in this tool not as a cumbersome task, but because we want to. The low barrier to engagement of social media-related data is what we call “passive engagement” because we are able to include people passively, by carefully sifting through the compost pile of public data.

Our first test looked at the geographic reach of Union Square and Patricia’s Green. We cycled through the Instagram photos posted from each place. Then we roughly estimated where each Instagrammer came from based on other Instagram photos posted on the account.

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Mapping the data globally reminded us of what we intuitively knew. Union Square is popular with tourists while Patricia’s Green had a stronger local reach, with 59 percent of its Instagramming visitors from the Bay Area.

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By contrast, only 38 percent of Instagramming visitors were local at Union Square.

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After mapping the social reach, we predicted the demographic mix of each space. We did this by seeing each Instagrammer as a representative of his or her home neighborhood. Then we drilled into the census data to get a demographic picture of the entire set of home neighborhoods represented by each place’s Instagrammers. Together, the neighborhoods of 10,000 of the most recent Instagrammers in each site helped paint a portrait of the economic diversity of these public spaces. We found that Instagrammers in both places represented a diverse mixture of incomes, and Patricia’s Green was a little wealthier and a little more employed.

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Bringing census data down to the street level can help us see how economic diversity plays out in public space. And for a first test, we’re happy that 20,000 people were represented. Imagine handing out 20,000 questionnaires, or hosting 20,000 people at a community meeting.

But this tool doesn’t do it all. It gives us an overview of people in a space, and how economically different they might be. But group size, the mixture of stationary activities, pedestrian flows, and how and why different people engage with one another are all unknown.

Plus, not everyone posts photos to Instagram. 15 percent of people we interviewed at Union Square and 19 percent at Patricia’s Green used Instagram and posted in the plaza. This was a pleasant surprise because we expected it to be lower. But it’s nowhere close to including everyone. And it doesn’t tell us if people are talking to each other, or if they form lasting social bonds. And predicting a photographer’s neighborhood doesn’t tell us anything about the photographer. This is great news for privacy. But it means we are registering the places represented by people, not the people themselves.

This is why we see passive public engagement as just one tool in our toolbox. To finish the job, we enhanced our traditional analysis of pedestrians and stationary activities to include social grouping. And we used intercept surveys to investigate the triggers for unplanned social encounters. This combination of tools works together to build a better understanding of the social life and economic diversity of public places.

Even with its limitations, we think the potential is huge. This approach can help us see how people respond differently to a place over time, and how, or if, its mixture of people changes as the space changes. We can look at the details, like how a sunny day compares to a rainy day. And we can look at the bigger picture, like how providing more room for sitting and walking affects the social and economic composition of the people using a space.

If we scale this tool up, we can imagine a whole new map of the city – a place diversity map. A better understanding of how different places invite different mixtures of people can help us make places that are inviting for everyone. Instead of experts picking sites from the top-down, the photo-posting-public can collectively build their own grassroots map. And their photos can be cast like votes that represent people in the places that bubble up to the map’s surface.

The column, In Public, is made possible with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The column originally appeared on nextcity.org – March 5th 2015

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Changing Culture

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What can North American cities learn from Copenhagen? More important than the way the city looks and feels, is the process it took to get there. City culture can change; it is a matter of what you prioritize.

Such a process prioritizes people, is pragmatic and leverages relevant global trends.

Creating a city that is inclusive, lively, healthy, and sustainable means designing for human needs and inviting for public life to flourish in many different ways. Some keys to this approach include walkability, bikability, public space and public transportation.

Our CEO Helle Søholt and Managing Director Jeff Risom speak to these issues as part of the Knight Foundation’s Livable Cities initiative created in partnership with Toronto-based 8-80 Cities.

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Jan Gehl’s Winter Lectures #2

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The human dimension in urban design. How do we design high quality public spaces in which people wish to spend time and enjoy themselves?

The fact that more and more people live in the cities nowadays, makes this question all the more relevant. Jérôme Lapierre, our winner of Prix de Rome, offers us some key knowledge from the recent lectures Jan Gehl gave to all the staff in our Copenhagen office.

In Jan Gehl’s studies of the city of Copenhagen over the past 40 years, he has defined 3 types of activities in public space:

  • Necessary activities: daily activities, things you have to do.
  • Optional activities: recreational activities, things you enjoy doing.
  • Social activities: the City as meeting place; the feeling of being part of something bigger.

Observing how many of these activities are going on in a place, can offer the key to defining quality in a public space. The amount of people spending time in the public realm is highly dependent on the quality of the physical environment. A lively city can be studied in the equation ‘Number of people’ x ‘Time spent’.

“We are walking animals. In Rome, people have stopped walking and started to sit, which is a sign of quality!”

A lot of people in a certain place, could simply mean they have to be there (in transit, working, etc.), while the time spent staying and lingering in a place indicates a positive choice. We have observed over the years that slow traffic makes lively cities. Suddenly, there are more and more people coming in and passing by.

People watching

People will stop and stay in a square for the greatest attraction of public space: other people. Watching other people, being watched, observing what is going on is what attracts us to a good space… because the unpredictable is wonderful! The feeling of being part of a community and observing other people having fun, is something that humans love. This is the wonderful world of public life. The city should provide the spaces to make those moments happen and should ensure quality opportunities for people to meet, talk and have a good time.

Piazza del Campo, Siena. Photo by Antonio Picascia, Flickr

Piazza del Campo, Siena in Italy. Photo by Antonio Picascia, Flickr

The edge of a public space is also crucial. Humans generally like to place themselves along the edge of a square, in a room, in a bus, or in a park. We tend to find a place, where we are a little bit secluded and in a comfortable spot, where we can then see other people and look at what is going on. Pillars and niches are preferred items by humans to lean against and observe the world.

It is all about finding a nice place to stay, the type of material you sit on, where the benches are placed, and the availability of secondary seating. Piazza del Campo in Siena is one of the best public squares in the world offering all these elements, according to Jan Gehl.

Climatic factors

The climate has a big impact on the physical quality. In Copenhagen, Nyhavn, Strædet and around the city’s lakes, we find examples that offer good microclimate conditions. If the climate is good, then more people will linger and stay. A recent example of another quality square is Brygge Torv in Oslo, which has become a destination in people’s minds. Here one can find good spaces for walking and excellent space for staying. Compare this to Kay Fisker’s Plads in the Ørestad district of Copenhagen, where the climate conditions are totally different although the materials have been carefully designed.

Ørestad, Copenhagen & Brygge Square, Oslo

Ørestad, Copenhagen & Brygge Square, Oslo

Jan Gehl shared with us some of the core work over the years as well as his favorite selection of images, reminding us to stay true to the fundamentals when creating good cities for people. At Gehl, we are always looking at how our knowledge on urban space can evolve, but it is also important that we remember the past and our foundations when moving forward.

For the blog post in french and more of Jérôme Lapierre’s work.
Please go to www.jeromelapierre.com

This is the second post about Jan Gehl’s Winter Lectures.
See the first one here!

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Basic Functions of Public Space

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Gunnar Nu Hansen’s Square February 14. Photo by Jane Sandberg

30.000 people gathered in Gunnar Nu Hansen’s Square in Copenhagen last Monday evening to commemorate the tragic deaths of two people in Copenhagen following a terror attack on a community house and on the Jewish synagogue on February 14th.

The mood was emotional, yet strangely positive in the crowd gathered in joint insistence to preserve the core values of Danish society: equality, freedom and community. The event reminds us of one of the finest functions of public spaces; to act as a vessel for expression of opinions, to serve as a melting pot for different people and ideas and for gathering to express shared emotions – whether they be joyful or sad.

After the dreadful attacks in 2011 in Oslo and on Utøya, the Norwegian people gathered in a similar manner along the harbour front at Rådhusplassen. People of Oslo assembled in a silent prayer for those who had lost their lives and in support for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s words expressing that the Norwegian society would never give in to fear, but should remain democratic and open.

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Barriers outside public buildings in Oslo, 2014

Unfortunately, this has not been the case of the public spaces in Oslo since the event. Gehl Architects has studied the development through work on the Public Space Public Life surveys in Oslo, and we found that more and more spaces in central Oslo are redesigned today to prevent terror attacks by constructing security bollards, removing parking and intensifying the presence of armed forces and police in the central CBD areas in Kvaderaturen.

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These interventions are often not integrated as ‘security by design’ – a term used to describe urban design integrating security measures into public spaces and streets without compromising the functions or aesthetics of the space. They are instead rather crude interventions that push away public life and encourage a feeling of uneasiness in those passing by, as a silent reminder of fear and lost innocence.

The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas said, – freely translated – in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York:

”It is not the moment itself that defines us, but how we act after this moment.”

Let us bear this in mind as Copenhagen moves forward. We should continue to be a city where people can congregate freely, where parents feel safe letting their children walk to school or after school activities on their own, and where the basic functions of public space remain sacred: for people to meet and exchange ideas.

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Future Urban Living

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Tour de France in London July 2014

In July, I had the great pleasure of visiting London on the day the Tour de France flew through the city. Despite my love of the sport, it was a coincidence of timing. I was on my way to Houses of Parliament in Westminster to attend the launch of the Birmingham Policy Commission’s report: Future Urban Living.

The Birmingham Policy Commissions bring public, private and third sectors together, via academics and leading figures in conversation to explore key questions on topics of global, national and civic concern. This commission set the task exploring the ‘case for and against cities being the most appropriate means for accommodating changing populations, demographics and societal needs within a UK context’. The outcome represents the responses and evidence presented, synthesized into 6 key recommendations. The recommendations included a call for processes that engage citizens and create systems and policies for local empowerment. The report calls for an overhaul of the role of planners and more ‘nimble and responsive’ planning structures. This is notable in a country where the divide between planners and designers begins in education and continues with professional distrust.

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The commission was interested in the quality of cities and quality of life. These are catch phrases right now, but indicate there is a need to define our terms. When we talk about quality of life at Gehl, we talk about ‘eye-level’ human scale design and policy that creates value and engagement across all measures. Cities face huge challenges of economic uncertainty, resource uncertainty, environmental uncertainty and social vulnerability.

Holistic quality based planning is at the mercy of competing budgets, timeframes, politics, and not least, agendas. If we want to make cities for people, we need this structural change.

The sociologist Zygmont Bauman notes that when real community exists, the community doesn’t even know it. If it functions, it is not named and it can exist without regard to income or demographics. What matters is connectiveness, centres, walkability, and knowing your neighbours. In this line, our drive is less about creating community than espousing local, civic values. Localism is a sustainable, value-producing, society-enhancing thing. So for me, that the commission heard this from the pool of experts is promising.

Co-creating cities

We need to think about the making of cities not as a managerial administration of projects but rather as a co-creative process involving planners, urban designers and architects collaborating with politicians, economists, engineers and sociologists. A focus on values, authenticity, and localism enhances the benefits of a civic society, and retooling the means to this local scale allows a rounded approach, smarter long-term budgetary use with integrated aspirations. It requires agility and sharing, which may be a huge leap from how our city officials are allowed to act – despite the fact the councils are often populated with people who are there because they care.

Cities at eye-level

In our work at Gehl, we have been involved in processes that invite experimentation and collaboration between private and public stakeholders. In New York, in San Francisco, in Mar de Plata, new places for people have been created that have resulted in safer streets, increased footfall, increased value. Most importantly, these places have been embraced by locals and visitors. Innovative tactics to unleash financing from private-public collaborations together with streamlined regulatory and approval processes allow smaller moves to be tested, refined, and studied. This smaller, more local way is less risky and quicker: good for finances, good for politicians, and good for citizens. Looking at cities at ‘eye-level’ means considering what we experience everyday, as people, at our own scale and speed.

Tour de France in London July 2014

Tour de France in London July 2014

In a way, the Tour de France was a huge pilot project in the UK: it created an opportunity to see each stage site in a new way and streets flooded with people, many of whom care nothing for cycle racing. This global contest inspired local engagements, and invited us to look at each other, and our neighbourhood, in a new way. It made a community, without defining it as such.

On the day of the launch in a chambered room in the hallowed halls of Westminster, it was the shared, convivial, positively local feeling outside that resonated and represented how even a global city can be made local.

The full Birmingham Policy Commission’s report can be read here

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The Street and the Search for Democracy

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The recent #blacklivesmatter and #handsupunited marches across the US bring democracy into the street. With chants and calls to action, protesters remind us that ‘this is what democracy looks like’.

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Protestors on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson. Photo credit: St. Louis Public Radio.

As an urbanist who was inspired to work in city design after organizing voters in Missouri during the 2004 elections, I’ve been struck by the protests. In addition to making democracy tangible, the marches highlight how un-democratic the street design is in many US cities.

Can we even judge whether a street’s design is democratic? Democracies depend on people to participate by electing politicians, holding them accountable and expressing themselves through civic action. Successful democracies make these civic actions equally available to as many people as possible. During times of protest, streets facilitate participation by creating a place for people to march and gather, becoming a symbol of democracy.

Beyond protests, which don’t occur every day, how can street design facilitate participation in society and provide authentic choices on a more daily basis? The streets on which recent protests took place are remarkable for their physical similarities, in spite of their being spread out across the country, from Ferguson to Miami to Oakland. West Florissant Avenue in central Ferguson, where some protests began, provides a good example of their uniform lack of human scale.

West Florissant Avenue on a normal day. Photo credit: Google maps.

West Florissant Avenue on a normal day. Photo credit: Google maps.

Approximately 70 feet wide, it has six driving lanes, a 40mph speed limit, wide curb cuts, low quality bus stops and a lack of pedestrian crossings. Sidewalks exist, but as tiny strips of concrete, barely protected from moving traffic, and are not continuous or connected to a wider network. These street designs invite vehicles to enter the neighborhood and leave; they don’t invite people to walk, take transit or spend time. Given this, what kind of choice are residents left with, in terms of how they travel and move between work, friends’ homes, school or anywhere else? How can the same streets that serve as symbols of democracy during protests become places for civic participation and choice everyday?

 

#shutitdown

A theme of the protests was to #shutitdown, and consequently busy roads and freeways across the country were blocked to disrupt everyday routines. Streets are how people move, and shutting them down attracts significant attention. In some ways, from my perspective as an urbanist, the #shutitdown efforts sounded like a plea – not just to address police behavior and prejudice, but also to look at how people are neglected in the basic design of the urban environment.

The recent protesters may not have directly called attention to street design, but they forced us to recognize systemic social issues related to inequality and prejudice.

Could we turn this into an opportunity to broaden debates about how design, participation, and democracy are connected?

What does a democratic street look like? How can we better understand whether the street design relates to how democratic a place is, in terms of how actively citizens participate in civic life?

Malmö city center. Is this street design more democratic?

Malmö city center. Is this street design more democratic?

Designers don’t typically discuss politics in their practice, but at Gehl we are interested in how broader social expressions and behavior exist in specific built contexts. Recent events shed light on how we might broaden the measures used to evaluate the impact of design. When it comes to streets, we could ask not just how quickly vehicles move from A to B, but how well street design supports the public’s opportunity – and right – to participate in a democratic society.

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Times Square – too much of a good thing?

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I love Times Square. Even though it is not cool to say it and not only because we played a small role in its dramatic renaissance over the past few years.

As an American living in Denmark, I love times square because it is the ultimate, oversized and exaggerated form of American Culture. Locals call it the center of the universe, but from booming 20’s, to returning soldiers, to sleezy and crime ridden to now an overly popular destination for city dwellers, Times Square seems to be a bell weather for urban life. From wedding celebrations, protests, snowball fights, games of chess, and all forms and expressions of capitalism ranging from oversize interactive advertising to low-tech soliciting of photos, Times Square is the place with the most dense, diverse, and intense public life in the world.

However, I know that many New Yorkers don’t share my love. There are surely a lot of reasons for this. Touristy places like Times Square are rarely popular with locals which is a cruel joke about success in urban design. This is also a symptom of our collective confusion over how our most important and highly contested, yet undervalued and ‘messy’ assets – streets and public space – can contribute to quality of life in a city.

In a recent NY Times article the success of Times Square is put into question.

The latest crowd surge in Times Square began in 2009, after the city closed a stretch of Broadway between 42nd and 47th Streets, creating a series of public plazas and nearly doubling the amount of pedestrian space.

“Foot traffic has increased,” said Jeffrey S. Katz, who owns several buildings in Times Square. “The retail is doing great; hotels are doing great. The plazas just exploded the rents. It’s beyond even my imagination.”

Yet the article portrays this success story as a problem.

“I think everybody is concerned about the crowding issue,” said Robert E. Wankel, co-chief executive of the Shubert Organization, which operates 17 theaters. “We’re having a problem from our success. We spent a lot of time and effort cleaning up Times Square and now it’s the place everyone wants to be.”

Howard S. Fiddle, vice chairman at the real estate services company CBRE, said, “It’s so successful as a tourist destination that people say it’s too congested for New Yorkers to conduct business.”

The best part about public space is that it is open to everyone and imagination is the limit. Is it possible to have a place that is popular and appealing to visitors while also welcoming everyday use by locals? Maybe there is an opportunity to build upon this success and ‘spread the wealth’ rather than complain about too much of a good thing? The crushing demand for opportunities to participate in public life could be an opportunity for something even greater.

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Copenhagen has slowly over the past 50 years integrated bold success like one of the worlds’ first pedestrianized streets into a vibrant network of public spaces. Over time the city has adapted to evolving urban economies that transformed surface parking lots as well as the industrial waterfront to leisure hotspots through incremental yet continuous improvement of a network of public space.  More important than the spaces highlighted on these maps is the rapidly evolving urban culture of new and traditional forms of experience, communication, and interaction.

New York is not Copenhagen, but I wonder if there are more lessons to be learned from the past 50 years in CPH? Could the success of Times Square be expanded, integrated and re-imagined to the East and West to connect both Rivers? Could public life – in varied and diverse forms – be encouraged to spread from East Midtown and be integrated into the new public spaces along Broadway like at Herald Square and Madison Square?

It seems like there is too much of a good thing at Times Square. But rather than seeing a half-empty glass I see an opportunity to create more glasses to be filled by the desire for people to spend time in the city. In doing so the city can build upon the current abundance of demand for public life for the long-term benefit of a Greener, Greater NYC for All.

 

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Testing tactical urbanism for megacities

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The website for the exhibition ‘Uneven Growth‘ at MoMA until May 10th 2015.

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) January magazine issue includes a review of Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibit, ‘Uneven Growth’. The third exhibition in MoMA’s Contemporary Architecture series, examines the increasingly inequitable urban development in megacities.

The exhibition “seeks to challenge current assumptions about the relationships between formal and informal, bottom-up and top-down urban development, and to address potential changes in the roles architects and urban designers might assume vis-à-vis the increasing inequality of current urban development”. They include proposals for new architectural possibilities in Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, Lagos, New York and Mumbai. The ASLA recounts some of the backstory on tactical urbanism, including Mike Lydon’s early books, Park(ing) Day, the Great Recession, and the Internet—pretty good.

However, the ASLA also levels a critique that runs like this: without design professionals engaging in their capacity as experts alongside tactical practitioners and innovators, there is a risk of projects being too small, too specific, and too precious. In short, not strategic.

This is a critique that we tried to surface at the Adaptive Metropolis Symposium in 2013, and is a consistent thread in the practice of tactical urbanism. It is also a challenge to design professionals to look at the tactics developed by people, for people, within their cities. Tactics are short-term, but they should really be developed with longer-term strategic objectives in mind.

 

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Jan Gehl’s Winter Lectures #1

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How do we to bring life to cities? Jérôme Lapierre, our architectural assistant and winner of Prix de Rome, offers his highlights from Jan’s recent winter lectures.

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In his recent series of winter lectures for the Copenhagen office, Jan Gehl asked the question “Cities for people – but how?” Questions of this sort have been fascinating him since he met his psychologist wife, which more or less coincided with the thoughts of Jane Jacobs’ book – ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’. The 1960’s was a time of drastic changes as Modernist thinking lead to what Jan calls ‘the car invasion’. The result – extreme scale confusion, is visible in these illustrations: People moving at a slow pace (5km/h) mixed with cars wanting to go faster (60 km/h), and architecture caught in the middle. Modernism certainly changed the life between buildings…

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Left: Perth, Australia, 1960. Right: Elsinore, Denmark, 1960

While this change was taking place around the world, some streets, for instance in Denmark, started to get pedestrianized, like Strøget in Copenhagen and Houmeden in Randers.

Left: Strøget, Copenhagen 1962. Right: Randers, 1962

Left: Strøget, Copenhagen 1962. Right: Randers, 1962

Jan realized that the most important scale is the people-scale, where we move at a natural pace of 5 km/h. This is also the scale in which human life unfolds and where all human senses are involved. Copenhagen as a city made many remarkable modifications to invite people to walk and cycle. It is in fact, the first city in the world where data was gathered, life in the city and its people was studied – to create a human scale city.

 

The Copenhagen Story from 1962-2014

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– from traffic focus to a people-oriented place:

  • Phase 1 / 1960-1980: Pedestrian streets
  • Phase 2/ 1980-2000: Café culture
  • Phase 3/ 2000-now: Recreational activities/playgrounds

 

Copenhagen Today

Since these progressive changes began to appear, the ‘city for cars’ paradigm slowly flipped to a ‘city for people’ in the culture of the city and in people’s minds.

Some fresh data from 2014 on everyday life in Copenhagen goes to show this effect.

The future looks very promising, since a new Danish architectural policy was published (February 2014), entitled ‘Putting people first’ – A strong gesture to Gehl Architect’s work improving the cities by focusing on the people.
Another sign that these changes have had a positive effect, is the fact that Copenhagen was awarded  ‘most livable city in the world’ several times by the magazine Monocle, most recently in 2014 (watch video below). This proves that people-centric urban planning gets noticed for the positive impact on city culture and vivid urban life.

For the blog post in french and more of Jérôme Lapierre’s work.
Please go to www.jeromelapierre.com

This is the first post about Jan Gehl’s Winter Lectures.
2nd coming up!

 

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Parklets make the New York Times: It’s time to think even bigger

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Parklet in Philadelphia. Photo by UCD

Parklet in Philadelphia. Photo by UCD

In this Sunday’s New York Times, Business Day writer Claire Martin profiled the parklet phenomenon originating in San Francisco that has spread to many cities across the United States. John Bela and I, who now lead Gehl Studio’s San Francisco office, helped start the parklet movement. First there was “Park(ing)”, a two-hour installation of a park in a parking space in 2005, then “Park(ing) Day” which took the project open source and made it an annual nudge toward people spaces worldwide. This global, crowd-powered event continues to this day, now fully under the momentum of its participants.

Freewheel Parklet in San Francisco. Photo by Mark Hogan

Freewheel Parklet in San Francisco. Photo by Mark Hogan, Flickr

A few years later we piloted with the City of San Francisco the guidelines and permit that allowed Park(ing) installations to become more permanent as parklets, San Francisco’s new parklet permit. In both cases we made all the work open source so it could be replicated and it has in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Portland, Seattle and Philadelphia are a few of the major cities that have adopted permit programs. In San Francisco we worked to ensure the new public spaces could remain truly public and not just the domain of café chairs and lattes.

Martin’s article provides a perspective on the movement that was not our focus at the outset, but has increasingly become the driving rationale among parklet boosters: business. She writes that since the installation of a parklet that I happen to have designed several years ago for a successful restaurateur named Tony Gemignani, “business has quadrupled.”

Parklet at Valencia Street in San Francisco

Parklet at Valencia Street in San Francisco

Rather than the result of a business strategy however, such popularity also can be seen simply as an indicator of the health of a public space that puts people first by providing for comfort and interaction in a way that stingier, utilitarian sidewalks and a predominance of parked cars do not.

I hope that the NYT article adds economic bona fides to the parklet wave, but it’s important to not lose sight of the bigger issue. Inviting, people-focused public spaces—especially streets—are a commodity in short supply in US cities. Therefore those with the means and initiative to fund parklets can leverage the enhanced value in this commodity’s relative rarity. (This dynamic has lately led to difficult conversations about parklets’ role in gentrification in San Francisco and conflating people-first design and cafe culture.)

Huntington Drive Parklet in Los Angeles. Photo by LADOT People St

Huntington Drive Parklet in Los Angeles. Photo by LADOT People St, Flickr

Let’s not confuse scarcity economics and the provision of vital human habitat. Just as Park(ing) Day was a provocation and an invitation, parklets can push cities to offer higher quality space, and more of it. Why should we be content with a handful of businesses quadrupling revenue? What would be the effect of spreading this kind of benefit (whether parklets or something more scaled-up) to all classes of street business, or to every neighborhood? Are there other benefits – social, environmental, or other of providing small urban spaces that we can and should be measuring? Why don’t citizens feel entitled to high quality public space in all city neighborhoods? This kind of entitlement would be healthy for all concerned—it’s the same feeling people have about running water and garbage service, which support our sense of dignity and allow people to focus on higher-order needs.

Smart cities and empowered citizens will realize—like Tony Gemignani, but on a much bigger scale—it is enormously cheap to provide a space that’s a “go-to for people” compared to the returns it pays. To quote Tony, “that was a no-brainer.”

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Public Transport for People #1

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How do we make train stations more people-friendly? In many major transport projects today, the person travelling is all too often forgotten. Somewhere in the process of delivering and running these technically and politically complex projects, we tend to lose focus on people.

Ørestad Metro in Copenhagen

Ørestad Metro in Copenhagen, Denmark – with nowhere to sit, buy a coffee or browse magazines while you wait.

In particular, train stations are often uninviting places to stay, seemingly perceived as transient spaces that do not warrant improvement or investment in passenger needs.

People from the Gehl offices travel a lot and one of the first impressions of a city is its public transport network; trying to understand it and navigate it.  Many cities are successful in making this experience fairly simple and easy-to-use.  However, many cities do not, resulting in systems that are hard to understand, difficult to use and navigate with many of their train stations too often presenting poor and unwelcoming environments.

Bus stop in Kunming, China

A forlorn and lonely wait at a bus stop in Kunming, China.

These systems were created by, are run and maintained by people, for people, so surely this cannot be intentional. Some cities get it right and wrong at the same time. Some will invest in city-changing infrastructure, yet fail to consider the final few metres of a journey – even though these can be extremely important to the individual. Some will invest in beautifully designed stations yet fail to improve their service frequency, ticketing or station amenities.

However, we are seeing more and more cities recognizing the need to improve their public transport networks; Governments and public transport operators are recognizing that there is not only economic and service efficiencies to be gained through station and network investment, but also social benefits for the wider city.

Kings Cross in London

Kings Cross London improved the journey experience through new public spaces and retail businesses. Over 20% of station visitors are there not for travel, but because of the station amenity according to Network Rail.

Recent projects have seen our involvement in transport interchanges and challenging what it means today to provide a high-quality public transport network and station environment for a city.  We have been trying to figure out; what may these aspirations look like physically at a station? And how may these in turn improve people’s daily lives?

In our approach with train stations, understanding and valuing the everyday is a good place to start when it comes to wanting a more people-focused experience.  What it is that people may want on their daily commute that may make the life’s daily demands less stressful and more convenient? Thinking about this can start to inform the types of spaces, services and qualities people might enjoy whilst ‘on the move’ in and around the train station.

Growing public life from the journey

At Gehl, we talk about necessary activities, optional activities and social activities. Necessary activities are those things that need to be done; such as going to work, going to school, waiting for the bus or running errands. Necessary activities occur regardless of the quality of the urban environment. Optional activities are what people are tempted to do when the urban environment is generally inviting and attractive. These are especially sensitive to quality and only occur when the quality of the built environment is high. A good city is characterized by a multitude of optional activities and social activities, such as watching, listening and interacting with other people.

Waiting for a train in Sydney

A necessary activity – waiting for a train in Sydney to head home.

Sydney train ticketing information can be slightly overwhelming

A necessary activity – trying to buy a train ticket in Sydney can be slightly overwhelming.

The Necessary Activities at the Train Station are generally:
  • Arriving
  • Maybe buying a ticket
  • Waiting for your train
  • Departing on your train
The Optional and Social Activities at the Train Station could be:
  • Arriving
  • Buying a ticket
  • Dropping off your dry-cleaning on the way to work
  • Buying a coffee
  • Visiting the chemist / pharmacy
  • Going to the department store to buy a gift
  • Putting your shoes in for repair
  • Posting a letter or paying a bill.
  • Buying a snack, lunch or dinner
  • Meeting friends or family for a drink 
  • Going on a date at a restaurant
  • Going to the bank
  • Putting your mobile phone in for repair
  • Buying a birthday present
  • Visiting the travel agent
  • Departing on your train

and the list goes on …

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Improving the Everyday Experience

Enriching the overall station experience goes a long way in making cities more friendly to people, easier to use and navigate. In addition, it can add value to public transport – as the most attractive and convenient way of getting around in cities.

Our CEO, Helle Søholt, recently spoke to The Guardian discussing our work in making cities more liveable. Helle emphasized the need to give people the freedom to choose safe, efficient and convenient methods of travel; to choose to walk, cycle, drive or catch the bus / train as part of their daily life.
Making public transport that little bit more convenient and attractive to people by improving the everyday experience is one step towards more liveable cities.

 

 

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How can design help end poverty?

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This was the question I was asked as part of the TEDx event put on by the World Bank Group. As the only speaker from the design community I was slightly intimidated to share a stage with …

… ground breaking health researchers, an award winning photo journalist inspiring founders of NGOs and a Nigerian rap star – not to mention the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim. They all seemed to be more suited to address the issue than I – and they are!

Designers and planners lag behind other disciplines since their engagement processes are still largely for people, rather than with people. This is where people-first design differs. The approach is about meeting people where they are, and providing tools to empower them to engage in a more productive dialogue with decision makers. People-first design provides hands-on opportunities for citizens to collaborate to promote for change in their collective backyard.

This talk provides examples of how putting people in the center of planning and design processes in India, New York and Argentina can help address issues of equity, resilience, governance, and trust.

More important than case studies however, is a change of mindset, allowing people to become active agents for change – whether they find themselves in poverty or not. Today 3 billion people live in urban areas. By 2060 that number could double. We will need to double the urban capacity in 50 years that it took us a millennia to build. We don’t have the resources, capital, or man-power to do that and survive. We will need to think differently, and empower more people to become a part of the solution.

Can design tackle an issue as complex as poverty or rapid urbanization alone? Of course not. It will take a multi-disciplinary ecosystem of experts, advocates – and most importantly citizens – to approach these challenges from new standpoints and perspectives.

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Towards a Healthier Singapore

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Gehl Architects engages in creating healthy places through active mobility in Singapore. Making people-friendly places for walking and cycling is becoming increasingly important for enhancing urban liveability. Singapore, a high density city in tropical South East Asia, is no exception.

Singapore is already fairly walkable and recreational cycling is a popular activity. Nevertheless, the city is working towards making it safe and conducive for people to cycle in their daily commutes.

The Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore (CLC) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) embarked on a collaborative research project on ‘Creating Healthy Places through Active Mobility’ in November 2013. The project aimed to formulate strategies to improve walkability and bike-use in Singapore and contribute to current efforts such as the National Cycling Plan. As part of the research process, Gehl Architects conducted a workshop, called the ‘Bikeshop’ in early 2014, involving 55 participants from government agencies, private sector, academia, and interest groups.

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Experiencing the city from a human perspective

The ‘Bikeshop’ was held in Ang Mo Kio, a typical Singapore town built in the late 1970s, when Modernist planning and design ethos were the order of the day. The town currently does not have dedicated cycling infrastructure, as road design generally prioritise cars. However, walkable distances from homes to neighbourhood shops have helped making it convenient for people to get around on foot.

Led by Jan Gehl and Camilla van Deurs, the ‘Bikeshop’ took the participants on a cycling trip around Ang Mo Kio. Participants engaged in a series of animated site discussions, focusing on problem areas such as junctions, street profiles and bike parking facilities.

CLC also took the opportunity during the panel discussion to catch up with Camilla on her views on promoting active mobility in the city.

A people-first approach for walking and cycling

The result of the workshop and case studies of cities like Copenhagen, New York and Seoul were distilled in a publication by CLC and ULI.
The dialogue on walkability and bikeability in Singapore continued beyond the workshops – a follow up public panel discussion in November, 2014 included Camilla, Scott Dunn (AECOM and ULI Singapore), Kenneth Wong (Land Transport Authority, Singapore) and Cliff Lee (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore), moderated by
Dr Limin Hee (CLC).

The panel discussed ‘roadblocks’ faced by cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in promoting walking and cycling, and engaged the audience on issues such as reclaiming road space from cars for pedestrians and cyclists.

The CLC-ULI publication has attracted much interest from the local media, policymakers and legislators, and helped inspire how we can remake our streets for the people. The government agencies are currently working to further improve the cycling infrastructure. This includes expanding the cycling network to 700km by 2030 as part of the National Cycling Plan.

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We look forward to the day when our “mini highways” are transformed into people friendly streets, where even children can feel safe walking or cycling to school!

Read the publication on ‘Creating Healthy Places through Active Mobility’

 

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Investigating Public Life with Next City

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A new article series entitled ‘In Public’ examines how the public realm brings people together, spreads ideas, and makes our cities more equitable. Gehl Studio joins forces with Next City.

Vibrant public spaces encourage the spread of ideas. Street festivals lead to greater empathy across social classes. Public space improvements are always good for city life. Participatory design builds community around public spaces. Social mixing leads to economic opportunity for disadvantaged people. Parklets! Bulb-outs! Multicultural parades!

Urbanists carry lots of assumptions about the impact public space has on the life of the city. One of them is that mixing between social groups leads to economic opportunity for those at the bottom.

While other benefits of public space – from economic to health impacts – have been well studied and documented, the assumptions we have about the social benefits of public space have not received the same attention.

Do multicultural street festivals foster empathy across social classes or just nice multicultural photos?

Northern Spark, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: Patrick Kelley

For decades, Gehl has studied how people use public spaces. But now we are curious if we can dig deeper into the impacts public spaces have on social relationships and economic opportunity for people.

Could public spaces be used as a tool for economic integration, and foster new and innovative ideas? If so, what are the design and activation triggers that support this? How do we measure the performance of public spaces in regards to these goals?  What are the barriers?

Does good design have a social value, or is it just window dressing that disrupts existing meaningful social patterns?  Activities at a vacant waterfront property in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, before redevelopment. Credit: Daniel Campo, the Accidental Playground

Live music at a vacant waterfront property in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – before redevelopment. Photo: Daniel Campo

In an effort to probe these questions, rattle some assumptions, and look at the social value of public space with fresh eyes, we are excited to announce a new collaboration with Next City, supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, called In Public.

Our goal for the series is to better understand how public realm can engage people. We will look into whether a vibrant public realm connects underrepresented citizens to opportunity, fosters innovation and the spread of ideas, and builds strong, diverse communities. We are lucky to be supported by the Knight Foundation’s Engaged Communities program whose projects seek to attract, retain and harness talent. They expand opportunity by increasing entrepreneurship and economic mobility; and build places that accelerate the growth of ideas and bring people from diverse social and economic backgrounds together. This 6-month article series will touch on each of these goals, with a special focus on how public spaces expand opportunity.

What is the social value of two strangers sitting on a bench? Pictured: Copenhagen's Israelsplads Credit: Anna Muessig

Copenhagen’s Israels Plads. What is the social value of two strangers sitting on a bench?

Many urbanists believe that mixing social groups in public space encourages economic opportunity for those at the bottom. But what’s the data behind that?

To deepen our inquiry into these questions, In Public runs alongside a research project led by Gehl’s Eric Scharnhorst. This project investigates new tools for measuring and understanding how public spaces foster economic integration. We’ll be reporting back on Eric’s findings next Spring.

Why do we take to the streets after sports teams win? What is the positive social impact of this? Pictured: Street party after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, 2014. Credit: Anna Muessig

Street party after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, 2014. Why do we take to the streets after sports teams win?

Other articles in the series range from stories about a swap meet in Los Angeles that is a melting pot in a divided city, to interviews with street vendors about how they choose their vending locations, to articles from Gehl staff about how pilot projects build community and influence urban policy.

We will also do some myth-busting around strongly held urbanist views: Is café culture a universal good, or an indicator of gentrification? What does policing of public spaces do to public culture?  Is participatory design a community engagement strategy or a neoliberal tool to make private citizens perform free labor? Do vibrant public spaces actually encourage the spread of ideas? Can good urban design really build community for people, or is it just window dressing? When a street festival brings people together from all walks of life, are there any residual social impacts other than some nice multicultural photos?

What has the over-policing of public space done to public life and free speech?  Pictured: Assembly area in Ferguson, Missouri. Credit: Michael R. Allen

Assembly area in Ferguson, Missouri. What does policing of public space do to public life? Photo: Michael R. Allen

We won’t be answering all these questions about economic integration and the social impact of public space through this article series. However, we are excited to use this platform to instigate debate about these important urban issues along with the Gehl community and Next City readership.

Do multicultural public spaces result in meaningful interactions? We want your comments, your re-tweets, your skeptical looks, and your wholehearted agreements. Please participate through comments on the website or by sending us questions you’d like us to explore.

Join the conversation at: nextcity.org/column/in-public

Do multicultural public spaces result in meaningful interactions? Pictured: Hippie Hill, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Credit: Anna Muessig

People enjoying a day out at Hippie Hill, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

 

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Macabre Agency

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In the US, very few holidays promote play and interaction in our communities as much as Halloween.

Altar and Second Line Parade

Altar with dress, flowers and family photos. Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club Second Line, New Orleans.

Young children dressed in costumes take to the streets at twilight to seek out treats in their communities. Teenagers and young adults take advantage of the opportunity to roam freely in disguises that liberate them from the binds of social norms, to play tricks and interact in childish ways they would normally not be allowed.

Dia de Muertos. Photo: gprentice

Mission Alley, Dia de Muertos. Photo: Graham Prentice

Costumes give license for social engagement that might otherwise not be tolerated; costumes can temporarily subvert the dominant paradigm and blur social and class boundaries. We experience this behavior in many kinds of festivals and actions the world over. The weekly Second Line parades in New Orleans bring the absurd and the beautiful together for musical romps around the city, allowing communities to stake their claim on the public landscape.

Halloween, also known as All Hallow’s Eve, unofficially marks the closing of the  harvest season, but also celebrates the approaching holidays of All Saint’s Day and All Souls Day. These holidays commemorate the deceased, and All Souls Day is celebrated as Dia de los Muertos in Latino communities around the world.

Preparing altars in the park San Francisco

Preparing altars in the park, San Francisco

The events of these three days share a sense of the macabre, where we openly welcome death and other-worldly spirits to engage in our daily lives. It’s a time when we commune with the deceased, where we share meals and pass time with loved ones, living and passed away. These celebrations are communal and public. They occur in the public realm and reinforce our connections to each other, to our pasts.

In Michoacan, Mexico as in other parts of Latin America, the cemeteries become prime-time public spaces, the town centers for the living and deceased to socialize together.

Michoacan. Photo by Andrea Gaffney.

Cemetery as town center in Michoacan, Mexico

In San Francisco, the streets of the Mission fill with a bacchanal procession leading to a public park, where altars of all shapes and sizes are assembled for communal memorial. In essence, the public park transforms into a temporary cemetery, where the living commune with the deceased, with room for expressions of simultaneous joy and sorrow.

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These are social uses of public space, gathering groups of people to share in a communal, spiritual healing process. Over the years, I’ve participated in numerous Halloween and Dia de Muertos celebrations, and I’m always delighted by the ability of these macabre holidays to enable unique social agency within the public realm, to open new possibilities for understanding amongst diverse communities. To me, these events represent true expressions of democracy in public space.

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When I was a child …

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When I was a child, my bicycle was the vehicle that gave me freedom to move around with speed, ease and lightness. My bike increased my radius significantly, and most of all; it gave me the feeling of being independent from my parents. I did not need to ask them to drive me to my friends’ place or to school: I could just jump on my bike, and off I went.

I have to admit that I sometimes cheated a little bit. I went a bit further away than my parents had said I could go. Once in a while I stopped if something caught my attention – I have always been quite a curious person – and I had quite a few very educational and exciting experiences that way. My childhood wasn’t very different from that of most other Danish kids.

photo courtesy: Danish Cyclists’ Federation

As most people know, Denmark has a very strong bicycle culture. In the capital, Copenhagen, you will find a staggering 41% of all trips to work or to study in the city being made by bicycle every day – all year around.

I am convinced that the unique children’s bicycle culture that we have in Denmark is the cornerstone of this very sustainable way of conducting a huge part of our urban mobility. A mobility that helps improve public health, reduce CO2-emissions, noise and air pollution. It contributes to a better and more liveable urban environment where people meet and see each other in the streetscape instead of being locked behind car windows. No need to add that bicycles take up much less space than cars.

photo courtesy: Danish Cyclists’ Federation

I am often invited abroad to give an introduction to our Danish bicycle culture and to reflect on local policies and implementations to get more people cycling; an initiative that so many cities all over the world are striving for these years. I always say: start with the children.

photo courtesy: Danish Cyclists’ Federation

If you start by implementing safe bicycle routes to school, if you make bikeable residential neighbourhoods and communities, if you start connecting street by street by street … Well, then in 20-25 years’ time, you’ll have a new grown-up generation of cyclists and an extensive network of bicycle infrastructure.

photo courtesy: Danish Cyclists’ Federation

All photos courtesy of Danish Cyclists’ Federation

Finally, scientific studies prove that children who cycle have higher self-esteem, they are more cheerful and healthy. Cycling children are more social and self-reliant. They can cope with a higher stress level, concentrate better, and have a much lower risk of lifestyle diseases.

Well … isn’t that the kind of kids that we need for our future? Make those kids cycle! And all the adults are more than welcome to join in.

Klaus Bondam is the CEO of Danish Cyclists’ Federation and a Member of Cycling Embassy of Denmark

 

 

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test draft – don’t delete

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and the saga continues…

a little before and after image test (currently not working)

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  • and again

 

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A better experience in central São Paulo

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Largo São Francisco – before and after

Since early 2013 the city has increased its efforts to make the city more attractive for people to live in. Through small interventions the center of São Paulo has become increasingly inviting to its users. In an effort to encourage people to stay outside of normal working hours, the city focused on creating quality facilities and a pleasant atmosphere.

Our guest blogger, Luis E. S. Brettas, takes a closer look on the recent changes towards making the city more vibrant. In collaboration with Gehl Architects, the ‘São Paulo Urbanismo’, Municipal Company of urbanization coordinated workshops with technicians from the different municipal agencies, teachers and students from the architecture school, as well as interested members of the general public.

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Involving citizens in an inclusive process

During this process of open dialogue, we identified several sites and small interventions, which could attract more life to the city center and create a high quality public realm. The pilot projects implemented are already achieving excellent results, along with other high-impact measures, such as the bike paths throughout the city (approximately 200 km this year, and another 200 km by next year).

Towards a more active city center, day & night

At ‘Largo São Francisco’, large wooden decks and seating create a great place to hang out for the people who live, work or study downtown. Movies and short-film screenings in the evenings, along with facilities such as ping pong tables, and food carts have stimulated the area, offering new functions to the urban space.

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Photo by Izabela Bueno

New bike paths and bike parking stations in the streets of downtown, have also encouraged new users to access the area. An improved connection across the street ties together Largo São Francisco by favoring the pedestrians. This has been fundamental in validating the suggestions proposed by Gehl Architects about prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists in the downtown traffic.

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Playful spaces for everybody

At ‘Largo do Paissandu’ (next to Avenida São João), implementation of play equipment has made a previously unthinkable amount of children suddenly “appear” in the city center. Residents who did not make use of the city squares before, now feel comfortable and safe bringing their children outside to enjoy the city’s public spaces.

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Providing space for activities and encouraging community engagement have been important factors in the identification of stakeholders for the pilot projects. Getting stakeholders involved is essential in order to continue the process of turning around other under-utilized public spaces and ensuring the feeling of safety, which is much needed in certain areas of our city.

Change towards a more livable city center

Changing established paradigms in the management of a city like São Paulo is not an easy task, but these first initiatives have already produced some remarkable results.

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Studies and data collection of the public life and space in the areas were carried out, to serve as foundation for the pilot project design before implementation. Now analysis and preliminary follow-up studies already indicate that the users find the sites more attractive and are being used by a more diverse group of people than previously. Current data will be mapped and compared to the data already collected, and will no doubt validate the ideas and justify new deployments.

A third pilot project is already underway – in Anhangabaú Valley, the very heart of São Paulo. So step by step downtown São Paulo is moving closer to becoming a better city for people!


Read more about the case in São Paulo

See a preview of our report for Pilot Projects in São Paulo, right here:

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Urban Innovation in the Bay Area

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This year UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design launched a new summer program called Disc (Design and Innovation for Sustainable Cities). Gehl Studio San Francisco was highly involved in the development of the program’s first edition. It has been a very rewarding experience for all of us!

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21 undergraduate students from across the world travelled to Berkeley to participate in the pilot edition of Disc. The program is a four week intensive academic program that aims to offer an understanding of the present and future challenges of global urban environments, as well as to demonstrate the potential of urban design as a catalyst for change.

Guided by UC Berkeley faculty, Bay Area urbanists, designers, makers, and social entrepreneurs, Disc students worked on confronting some of the problems related to urbanization by crafting people-centered design solutions. Through urban design studio sessions, lectures and talks, demos and workshops, field work and site visits, students had the opportunity to develop and test their own creative ideas while working with leading researchers and practitioners from the Bay Area design community.

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Disc has created a unique space for interaction between college students from across the globe and Bay Area urban innovators. Furthermore, it solidified the relationship between Berkeley College of Environmental Design and Gehl Studio.

I’d like to congratulate each of the Disc Inaugural Class students for their raw passion, critical thinking, and creativity. We are really looking forward to repeating this beautiful experience next summer!

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A dynamic urban space for Aarhus

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Aerial view of Basin 7

Aerial view of Basin 7

Gehl Architects share some of the thoughts behind our project in Aarhus harbour.

In Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark, a site in the inner harbour was put up for development planning. The area around Basin 7 has a huge potential to become the city’s preferred destination, an area for everyone to meet, hang out and enjoy the new urban landscape. We were met with an exciting and rare opportunity to create a new urban masterplan in collaboration with Aarhus Municipality, BIG and Kilden & Mortensen.

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In the process of developing the masterplan framework

 

Optimizing surroundings for urban space activities

The strategy for this new area is to start the planning process with the city life, since cultural life, restaurants and sports facilities will play an important part in driving the urban development. The masterplan makes a point of designing for public life first and developing a dense, human scaled waterfront with a wide range of opportunities for lively activities. The surroundings and buildings are designed at human scale towards the waterfront to accommodate the public activities. Restaurants and cafés have been concentrated in the prime locations to establish a vibrant and inviting zone, placed strategically so factors like wind, draft and sunlight are also taken into account.

 

Smaller streets, mini-squares and human dimensions

Smaller winding paths will be formed in between squares with places to meet, sit and talk, creating a feeling of shared space and a cozy, relaxed environment. This micro-scale idea could also extend into a series of maritime allotments with small beach huts allowing people besides the residents to use the area and take ownership of the activities.

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Urban farming initiative in Aarhus harbour

 

Courtyards and a diverse mixture of residents

There is a global tendency at the moment of families with children wanting to live in the city centres, and we see that same tendency in Aarhus. This is why we need housing and activities that meet the families’ needs and support their interest in living and actively being part of the area. For the families with children we included private courtyards in all of the blocks, offering the opportunity to feel secure when children are playing in the semiprivate spaces, plus a chance to socialize with ones neighbours.

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Beach Bar – a popular hang out at Aarhus harbour front

 

Temporary spaces

A crucial part of the success behind this project has been our visionary client, Kilden & Mortensen. Rune Kilden has already started several temporary activities on the site, such as an urban beach bar, popular urban farming facilities, as well as collaborations with local artists. The planned activities along the waterfront will hopefully melt together and help create a unified promenade of exciting experiences.

We will continue to refine the masterplan in collaboration with Aarhus municipality, and the public spaces and first buildings, designed by BIG, should be ready for 2017, when Aarhus will be European Capital of Culture.

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Small town Denmark – What’s next?

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Conference: Købstæder som Levesteder

Snapshot from the conference: Købstæder som Levesteder

The Danish Ministry of Housing, Urban and Rural Affairs recently organized a conference to start a dialogue on the future role of the middle sized towns. Attended by planners, politicians as well as various experts on the field – the debate was lively.

Recurring subjects dealt with issues of identity and self-esteem of the towns. Questions evolved during the day: Should towns be for both living and working in or mainly for living in? What is the status of the classic shopping street versus the big box developments?  What does quality of life mean to these towns? What can the stakeholders expect, and how can they engage deeper in the future of the cities? The conference didn’t come up with clear answers, but spurred an interesting dialogue of the future of these towns of 20, 30, 40,000 inhabitants. In Denmark with a total of 5 million inhabitants, these are considered middle sized towns. Up until now the focus has been mainly on the bigger cities with suburbs, as well as the challenges of the smaller villages, especially in the outer edges of Denmark.

Rethinking identity: 3 examples

In general these middle sized towns experience no shrinking in population, but neither any growth. However, some experience dramatic closing down of production and loss of jobs, such as industry, hospitals or other large institutions. Furthermore they are all expected to have an aging population in the coming years. Gehl Architects conducted a mini survey in three relevant Danish towns: Lemvig in Jutland, Assens on Funen and Haslev on Zealand. To give some solid input to the debate, we presented the results at the conference.

Former Sugar plant, today city hall, police station as well as sports facility, café and other.

Assens’ former sugar factory, today city hall, police station as well as sports facility, café and other.

In Assens, a closed sugar factory take up a quarter of the town. As a vital destination with new functions this former industrial area adds a new layer to the tale of Assens. It is an example of how indoor activities can continue outside, once outside the facility you can also be active, you can play, run, skate, exercise or just take a seat. A former tobacco factory has been transformed into a regional cultural spot, so Assens is pioneering the use of the historic buildings and their qualities. The conference was in fact held here, and the invitations for cultural and recreational activities are happily received by the citizens.

Lemvig Shopping Street

Lemvig shopping street

Even on a rainy Tuesday morning, the shopping street in Lemvig is full of people. Shopping is far from the only thing you can do in Lemvig, the shopping street is well connected to the harbour front, which was recently redeveloped.

Lemvig Harbour front

Lemvig harbour front

At Lemvig’s harbour front, invitations for staying are well received – and even on rainy days not only children, but also young people and adults are enjoying themselves on the harbor front. A new layer adjacent to the shopping street has been added, expanding the network and offering more opportunities.

Denmark’s top attractions (source)

Some of the public life is visible and some takes place inside libraries, schools, sports facilities etc. In the town of Haslev, a sports complex (Sofiendal) has 1,1 million yearly visitors. This number is equal to #5 on the ‘top 10 attractions in Denmark’ (The National Aquarium), even a local supermarket in Haslev has as many yearly visitors as Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (#10 on the list). This seems to be an often overlooked resource, and the question is: Could we make the indoor life more visible and connect it to the outside?  Are we missing out on the potential of this everyday life, when focusing on the fine granite squares as we work with public life? Could adding combined functions and new layers to these places, where people are already meeting – give more life to these towns?

Integrating supermarkets in the town

Could supermarkets become part of the 21st century planning, so we don’t end up with more standard big boxes with only parking spaces, but rather a structure integrated in the town?

Fakta/Super Market

Assens Fakta supermarket

A Danish supermarket chain (Fakta) uses a commercial catchfrase: “It just takes 5 minutes, but we would love for you to stay a bit longer.” People already stay outside supermarkets when they meet one another or have lunch in the car park. The example from Assens shows twice the amount of pedestrians passing by the supermarket on an everyday afternoon compared to the central shopping street. Could we rethink the surroundings and connections? Just imagine people felt like hanging out in inviting spaces outside of supermarkets. Could this be a place we stayed a little while longer, outside the supermarket? The questions were plentiful and the debate stimulating. The answers could vary from town to town, but the conference showed a lot of potential and served as a good starting point. These towns are far from being sprawling nowhere lands, they do have a center and plenty of basis to build upon. The Danish government is planning to follow up with an initiative in the autumn to revitalize the centers of these middle sized towns.

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Update from Mar del Plata

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The city of Mar del Plata has participated in the ‘Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative’ by IDB,
Inter-American Development Bank, leading to a collaboration with Gehl Architects.

In February 2013 the city of Mar del Plata started working on the project ‘Urban Interventions in Public Spaces’ along with Gehl Architects and IDB. We developed interventions in order to create more appealing public spaces that prioritize the human scale and senses. Through studying and analyzing the existing public life and public space in three different neighborhoods of Mar del Plata, we selected Calle Güemes as the first street to get a pilot project.

A multi-disciplinary team of people from across the municipal departments was then formed in order to secure a people focus throughout the project.

The project team in front of Gehl Architects pop-up office in the old watertower.

The project team in front of Gehl Architects pop-up office in the old watertower.

Key findings of initial study

The first major conclusion was that pedestrian space in the city is very limited. In Calle Güemes 74% of the movement activity was pedestrians and 26% was vehicles; however 75% of the space was allocated to vehicles and only 25% for pedestrians. Within the pedestrian space we observed several obstacles; trash, broken or poor quality paving, with café seating and kiosks all decreasing the pedestrian space. Very little public seating was found offering opportunity to sit and rest.

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Implementation

Gehl Architects developed a concept design in close collaboration with the local team. The concept design was then turned into a project for implementation by the local team. To speed up the process we decided to make a pilot project test on one block in Calle Güemes, this way we could take the characteristics of the shopping promenade into account. Eventually eight other blocks will be included.

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Once the test project was implemented, all business owners in Calle Güemes were summoned to learn about the project and comment on it. Over 50 business owners attended the meeting, expressed their approval and made ​​small contributions that we consider very useful for the success of the project.

 

Evaluation of pilot project

Once the pilot project was completed the evaluation stage began. In order to evaluate, a survey was conducted by the same technical team that developed the project. This team was equipped for direct dialogue with the citizens interviewed and was also able to describe the quantitative and qualitative studies that led to the project.

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The evaluation studies and interviews determined several points; increase in pedestrian activity, improved pedestrian comfort, increase in activities and outdoor serving and improvement of public seating. Also the concrete bollards used proved problematic because they were hard to see for people parking in front of them. It was also established that the chosen vegetation was too sparse, and that bigger and more plants was in fact needed to create the intended effect of an urban forest. These findings were crucial in order to avoid repeating the mistakes in the rest of the intervention.

 

Civic engagement

Given the diversity of opinions on the intervention, as well as the functionality and aesthetics, the municipality decided to host a workshop to hear all the opinions, ideas, and suggestions for change. The result of this workshop along with the conclusions made by the technical team led to improvements on the intervention which will be vital knowledge for the next 8 blocks.

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About 100 business owners attended the workshop with opinions and ideas on how to modify the urban intervention. The conclusions from the workshop led to an improved project which was put to a vote of the business owners. 90% voted in favour of the intervention.

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‘Streets for People’ initiative by the city of Mar del Plata

We strongly believe that the participatory process and stakeholder engagement will ensure a much higher project success.

Güemes Street is currently under construction as the rest of the intervention is under way and will be completed on October 10th 2014.

Read the Spanish version of this blog post here >

Read more about our work in Mar del Plata >
Mar del Plata #1
Mar del Plata #2

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Christchurch – The rebuild story continues …

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Our creative director, David Sim, always says “A city is not only just bricks and mortar. Cities are places of people’s stories and memories”.
The rebuilding effort in Christchurch New Zealand continues the process of building new memories and stories to tell about the city.

 

How is the rebuilding going?

Future Christchurch have released a series of online films that document progress in the city as it continues on its path of reconstruction.
For all the films keep your eye on the website

The stories shared in these videos touch on the big themes continuing to face the city;

How is the city dealing with the loss of so much historical fabric?

What is the role of temporary activation in the city as time passes?

How has innovation and creativity flourished in the face of such loss?

The stories of business owners, residents, community organisers, volunteers and others who have helped reshape the city through their endeavours put a real face to the story of Christchurch’s rebuild. These videos are definitely worth checking out, to hear their stories three years after the earthquakes.

Gehl Architects have worked in Christchurch in 2009 and again in 2011 as part of the earthquake recovery plan.
Our involvement with the city is also featured in The Human Scale

 

 

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Gehl in China: Shanghai #1

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The Bund at night

The Bund at night

In the buzzing, multicultural metropolis of Shanghai, Gehl Architects are currently working with Energy Foundation and ‘China Sustainable Cities’ Program.
Learn more about the background and key findings from our recent analysis here.

During the past six months, collaborating with Energy Foundation and SHUPDRI (Shanghai Urban Planning and Design Research Institute), we have been working with a livability and green mobility plan for the Huangpu district, in the heart of Shanghai.

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A new standard for city planning in China

The aim of the project is to help Huangpu and Shanghai redefine their view on public space. By presenting exemplary projects to improve the public realm of today’s Huangpu, hopefully we can set a standard for city planning for the future.
This is truly an exciting project to be part of, since it covers some of the most prominent spaces in Shanghai – spaces relevant not only for the city, but for the whole of China and ultimately the world!

 

The city from a human perspective

Looking at central Shanghai today, you find some of the most prominent public spaces in the world, such as the Bund with iconic views of the Pudong skyline, and Nanjing Road – a pedestrian street with the highest number of users ever recorded in a Gehl study.

Nanjing Road in Shanghai

Nanjing Road in Shanghai

Shanghai is an exceptionally buzzing city with a rich public life, not only in the big tourist spots, but also in the traditional neighbourhoods. Shanghai local streets and alleyways, especially in the traditional Lilong areas, function as meeting points for the locals and offer a social environment for their everyday life.

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A disconnected network

Walking around the city, you can’t help but notice a lack of connections for people on foot between the popular spots in the city. Although some streets in the network provide good conditions for pedestrians, many in-between streets and spaces lack basic qualities like proper sidewalks and accessible crosswalks.
Also city streets have been widened and transformed into bigger traffic arterials trying to keep up with the increase in car use. This makes it difficult to walk or go by bike around the city, and furthermore encourages people to go by car.

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Towards a people oriented city

However, we do detect a recent change of attitude in Shanghai showing an increased focus on green mobility and quality of life as a measure of the city’s success. In this context, our analysis is a very useful tool enabling the city to change their priorities.

Based on our study of public space and public life, we identified weak links in the pedestrian and bicycle networks, in which the layout of the city actually creates barriers for people moving around. We apply this detailed knowledge of life and movement of Shanghai in our strategies and recommendations. 

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Working in Shanghai is such a privilege, and we look forward to continuing our fruitful collaboration with Energy Foundation and the city. This is a unique opportunity to make a real change towards a more sustainable and liveable Shanghai for the future.

More info about strategies based on our study and pilot project proposals coming up soon. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

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Moscow – Feature #4

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Krymskaya embankment – today. Photos: Alexandra Kovaleva.

Krymskaya embankment – today. Photos: Alexandra Kovaleva.

It’s time for Gehl Architects to revisit the capital of Russia to check on the status of public space planning. Two years after making the Public Space Public Life study of Moscow, and a little over a year since publishing ‘Moscow – towards a city for people’, we return to take a closer look.

And indeed things have happened. The Moscow government has launched an ambitious urban revitalization scheme to transform the car-dominated city centre into an attractive and pedestrian-friendly urban space, in line with the main recommendations in the study.

An important theme in ‘Moscow – towards a city for people’ was the inaccessible riverfront and the lack of connection between the existing public spaces in Moscow city centre: Gorky Park, Alexandrovsky Sad and Red Square among others.

One of the missing links identified in the study was Krymskaya embankment, a busy car street along the river situated, between the already upgraded and very popular Gorky Park to the south and the city centre to the north.

The poor environment for pedestrians and bicyclists, the strategic location along the river and the barriers between the site and existing amenities such as the Tretyakov Gallery and Gorky Park, made it an ideal place to start healing the public realm. The report presented a vision plan that suggested removal of the car lanes and improvement of the environment for pedestrians and bicyclists. Furthermore, we suggested improving connections to the art gallery and activating the park for public use.

Krymskaya embankment before

Krymskaya embankment – before

Krymskaya embankment – vision collage from Moscow – Towards a great city for people.

Krymskaya embankment vision collage in Moscow – Towards a great city for people.

Returning to Moscow we are very pleased to find Krymskaya embankment transformed into an attractive and vibrant public space designed by the Moscow based architects Wowhouse and commissioned by Mosgorpark. The design aims at creating many types of opportunities for an active city life during all seasons, as well as inviting diverse user groups into the one-kilometer stretch of urban park.

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Krymskaya embankment – today. Photos: Alexandra Kovaleva.

As a step towards a more livable Moscow, this is an excellent project, not focusing solely on the individual location, but aiming to create new connections and link the city together in a network of high quality – people oriented public spaces. The Krymskaya embankment upgrade is only one of several ongoing projects to improve the public realm, and the city is rapidly changing towards a more livable and sustainable metropolis.

Working with the city administration in 2012-2013 we could feel the wind of change towards a more people oriented approach to city planning, and now this new strategy has a physical showcase along the Moskva river. We are certainly eager to follow this positive process in the coming years.

Read more about our work in Moscow:
Moscow #1
Moscow #2
Moscow #3

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Healthy cities are built on purpose

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A hundred years ago, only two out of 10 people lived in urban areas. Today, more than half of us have chosen a life in the city. By 2050, seven out of 10 will have chosen a life in an urban environment.

I became a part of this statistic, when I was 21 years old and moved to Copenhagen. Since those first baby-steps into the big city, a decade has past, and it’s safe to say that I’ve been around the block a couple of times since then. I have lived in different districts in the city from the old working class district of Amager to the more multicultural Nørrebro and now I live in Frederiksberg, which is considered the Upper-Westside of Copenhagen – all though it is a municipality in its own.

It’s a ten-minute bike ride from Nørrebro to Frederiksberg – but if you measure the distance in life expectancy, it is 6,7 years long. The life expectancy of a woman in Nørrebro is 73 years compared to 79,7 years for a woman living in Frederiksberg.

There are many contributing factors to the big difference: a higher level of education usually equals a higher income and healthier life style choices. But if we zoom out from the different districts in Copenhagen and look at urban environments in general, research shows that just by living in a city, you’re more likely to be physically inactive, consume an unhealthy diet and be exposed to air pollution. Even depression and stress have a higher prevalence in cities. 

Where does health come from?

We tend to view an unhealthy diet and physical inactiveness as personal life style choices – but there are some important questions, we should be asking before we draw that conclusion. Is it easy to walk or bike from A to B where you live? Are there healthy foods available at your local grocery store? Are there enough green spaces, where your busy city mind can take a break and you can breathe in clean air?

Being unhealthy is only a lifestyle choice if there is an alternative. And there are many ways in which cities can encourage a healthier way of life.

The rapid urbanization puts pressure on city planners, policy makers and architects to create healthy, sustainable and socially-functioning cities for the 6.3 billions who will have moved to a city by 2050. One thing is creating homes for all these people, it’s another thing to create the spaces between the homes that encourage us to live healthy lives.

One thing is clear, healthy cities don’t just happen – they are built on purpose. When we don’t just consider health a personal issue, we open our eyes to the health potential in the spaces we share. We could open up for more outdoors classes for school children, and more walking meetings for the workforce. If we make active transportation a priority, we would build cities that make it easy to walk and bike around and thereby reduce commuting by car, and if we acknowledge that a healthy diet can prevent many chronic diseases, we would have more city gardens and the availability of local foods would rise. And if we build spaces that encourage different people to meet and have a conversation, we will have created a city with more cohesion and less loneliness.

Health is no more a personal issue than sustainability or traffic safety is. Furthermore, it is a cross-sector job, where different stakeholders need to work together in order to create a healthy city. Only in the space between city planners, architects, politicians, healthcare professionals and other vital societal arenas can we create cities that are truly for people.

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Adaptive Streets

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As a part of my internship with Gehl Architects last year, I collaborated with a fellow student from the University of Washington on developing a handbook showing opportunities and implementation tools for cities and engaged citizens to transform underutilized portions of the urban Right-of-Way into better spaces for people of all ages.

The Adaptive Streets handbook demonstrates a collection of strategies that can be used to adapt street space, ranging from reclaiming individual parking spaces to transforming entire blocks. The handbook also provides innovative visions for adapting the Right-of-Way based on several prototypical streets in Seattle, Washington. I am excited to announce the handbook is now available to view and download at issuu and hope it will inspire new interventions in the Right of Way.

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Building Community – Summer Masterclass 2014

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This is the second summer that Gehl Architects has hosted the ‘Tools for Change’ masterclass in our Copenhagen office. Having just completed the two day session, we are once again astonished by the breadth of international participants. In 2013 we were joined by professionals from 11 countries, this year that number has increased to 13 countries, including Australia, USA, Canada, UK, Slovenia, Colombia, Sweden, Kenya, Germany and Brasil.

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It’s always fascinating to experience the coming together of a group of people, and to hear them express how universal yet local the challenges faced by each city really are. With the two-day masterclass, we try to provide the participants with an array of tools, from the classic Gehl way of analyzing city spaces, to talks related to Gehl theory and international case studies, to using Copenhagen as the ‘living laboratory’ – a place with good and bad examples which we use as a discussion platform. It’s a two-day flurry of sharing, discussing, cycling (even in the rain!), eating and new knowledge exchanging.

Sharing the Gehl tools for change is key so that those participating can take the tools with them and tweak them to the context of their cities and culture. What we find most fascinating is that together with the 45 people who have joined us between 2013 and 2014, we are building a community of like-minded individuals who are passionate about finding local ways to increase the quality of life in their cities.

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Thank you to all of you who participated! We look forward to continuing the dialogue and to meeting again in a variety of ways!

We’re already registering participants for the 2015 ‘Tools for Change’ summer masterclass. If you want to join us in Copenhagen next June, please send an email to masterclass@gehlarchitects.dk with the title ‘Gehl Summer Masterclass 2015′ so that we can add you to our participant list and provide you with information as it emerges.

Even more curious?
Read a post by Cora van Zwam, Masterclass participant.

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‘Tools for Change’ Masterclass

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Life, Space, Buildings

On Wednesday morning the 18th of June, we are welcomed in the Gehl-offices in Copenhagen with Danish pastry and Lego. ‘We’ are an international group of 20 people about to start the masterclass ‘Tools for Change’. Half of the group already met the night before over a pizza, and I am surprised about the diversity of the participants. Not only coming from all over the world (Brazil, Ecuador, Canada, Australia, Kenya, and a couple of European countries), but also with completely different backgrounds and professions. But we’re connecting pretty easily with a shared interest in cities and public life. The Gehl team prepared for us a packed program of presentations, case-studies, discussions, a film screening of ‘the human scale’ and a cycle-tour through Copenhagen.

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You measure what you care for

Why do we know everything about cars and next to nothing about the behavior of people in public space, as pedestrians, cyclist, playing or sitting? This is why Jan Gehl started in de sixties measuring urban life. Necessary knowledge for urban planning as you take public life seriously, and not only want to talk ‘form’ when designing streets and places. So how to measure public life and the quality of places? We’re provided with a toolbox with methods and off we go in Copenhagen. We try ‘ counting’  (how many pass in 5 minutes, how many women, men or children?) ‘plotting’ (mark on maps where people are staying and what they are doing) and ‘tracing’ (drawing people’s movements on maps). These are three of the eight investigative tools described in the book ‘ How to Study Public Life’ (Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre, 2013) and they prove quite easy to use. Together with the 12 Quality Criteria for places, it proves a good start for discussion and getting all the arguments out in the open. The varied character of the group makes this exercise extra interesting. For example: being Dutch, I take bike lanes and cyclist for granted. The others make me realize how special it is to have all those people in their normal day-wear on bikes.

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Changing mindsets

How to make cities for people? Helle Søholt, CEO of Gehl Architects, tells us a changed mindset is necessary. Focusing on the urban life and a people first approach requires a shift in planning. A strong vision is needed that makes it possible to collaborate and build partnerships. The presented life cycle ‘test-measure-refine’ was really grabbing my attention. Try to work out if things work in pilot projects and temporary solutions, seems such a logical thing to do. Use a few planters to make a pedestrian zone, decking to transform parking spaces into a seating area or paint to redesign a street. Simple and cheap. When it is thoroughly tested then a permanent design is made (or a new solution is tested). And here’s the measuring-theme again. Has the number of people walking increased? Do they stay longer? Do visitors appreciate the place more? Proof your success by measuring and comparing indicators before and after. Very inspiring to hear how Gehl Architects applied the tools in cities around the world, from Christchurch, to Copenhagen, New York City, Mar del Plata and Eskilstuna.

The Human Scale

I was already convinced for some time that public life was the most important factor for a good public space. The masterclass provided me with new methods and tools to work with, but the dialogues with the Gehl team and all my fellow participants did make it special. Hopefully we can share our experiences in our own towns and countries in the future. The facebook-group is already there.

We’re already registering participants for the 2015 ‘Tools for Change’ summer masterclass. If you want to join us in Copenhagen next June, please send an email to masterclass@gehlarchitects.dk with the title ‘Gehl Summer Masterclass 2015′ so that we can add you to our participant list and provide you with information as it emerges.
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New York City: A tale of two plazas

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Meatpacking District, Manhattan: One of many photo shoots at Gansevoort Plaza

Last Monday I left my pith helmet at home. I put on a black dress and a pair of Lanvins, and spent the night sipping rosé and eating petits fours with Diane von Fürstenberg and the rest of the locals in the fashionable Meatpacking District of New York City.

Attending this event was part of five months of ethnographic fieldwork focusing on two public plazas, which have recently been constructed by the NYC Department of Transportation. One of them, Gansevoort Plaza, located in the heart of the Meatpacking District.

The rosé and petits fours event was a yearly fundraiser for the local non-profit organization responsible for the maintenance and programming of Gansevoort plaza, the Meatpacking District Improvement Association. The local high-end restaurants had catered for the event and the many local fashion companies sold their previous collections at favorable prices – all to fund another year of successful and dynamic plazas in the District.

Meatpacking District, Manhattan: Yoga at Gansevoort Plaza

Meatpacking District, Manhattan: Yoga at Gansevoort Plaza

Inspired by Gehl Architects’ World Class Streets report, the Department of Transportation has constructed more than 50 public plazas in the past six years throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Most plazas, such as Gansevoort, have been developed in cooperation with local non-profit organizations. Once the Department of Transportation has constructed the plazas, these local organizations are then responsible for the insurance, maintenance and programming of the plazas – a classic variation of the many public-private partnerships in New York City initiated by the former Mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

Clinton Hill, Brooklyn: Dance at the Putnam Triangle

Clinton Hill, Brooklyn: Dance at the Putnam Triangle

By the following Sunday I had taken off my Lanvins and put on a pair of sneakers to participate in a dance event organized by the local non-profit organization at the second of “my” two plazas: Putnam Triangle, located in the not-yet-too-gentrified neighborhood of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Intimidated by the effortless dance moves of the local women, I decided to take a seat with my friend and informant – Jimmy Swagger – to watch the event from the sidelines. Sitting there, smoking a cigarette, Jimmy suddenly asked me, “Stine, you study this plaza, right? But what do you really think of it? Don’t you see that it is nothing like the plazas in Manhattan?”

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Clinton Hill, Brooklyn: Interviews for a documentary about Notorious B.I.G. at the Putnam Triangle

Though the planters, the umbrellas and the movable tables and chairs all look the same, I do see it. The plazas are not the same. By observing the everyday life at Gansevoort Plaza and Putnam Triangle, I have during my fieldwork experienced two very different plazas. By getting to know the context of the two plazas – the neighborhoods, the locals, the non-profit organizations, and the Department of Transportation – I have discovered an essential reason why.

First of all, let it be said that by constructing more than 50 new plazas the Department of Transportation has initiated a very interesting process of reclaiming street space from traffic to people. BUT: In the work with the plazas, Department of Transportation has perceived the public-private partnership with the non-profit organizations as a way of letting the locals take ownership and thereby enlivening the plazas. But with ownership come also a lot of obligations and expenses, which are easier to fulfill and cover for some non-profit organizations than others.

Though “my” plaza in Brooklyn is managed very well, by the Fulton Area Business Alliance, I have still not been offered a glass of rosé or seen a silver tray of petits fours at any of their events. Maybe it is just a sign of diversity. Or maybe the new (so-called) public plazas have become very tangible proof of the inequality in the City.

 

In collaboration with Gehl Architects, Stine Ilum conducted five months of ethnographic fieldwork in New York City in the Spring of 2014. Her research has focused on the construction and the use of a number of new public plazas, built by NYC Department of Transportation as part of the Plaza Program. The collected data will form the basis of her Master Thesis in Anthropology at University of Copenhagen, and add into Gehl Architects’ forthcoming work on public space and social justice in New York City. Read more about this project in our News section.

 

 

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City lessons from private rail operators of Japan

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Tourism and leisure services are a core part of many of the private railways of Japan.

Tourism and leisure services are a core part of many of the private railways of Japan.

In Australia, “privatized rail” is equivalent to dirty words. The privatization of Melbourne’s public transport in the 1990s is still a heated topic amongst its citizens and particularly those in the planning and transport industry.

Although buses were always privatized in the city, the trains and trams were sold-off and the operation given to successful bidders who were awarded fixed-term operating contracts (and within it, various incentives and conditions in the contract to entice better performance and operating results.)  Privatized in a similar vein to the British approach (and also recently, surprisingly, Sweden), the success of whether such a delivery model of an essential service to a city and a region all depends on who you talk to.

Historically, privatised rail was quite a common model of delivery in the 19th and 20th Centuries, particularly in the United States, Australia and Britain. It seemed fairly simple a model for making money; a group of business-folk would form a transportation company and apply to the government for the rights to construct a rail or tram line from A to B. Their financial incentive was not just about ticketing revenue; but about land development.

The cleverest companies coupled real estate and land speculation in the form of new housing and suburbs with places of work (the traditional downtown cores of a city) via public transport. The profits soared from real estate and land sales. This diversified business model continued with railroad companies even getting into the business of tourism, department stores and leisure services to encourage the movement of people along their service.

Land development in Shaker Heights Cleveland OH by the Van Sweringen Brothers that connected workers with the downtown via a streetcar service.

Land development in Shaker Heights Cleveland OH by the Van Sweringen Brothers that connected workers with the downtown via a streetcar service.

However, the days of ‘railroad empires’ were numbered, with the advent of the automobile and pro-automobile policies by governments and many of them, for various reasons, acquired or bought-out these private railroad companies post-war and ran them as a public service; whether it was for declining profitability and the need for bail-outs or improvements to coordinate a complex network for a growing city. In the West, gone are the days of the rail ‘baron’, or ‘railroad empire’ and the unique business model that many of these companies pioneered for a good 100 years of our urban history.

However, many Japanese rail companies (and true, to a lesser extent, some European companies) still continue that pursuit of being in the business of rail today. Tokyo, and Japan as a whole, are widely known to be superior examples of public transport, mobility and integrated land-use with transport that those who come from cities with less-than-convincing public transport, are in complete envy at, the author included.  It has always intrigued the Gehl team how this has evolved as an integral part of the Japan’s mobility and we have come up with some ideas on this;

Companies such as Odakyu, Tokyu, Hankyu, Tobu, Hanshin, Keio, Shizutetsu and the JR Group (who were privatised and split up from the former Japan National Railways) are very profitable businesses in Japan and are in constant competition with each other to improve their services and performance. A quick interrogation of their financial results suggests that quite a large portion of their revenue is derived from non-transport related revenue (anything that is revenue besides fares and ticket sales).  Some of them over 50%. These companies each covet various corridors or ‘spines’ in a city, but do not have a problem working together as an integrated network.  They are in competition with each other, but at the same time reliant upon each other for maximizing the network effect of potential passengers and customers. Their fortunes were originally made from land development; housing for a booming country and more recently their focus seems to be on retail and commercial ventures; providing department stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants and cafes, travel agency services, sightseeing tours and so forth.

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Tokyu have redeveloped their Shibuya station terminus with a new retail and commercial complex ‘Hikarie’, complete with a new underground station, theatre, galleries, restaurants, retail and food businesses.

Tobu Railways joint-financed the second tallest structure on earth, the 634m Tokyo Sky Tree and commercial development, Tokyo Solamachi, with over 300 stores on disused rail land. Also worthy of mention is Shizutetsu, based out of Shizuoka Prefecture south-west of Tokyo who have some ‘interesting’ subsidiary businesses including supermarkets, nursing homes, car rental, taxis, restaurants, funeral services and more. Modal share in Shizuoka for public transport is quite low compared to Tokyo and perhaps this limited market led them to a more diversified business portfolio to ensure profitability.

Tokyo Sky Tree and Tokyo Solamachi are infrastructure and commercial developments joint-financed by the Tobu Railway Company.

Tokyo Sky Tree and Tokyo Solamachi are infrastructure and commercial developments joint-financed by the Tobu Railway Company.

There are very few public transport agencies that turn a profit without government assistance and maybe there are lessons that could be learnt from these Japanese private railroad companies for those countries struggling with the eternal problem of limited finances, profitability and reliability of service versus the public’s expectations. The segmentation or compartmentalization of differing ‘modes’ of public transport against each other (whether public or private), and moreover, the separation of railway asset and land ownership, the fare collections and timetabling amounts to a public transport service in paralysis that would find innovation, adaptation for change incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Coordinating agencies do help, but if the profitability is just not there in the contemporary model of public transport delivery across the western world, then maybe there needs to be some more innovative thinking on how governments can turn a profit from this essential service. It has been done historically and more importantly, continues to be done each year in Japan. Let rail companies invest in real estate, lead real estate development on or above rail lines and rent or run the retail, commercial and tourism ventures in and around each station. Turn those profits back into the network and improve the services people are demanding, simultaneously.

JR East advertise direct tourism services to Nikko from Shinjuku and Ikebukuro stations.

JR East advertise direct tourism services to Nikko from Shinjuku and Ikebukuro stations.

There are some good examples out there, such as the MTA’s redevelopment of Hudson Yards and extension of the 7 Line and Network Rail (UK) and their objectives for station investment (with Kings Cross St Pancras being their shining example and Birmingham, Bristol and other cities to follow).  However, a substantial restructure of western rail companies in their current form to allow for diversification and innovation in business is still to happen. Hong Kong MTR, SBB CFF FFS and Deutsche Bahn (DB) are probably the few exceptions as they are companies that understand the diversification of income to ensure profitability and ensure good service.  They diversify in real estate, retail and freight ventures as some examples but not nearly as much as the Japanese private rail company.

Transport planning may be a dull topic to many, but it is a forgotten yet crucial system in allowing city life to diversify and flourish.  Would people happily tolerate a mobile phone network, or sewerage network that only lets you call or flush every 60 minutes; as frequent as the bus that passes your front door to take you to the shops?  Perhaps, but I doubt it. Perhaps it is as much about the expectations of a city, or society, that influences the importance and therefore, performance of their public transport.

Shinjuku is one area in Tokyo where the Odakyu, Keio and JR lines terminate, each with their flagship department store and commercial complexes.

Shinjuku is one area in Tokyo where the Odakyu, Keio and JR lines terminate, each with their flagship department store and commercial complexes.

The private Japanese rail companies are performing a civic role in society by not only providing an essential service (mobility of its citizens) but also of all the other interesting and varied things that city life is all about; access to food, drink, shops, holidays, souvenirs, businesses, friends, bars and meeting places. The profits from these businesses just happen to go back into the company that gets you from A to B to C to K and to W with ease. Whilst the financial report of these companies might look like a messy nightmare to the ordered accountant or policymaker or economist (with multiple and often complex subsidiary companies), they are very profitable and exist like a microcosm of city life; all privately-run and operated to meet and exceed the expectations of the people of their city.

This Odakyu-owned supermarket at Umegaoka, a station on the Odakyu Line, is conveniently located at the station providing convenience facilities for commuters and residents in the area.  Also located at the station are travel booking offices and convenient stores or ‘konbini’, all owned by Odakyu.

This Odakyu-owned supermarket at Umegaoka, a station on the Odakyu Line, is conveniently located at the station providing convenience facilities for commuters and residents in the area. Also located at the station are travel booking offices and convenient stores or ‘konbini’, all owned by Odakyu.

Whilst we are not advocating whether public or private is a better model for public transport delivery, what we would advocate for is the understanding of the importance of mobility with commercial opportunity (i.e. what people want and are willing to pay for when commuting, travelling or living in a city) and broaden the typically singular approach to public transport delivery with other sources of revenue that can be reinvested into the network. That way, perhaps the demands for better service, more frequency, integrated ticketing and timetabling, safer and better-designed stations can actually be realized for many cities at a lesser cost to governments.

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Special events to spontaneous spaces

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Gehl’s ethnographic approach to design involves observing where people are and what they’re doing in a city’s streets and spaces – sometimes this involves looking into the places we least associate with urban-ness.

Recently, we found ourselves in Charlotte, NC, running a series of workshops with the Knight Foundation. While there we had the chance to participate in Speed Street, the center of NASCAR’s annual Speed Week celebration. I was nervous that car paraphernalia would overwhelm the streets, but we didn’t even come across one stock racecar during the entire visit.

We did see thousands of people enjoying S. Tryon Street, in historic Uptown, as a public space. This street is sandwiched by corporate bank towers with plazas at their base, many created apparently via checklist (put in a bench, sculpture, maybe a water feature and your space is done!), but without intentional invitations for use. So while S. Tryon is surrounded by open spaces, many are devoid of people beyond the weekday rush- and lunch-hours. During Speed Week, it’s the ‘non-designed’, temporary pop-up uses, adjacent to these, that attract people to eat and spend time in the street, night and day.

Love for stock racecars or not, Speed Street invites people to enjoy themselves in the city. I could care less about cars speeding around a track, but I’m curious about what’s working when an event attracts 90,000 pedestrians a day (the most of any street in Charlotte all year). Large, organized special events shouldn’t be the only things that do this, but as urbanists we can be more open to why and how they might inform how to create spaces that engage people in a more spontaneous way, on an everyday basis.

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The purpose of our visit was to do just that, and generate strategies with foundations, civic and business leaders, and the departments of planning and transportation to make Uptown – the geographic center of Charlotte – and the area around North Tryon in particular, more of a ‘living room’ not just a 9-5 place.

The momentum to re-think surface parking as public spaces, connect Charlotte’s neighborhoods, and invite intergenerational and diverse residents to enjoy Uptown was contagious. While Speed Street wasn’t discussed – an informal survey of workshop participants found that most were not interested in attending – the people walking on it reflect a demand beyond our workshops for streets as public spaces in Charlotte.

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Working toward the adaptive metropolis

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On May 29th, Gehl Studio and the UC Berkeley Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning held the Adaptive Metropolis Salon 01, the first of a series of  events that will be bringing together leading voices in the fields of design, planning, civic and social innovation from the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond to discuss some of the most pressing challenges our cities are facing.

The Salons Series marks the beginning of a new and exciting collaboration between Gehl Architects and the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. Spurred by the debate generated by the recent Adaptive Metropolis Symposium, an international conference that marked and celebrated the UC Berkeley Landscape Architecture Program’s centennial, the Salons will further propel the discussion around some of the themes that emerged during the conference, while also fostering the creation of a coalition of urbanists with shared values and objectives: the Adaptive Metropolis Alliance.

This first Salon was held in the beautiful setting of Arup San Francisco’s headquarters. The topic of discussion revolved around the highly debated – and sometimes contested – notion of urban resilience, addressed as the ability of the urban realm to withstand not only environmental, but also economic and social disruption. We were welcomed and introduced to the topic by Ellen Greenberg, FAICP, Principal at Arup and Louise Mozingo, Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley. Following, Arup’s senior engineer Grant Schlereth described the work of the firm on the subject, illustrating in detail the City Resilience Framework, a tool for policy makers developed by Arup’s International Development team and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation. His brief presentation set the stage for Helle Søholt and David Sim’s keynotes. Focusing on Copenhagen and Christchurch, respectively, Helle’s and David’s talks addressed two stories that, while radically different, are poignant examples of cities as urban laboratories for social resilience.

After the formal presentations, the 75 participants broke out into 5 groups to further tackle some of the specific issues that emerged during the discussion. For more than an hour the many meeting rooms of Arup’s office filled with clamorous chatter and passionate debate. The amazing turnout (the 75 available spots were filled within 48 hours of invitation launch), speaks of the interest toward Gehl’s presence in San Francisco, toward this new partnership with UC Berkeley, as well as to the fact that Bay Area’s researchers and practitioners from across fields are eager to find new arenas in which to discuss the things they care most about. We will certainly not let this energy dissipate, and move rapidly towards the curation of Adaptive Metropolis Salon 02. Stay tuned for details on topics and locations to come!

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Freedom in an urban framework

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“In an urban area a successful strategy based on ‘freedom in a framework’ will support growth and mobility. It will give every family the freedom to move into a city of its choice and the freedom to move about and interact with all other residents once they arrive” – Paul Romer

I recently lead a two hour masterclass on the opening day of this year’s International Transport Forum (ITF). This conversational format, organized by OECD, was new at the forum and marked one of several important and positive changes this year.
As a co-presenter, Francesc Aragall from Design for All Foundation helped shape the masterclass and provided further focus on user experience and people oriented design.

The masterclass aimed at adding an element of ‘practice’ to the otherwise ‘policy oriented’ focus of the forum. National delegates from countries as different as Canada, South Africa, Korea and Qatar participated in the event, and discussed how to integrate data on people into the decision making process of transport planning, with the aim of making cities more livable.

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ITF Masterclass ‘Designing Cities for People’

I participated at ITF in 2012, at that time the discussions was mainly focused on freight and large scale transport or international agreements. This year however, I congratulated OECD for having turned their focus to people in cities. “Transport for a Changing World” was the overriding theme for the conference, and issues such as urban inequality, social effects of transport investments and development, transport and social mobility where addressed in a few keynote presentations, as well as in side sessions.

In addition, I was invited to participate in a panel debate on “Creating Livable Cities in a Changing Urban Landscape” were Paul Romer, Director of the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University presented his keynote.

Often economist and urban planners are not the best of friends, as many economists tend to think very little needs to be planned and that development should only be led by market forces, but I was very impressed with Professor Romer’s presentation which in so many ways supports my own and Gehl Architects approach to planning.

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Group discussion at ITF Masterclass ‘Designing Cities for People’

For many years I have been talking about how we should not think that we can masterplan cities, but rather base developments on a public space framework. I heard this key message repeated for the first time by a leading American economist.

Professor Romer’s argument was that a public space framework will allow for robustness and adaptability in urban development over time. Cities such as New York have left 30-35% of the land for public spaces – streets, spaces and parks, which has essentially enabled the city to change over time. “No other strategy for speeding up progress is as promising as giving every family the freedom to move to an urban area that offers more types of interaction with other people and establishing a framework for urban life that encourages the good interactions that density and connection allow,” professor Romer said.

According to Professor Romer the public space framework allows for individual freedom and flexibility. “In an urban area a successful strategy based on “freedom in a framework” will support growth and mobility. It will give every family the freedom to move into a city of its choice and the freedom to move about and interact with all other residents once they arrive”.

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Reviewing urban development projects at ITF Masterclass ‘Designing Cities for People’

However, in early stages of development when there is not urban pressure and scarcity of land, people might take public space for granted, Professor Romer said: “Ironically, the options created by excess physical capacity can limit future choices by establishing a dysfunctional framework of perceived rights. In most cities the default informal framework gives every car owner a perceived right to drive on any street at any time. Worst of all, perhaps even the right to park a car on public space.”

Hearing these arguments from an economist gives me hope. Often our qualitative arguments don’t hold up against the hardcore economic thinking. But to hear Paul Romer speak about freedom within a framework reinforces what we already work with and aim for at Gehl – quality of life for all people in existing as well as new cities, based on balanced and integrated modes of transportation within a framework of public spaces that allows for diversity, flexibility and a human scale.

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Minecraft generation

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You might have heard of Minecraft, especially if you have a son or daughter between 5 and 15. Now, the Danish Ministry of the Environment has created the country of Denmark in Minecraft, which means that everybody can go in and re-build Denmark in Minecraft’s 3D cubes via an online server.

It has always been fascinating for me to see how so many kids get absorbed by this basic, old school, pixelated game that looks like something from the 80’s – some of you might remember those days when a tape had to load for about half an hour to get Paper Boy going… My 8 year old son loves playing Minecraft with friends, they create worlds with stadiums, houses with patios and nicely decorated interiors, lightning etc. – an online Lego in other words. However, my son also plays online with people from China and other parts of the world, and this social, create-it-together element on a global scale, is definitely something new compared to my childhood.

Denmark in Minecraft is targeted towards schools, under the topics of Geography, Mathematics, etc., but everybody can use it and they have since it was launched a couple of weeks ago. I wonder if it is a step towards a new generation who will not see planning as an abstract discipline, but as something you can be part of, where you can actually build and test on a 1:1 scale. This is already going on to some extent with many pilot projects. The days of the big plans are over, now we want to build it together, test things and see what works and what doesn’t work.

Two guys from the Ministry of Environment have created the 4,000 billion cubes and have used open source data about the geography of Denmark to create the model. This emphasizes the new possibilities that open data brings about.

The newly released Danish Architecture Policy advocates for architecture to be further brought into the schools. Minecraft can be one element in this process that makes sense, as many of the challenges in society (climate, health, demographic changes, rapid urbanization etc.) will have to be dealt with from the cities. This will also make cities the place for more political questions and answers conversations. Hopefully the new Minecraft generation will gain an interest on urban questions and bring about new hands-on approaches and perspectives to planning processes.

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The London study tour(ist)

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Guided walking tour of Shoreditch with Igloo near Arnold Circus

Guided walking tour of Shoreditch with Igloo near Arnold Circus

In the Gehl Architects family, annual study trips are a well-loved tradition; partly because it is important to keep a social office, but also in large because we actually really enjoy the opportunity to play tourists. Although our work takes us to many exotic and exciting cities, it is sometimes difficult to find the time to marvel at tall, shiny buildings, when the paving is disastrous and we are blinded by visual clutter or by the overpowering presence of D-categorised facades (refer to “How to study public life” or know that on a scale from A-E, where A is a façade that has a dancing unicorn and a coffee-drinking hipster on display, D facades are pretty uninteresting.) Therefore, it was a happy crowd that showed up at Copenhagen airport earlier this month to partake in this year’s two-day, jammed-packed study trip to… London town.

We arrived early in the morning at Gatwick airport, with two hours to get two dozen Gehlians, via our hotel in East London, to King’s Cross station for the first stop of the tour. Argent, who are responsible for the redevelopment of the areas around the station, had invited us to their office to give us an insight into what has been called “the largest area of urban redevelopment in Europe.” (Richard Godwin, Evening Standard Magazine). In the office, we were presented with the grand plans for making a vibrant, diverse and inclusive neighbourhood, along with interesting schemes for an implementation considering both the economic and the social parameters. We wondered: is it possible to transform a polluted and neglected railway area in the middle of London into something truly nice? Afterwards, when we had bought lunch at the exotic food trucks on the plaza between the granary-turned-art-school (St-Martins) and the greened river bank, it was easy to believe in a bright future for King’s Cross.

Colourful food carts and street furniture bring life to the grey plaza in front of Central Saint-Martin’s School at King’s Cross.

Colourful food carts and street furniture bring life to the grey plaza in front of Central Saint-Martin’s School at King’s Cross.

At Stratford, we were introduced to another area of London that has been subjected to ambitious planning strategies: the post-Olympic wasteland, of which we were given a very entertaining guided tour by London Urban Visits. However, as fond as we are of walking, the vastness of the Olympic park and the scarceness of distractions, managed to make our feet and legs growl by the end of the tour. It shall be interesting to see how those large-scale spaces between the sports arenas will be appropriated in the future, and whether they can be brought back to life when the surrounding areas have been developed for residential and commercial purposes.

In Dalston, Hackney, we visited this green oasis known as the Eastern Curve Garden, which is preserved and appreciated by the local community.

In Dalston, Hackney, we visited this green oasis known as the Eastern Curve Garden, which is preserved and appreciated by the local community.

However, my favourite visit of the day was our rendez-vous with Dalston, Hackney, which (according to the Guardian and I) is one of the coolest areas in London. However, you need not fret if you haven’t heard of Hackney yet, because the gentrification of the area has happened so quickly that not even the long-term residents of Hackney have had time to grasp their new status. They are left to marvel at the rapid increase of property prices and the sudden occurrence of novelty bars and tourists, such as ourselves. We met with Hackney Co-operative Developments, which is a non-profit local community organisation, aiming to create an equal and solidary environment for the (small) business owners in Hackney. Our meeting took place in the Eastern Curve Garden, which will definitely be used as a best-practice example in the Gehl office, for how to develop successful, community driven green spaces within a dense, urban fabric.

In the evening, we digested the many impressions of London in a cosy restaurant, which was located beneath the bridge of a functioning railway. Who said re-appropriation?

On the second day during the “creative city”-tour we had lunch in “Lookmumnohands” – a bicycle-themed café at London Fields.

On the second day during the “creative city”-tour we had lunch in “Lookmumnohands” – a bicycle-themed café at London Fields.

For the second part of the tour, we were split into two groups, entitled “creative city” and “retail”. The group, which was investigating creative city co-operations, had the pleasure of visiting Igloo in the London Tech City, the Trampery and Netil House. London Tech City was a very interesting example of the effects that the branding of a city area can have. The Trampery and Netil House proposed two very different working cooperatives, both promoting inter-disciplinary mingling, but with varied means and goals. While the Trampery oozed of creative hub with artwork on the walls and social designer-kitchen spaces, Netil House had a scent of raw concrete (literally) with a hint of squatter and DIY. As some of us were debating the ups and downs of the creative industries in London, the rest were busy scouting retail-strategies in the high-end shopping district of Mayfair. In this area, the streets are groomed with good paving, wide sidewalks and beautiful window-displays, because the shop-owners know that their clientele prefer (are used to?) nice surroundings. Their tour also went by Lamb’s Conduit Street, a sophisticated hub for menswear designers, and the Brunswick Centre, which is a successful example of a mixed-use development (residential and shopping). Their day finished on Camden High Street, which might be said to be diametrically different from where they had started off in Mayfair; In Camden, the streets aren’t “nice” in the physical sense of the word, but the bustle of people rushing in and out of the many little shops gives Camden a uniquely “nice” vibe that attracts Londoners and tourists alike.

So, at the end of a study tour, what does the Gehlian take home, besides sore feet and a million pictures of urban prodigal moments? Firstly, a renewed will and energy to partake in the many changes that cities constantly undergo. Secondly, a ton of questions, answers and ideas to inspire future projects. And, in this case, thirdly: a love of London, as the city which continues to renew and reinvent itself so rapidly that even the flâneur breaks into a run.

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Hypermarkets belong to the past

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The Mid-West in the 1950’s? Could be, but it’s the prospect of a new project in Hillerød, north of Copenhagen; an example of the bizzar type of nostalgia that still exists in Denmark, while other countries are busy rethinking retail.

In Denmark, a unique planning legislation has prevented the construction of hypermarkets for the last 20 years.

However a bizarre type of nostalgia keeps popping up among Danish politicians. For some reason they keep dreaming of a disconnected and absolutely unsustainable phenomenon which other countries long ago labelled as undesirable. The negative consequences of hypermarkets are wide-ranging, and, well, so last millennium.

In the US they haven’t built isolated hypermarkets since 2006. Instead they are talking enthusiastically about mixed-use projects, which combine retail, culture, parks and housing, resulting in something that looks like – yes, you guessed it – cities. Since 2009 hypermarket chains like Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco have implemented down-sizing strategies, creating smaller stores in city centers.

At the global retail conference in New York in January 2014 trend spotters talked about the future of retail and showed pictures of markets, bazaars and high streets (including Strøget in Copenhagen!).

Shops belong to the city, and great shops create urban life. They support social relations, increase safety in the streets, attract tourists, enhance property values and inspire people in their daily life. Local shops also reduce CO2 emission. Therefore, the intention of keeping shops in cities – thereby responding directly to basic human needs – can never be retrograde. On the contrary, it is our way to move towards a sustainable future.

American university studies throughout the last couple of decades demonstrate that hypermarkets (example: Wal-Mart) do the opposite.

They increase CO2 emission.

Markets function as anchors to other shops, create more jobs and bigger economic growth than ordinary super markets and are an extremely good investment regarding health, climate – and property values!

Markets function as anchors to other shops, create more jobs and bigger economic growth than ordinary super markets and are an extremely good investment regarding health, climate – and property values!

They lead to the closing down of shops in nearby areas, which effectively reduces urban life and public meeting places; fewer social organizations and lower voter turnouts are de facto consequences of Wal-Mart coming to town. People get fewer reasons to go out and the citizens’ feeling of belonging to a place decreases. The result is lower property values and unsafe ghost towns – and ultimately a loss in the net-tax-income for the city.

Besides, hypermarkets, in the long run, lead to less competition and fewer options for the consumer. When the other shops are out of business, cases show that Wal-Mart rises their prices.

Another consequence is the distortion of the power structures regarding the production of food and other goods. During the 1990’s Wal-Mart achieved market shares that were so big they could control the production of food and non-food; their demands for low prices have had an unreasonably and detrimental influence on natural resources, animal welfare and human working conditions. The cost of low prices is very high.

Retail is a vastly complex field and it is essential to look at all aspects – not only productivity – when considering changing the legislation. As Winston Churchill said: ”We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” – but before that we create commerce and then commerce sets the framework for the rest: Not only our cities but also our infrastructure, our landscapes, our social relations and the power structures of society.

Urban shops support social relations, increase safety in the streets, brings character and diversity to a place and attract citizens, tourists and other businesses alike.

Urban shops support social relations, increase safety in the streets, brings character and diversity to a place and attract citizens, tourists and other businesses alike.

Therefore, let’s jump over the dark hypermarket era, and continue straight ahead to a future of sustainable shopping in living cities!

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A City for Men and Women, Boys and Girls

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I was recently approached by two Danish teenage girls – Mira and Camille – who wanted to do a project about ‘urban worlds’ in Copenhagen, and it immediately sparkled my curiosity – why the interest in that topic? How did they themselves experience the urban worlds of the city? Do they have an urban world where they feel at home? Reflecting on these questions I started thinking more generally about the notion of democratic public spaces.

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In recent years there has been an ongoing debate about girls in public spaces in Copenhagen. There seems to be a tendency towards girls using the newly redesigned public spaces far less than boys. Why is that? Can – and should – we do something about it? In the name of ‘the healthy city’ many of the new public spaces focus on ‘active spaces’ and it often results in trajectories and skate parks. Very few girls are active in these spaces, and if present they are to a large extent ‘reduced to passive spectators’

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A number of municipalities in the Copenhagen area have taken up the challenge of how to incorporate the girls’ perspective into planning. Some of the insights gained from this initiative (which were also echoed in my conversation with Mira and Camille) seem to indicate that many young girls simply spend time at home and not in the public space. Why is that? Are there hidden barriers that we’re unaware of? What types of public spaces could possibly attract young girls to be more ‘active’?

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Design Council – Active by Design

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Active by Design, page 7

Active by Design, page 7

We have just received word that the Design Council in London have launched Active by Design, their new programme to design places for healthy lives. The first step in their launch is the release of their short guide publication, which you can browse through here. Gehl Architects is very happy to be included in the guide with our Brighton, New Road project! Active by Design was created in response to the increasing health crisis affecting the UK. The intention is to promote the use of good design in buildings and spaces to encourage greater levels of daily physical activity and increase access to healthy and nutritious food.

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More life in the small commuter town of Hjärup, Sweden

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Local newspaper 'Sydsvenskan' March 19th. Kommunstyrelsens ordförande (Leader of municipal council), Christian Sonesson (M) and Thomas Heinegård, regional manager at Skanska announced the plans for a new district in western Hjärup at a press meeting last week

Local newspaper ‘Sydsvenskan’ March 19th. Kommunstyrelsens ordförande (Leader of municipal council), Christian Sonesson (M) and Thomas Heinegård, regional manager at Skanska announced the plans for a new district in western Hjärup at a press meeting last week

Last week I had the privilege of attending a press meeting in the small town of Hjärup, Sweden, where the municipality of Staffanstorp and our client Skanska, announced that together, they are now starting the formal planning process of developing a new residential district of about 700 new houses and apartments, as well as commercial and public service in western Hjärup. In 2011/2012 Gehl Architects developed the masterplan that will form the starting point for the redevelopment of the 26 ha. industrial site where Skanskas former concrete factory is located, right next to the Hansa – inspired by the development of Jakiborg.

The new district will add a significant amount of new residents to Hjärups current 5000, and will form a basis for more extensive commercial and public services in Hjärup, as a whole. The proposal builds on qualities found in Hjärup today – the strategic location in the Øresunds region and proximity to the railway, good accessibility by foot and bike within the town and the green and child friendly environments. It addresses the challenge of the barrier effect of the railway by ensuring that more connections in the future can link the existing eastern and the new western parts of the town and by providing new public spaces, a variety of housing types and additional services that will be accessible to current as well as future inhabitants in Hjärup.

The masterplan proposal by Gehl Architects from 2012

The masterplan proposal by Gehl Architects from 2012

The masterplan proposes concentrating the active and commercial life and a higher density of built mass around the natural node of the railway station while exploring how recreational, spatial and social qualities can be enhanced in the residential areas. The proposal is based on a fine grain network of connections and includes a series of parks of different character and programming acting as meeting places and providing local identities within the area. The residential streets are proposed as intimate laneways where children can play and neighbors meet.  A key challenge has been to explore how row-houses and villas can be mixed and carefully placed in order to achieve high spatial definition and variation.

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Collage from the masterplan proposal by Gehl Architects from 2012

The masterplan proposal by Gehl Architects from 2012The masterplan proposal was developed in close relationship with our client Skanska Nya Hem, with representatives from the Municipality through an intense and educative process of creative working meetings, exciting discussions and field trips. All with the aim of jointly illustrating a well-founded vision for a new livable and locally anchored district in Hjärup.

Gehl led collaborative working session together with the Skanska team

Gehl led collaborative working session together with the Skanska team

Read article from local newspaper ‘Sydsvenskan’ March 19th here

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Face to the Fjord: A look at Oslo on the release of their new PSPL

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Oslo Opera House, photo courtesy of Heather Josten

Oslo Opera House, photo courtesy of Heather Josten

Gehl Architects’ Public Space Public Life study of Oslo was made public today, March 24, 2014.
This ‘special feature #1′ aims to incite dialogue around the challenges and opportunities facing the public realm in Oslo and other cities.

“Oslo is a small city where everyone knows one another,” says landscape architect and project leader for Levende Oslo (Lively Oslo), Yngvar Hegrenes. Norway’s capital city on the Olso fjord recently commissioned a Public Space-Public Life (PSPL) survey that took over two years to complete, despite the city’s compact size. Hegrenes is responsible for commissioning the survey, stating that Oslo was interested in taking a fresh look at their city center with input from knowledgeable outside sources. Hegrenes worked closely with the Oslo municipality, community business owners and organizations, and Gehl Architects to complete the survey.

“We chose Gehl Architects for several reasons,” says Hegrenes. “We wanted their expertise and knowledge, built up over decades of work in cities around the world. We were also aware of the historical benefit of having Gehl Architects lead the survey.”

Oslo in 1987, when Jan Gehl first registered public life in the city center

Oslo in 1987, when Jan Gehl first registered public life in the city center

A PSPL done today is conducted in much the same low-tech fashion as when Jan Gehl, co-founder of Gehl Architects, developed the system in the 1960s. The first public life assessments were completed in Copenhagen, but Oslo bears the distinction of being the first city outside of Denmark where Gehl and his assistants counted people and mapped their activities to determine the quality of life in the city. That PSPL, completed in 1987, surveyed a much smaller radius in the Oslo city center than the newest PSPL, released to the public on Monday, March 24, 2014. This new PSPL surveyed forty-seven different points around Oslo, took place over three seasons (rather than the typical two), and also included a survey which collected opinions from around 1,000 people walking the Oslo streets.

47 study areas were included in the PSPL for Oslo

47 study areas were included in the PSPL for Oslo

“It was very important for us to include the voices and opinions of the people this time around,” says Hegrenes. That said, Hegrenes’s main role has been managing and negotiating with business interests in Oslo to make sure that their concerns are being heard as the city undergoes changes. Oslo is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. The population is expected to burgeon over 30% by 2030, according to Camilla van Deurs, Project Manager from Gehl on this PSPL survey.

A goal that is becoming more apparent after the completion of this PSPL is the need to merge the needs and wishes of a growing, young, and diverse population with the pressures from business interests who desire to maintain the current car focused culture in the city. Hegrenes and his colleagues are working to create an Oslo that looks to the fjord and prioritizes pedestrian traffic over automobile traffic. Both Hegrenes and van Deurs communicated that businesses should see that pedestrian traffic is statistically likely to bring in more customers. People come to the city to socialize and enjoy cultural activities. They visit shopping destinations incidentally, but because more pedestrians can move through an area in an hour than car traffic, more revenue is ultimately generated.

Hegrenes states,  “I think that we now know that we need to cooperate better, if we want to see more city life. City life is not only shopping, or going to bars, or drinking coffee. You have to give people other aims, other goals, in the city center. I think they [business owners] see more clearly now that the former regime, which focused on as much parking as possible, will never create any growth in the retail or business district. We have a need for the space to be put to better use.”

Eidsvolls Plass in Oslo

Eidsvolls Plass in Oslo

Hegrenes sees the PSPL as a key support tool for communicating the importance of improving public life in Oslo. In fact, he has already noticed improvements in the negotiations to reduce car traffic in the city.

Hegrenes knows that it is crucial for the city to become a city for pedestrians. Shifting away from car-centered planning is also seen as a critical security measure, a unique concern for this PSPL that arose in response to the tragic terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011, which killed seventy-seven people. One element of that two-part attack included a car bomb placed near government buildings in the city center. Assessing whether cities convey a feeling of safety via open spaces, good lighting, and foot traffic, have always been a criteria for a Gehl Architects led PSPL, but the attention to anti-terrorist security measures will be a first for the 2014 Oslo PSPL, says van Deurs.

Security measures taken by the city of Oslo

Security measures taken by the city of Oslo

Hegrenes remains positive with the completion of the survey process, as he settles in for the work required for improving the city he calls home. “I would say that city changes take time. That is more obvious after this report. You cannot just change people’s views and what they think about part of the city over night. This is something that you need to work on,” he concludes.

Interested to learn more? Read the report ’Bylivsundersøkelse Oslo Sentrum’ produced by Gehl Architects for Levende Oslo.

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Life in a suburb – take a second look

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Gladsaxe Day, Saturday 24 August 2013, photo: Gladsaxe Kommune

Gladsaxe Day, Saturday 24 August 2013, photo: Gladsaxe Kommune

The issues of suburbia, the everyday, creating better public spaces for everybody, not only in the city centers, seem more pressing than ever for many reasons: the environmental effects of our building and transport patterns, an aging housing mass, a changing demography with shrinking households, the need to be attractive to compete with other cities and regions, etc. Despite many visions, competitions and initiatives, there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to the suburbs and everyday spaces.. Try to find good examples, it can be quite hard, and often what you come up with are the usual suspects. However, many suburban projects in suburbs are on now on their way and for good reason as more than half the population either live or work in the suburbs.

I must admit that I find the everyday spaces of the suburbs some of the most interesting to work with. Suburbs are often hard to grasp, they may even seem a bit banal, but this is what makes them so interesting. The thing is that when you start to take a second look, you will soon realize that the suburbs are much more complex than at first glance. There is lots of life happening in a suburb like Gladsaxe, located around 10 kilometers north of Copenhagen, but you may have to look a little longer and more indoors or in private settings to find it.

We have recently had the pleasure to work with the Municipality of Gladsaxe, a true suburb, built in the 60’s with zones for housing, recreation, work, etc. It has been great to work with a municipality that has been really open to investigate what life in Gladsaxe means. The result is a study of life encompassed into a report called GladsaxeLife, GladsaxeLiv in Danish, which reveals specific qualities in Gladsaxe, not suburbs in general and not public life in general.

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Granny’s, a bakery in the middle of an industrial neighborhood, the only 115 m2 sidewalk that gives life to the place – even without people.

Life in Gladsaxe is not the same as life in the city centers, it has other qualities, it takes place more indoors than outdoors, and it may be more private and tend to be somehow overlooked. We have looked at where life takes place: the train station, the main street – the obvious places – but also the libraries which have high numbers of visitors (800.000 a year) – a meeting place that is non-commercial, democratic, innovative and a knowledge driven space. However, the libraries are enclosed buildings, life is not visible and that is one of the major recommendations to make all the life which is already taking place in Gladsaxe more visible. At one of the local supermarkets the number of visitors is the same, but these everyday spaces, the sidewalk outside the supermarket are not necessarily seen as crucial for life in Gladsaxe. We are somehow stuck in our traditional typologies, but instead of creating new, vast squares, it makes sense to build on the already existing, create new small scale meeting places, celebrate the everyday and all the engaged people in a place like Gladsaxe. It is about taking a second look, where do people meet, how can we add functions and other elements that can spice things up without resorting to wanna-be-urban spaces or the standard café latte answer.

Focus groups with residents of Gladsaxe underlined a wish for more playing elements, places to stop and meet others in a more unplanned way. Photo from Nørrebro, Copenhagen

Focus groups with residents of Gladsaxe underlined a wish for more playing elements, places to stop and meet others in a more unplanned way. Photo from Nørrebro, Copenhagen

To work across indoor/outdoor, private/public, it is necessary to work across silos in the municipalities to make it work as well as including external partners. In the coming months we will continue to work with the municipality of Gladsaxe with an education program, combined with live work on hotspots, on selected sites where we are going to test new ideas.

The answer to what life in a Copenhagen suburb might be does not exist already, but we hope Gladsaxe will soon be able to present new versions of suburban spaces in the coming months and years.

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Winter City Prototype at Frost Festival

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Prototype of the Winter City winning project: DAG by Torpe & Kunzynski

Prototype of the Winter City winning project: DAG by Torpe & Kunzynski

For the past few months, I have been part of the jury for the Winter City competition, initiated by Frost Festival and Open Air Neighborhood and facilitated by Innosite at Danish Architecture Center. It was great to evaluate more than 100 proposals for initiatives and furniture designs that could make it more comfortable and interesting to be out in the city during the cold months. Everything from dreamy, steam installations with light to pink insulating canopies were proposed, and great discussions happened on the potential of the grey and dark winter months, which we tend to turn our back on or flee from by being indoors or running to warmer regions.

A revised prototype of the winning proposal was tested at an ice skating outdoor concert event in Valby, Copenhagen as part of FROST festival, a winter music festival always on the lookout for new venues. As this winter has been quite mild in Copenhagen, the ice had turned to slush, but the temporary furniture made out of straw, covered in black plastic bags and colorful tape soon became a hang out spot where people could enjoy the sun with a little insulation underneath. Now we wait for the winner proposal, a recycled brick stone oven/sitting furniture to be built.

You can see the three winning proposals here at www.innosite.dk – including the jury’s arguments for why they won – and get inspiration from the other proposals, as well as to initiatives that can make it more inviting to go out in the city and stay out during the grey, dark and cold months.

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Evolving Scandinavia

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Free Zone by Rosanbosch, photo courtesy of Anders Sune Berg

Free Zone by Rosanbosch, photo courtesy of Anders Sune Berg

IN CONVERSATION — A conversation with Gehl Partner Ewa Westermark and Project Manager Ola Gustafsson on working in a Scandinavian context and the challenges of exporting those valuable learnings around world.

We find ourselves traveling all over the world, presenting ideas and examples founded on Scandinavian traditions and culture. A platform, which has provided a great starting point for cities to evolve towards considering the people who live in them. The standards are high in Scandinavia, and in many ways, we have succeeded in making our cities livable. But what does this mean in terms of the future of Scandinavian cities? Are we done developing our cities, evolving them even further? Are we happy to rest on what we have accomplished?

This week I had a chance to sit down with Partner Ewa Westermark and Project Manager Ola Gustafsson for a chat on the challenges and possibilities for urban development in Scandinavian contexts and the differences between working in Scandinavia and other parts of the world. Here are some of the essentials from this conversation…

Scandinavia Learning

Ewa: We export Scandinavian best practice knowledge all around the world, but are we consistent in importing the knowledge that we gain when we are out learning new things around the world? What can we learn, for instance, from a US context, where the public sector has traditionally not been as strong and therefore they have had to learn to collaborate with private organizations?

We share global challenges; we share the same health issues, etc., but the thing about Scandinavia is that the general quality of our cities is so high that the sense of urgency is not there. The big challenge in Scandinavian Cities is not always visible to the eye. It is about equity, inclusiveness and integration. It is about people and life. The challenge is to turn lifeless and unsafe city areas around and to integrate and connect all parts of the city together. We need to have much more focus on life and not solely on physical form.
The trust level in the official system is so elevated, that public engagement and collaboration between public and private entities is not very developed, with the result that different roles for key players in city development can lack a bit of variation. Here we have a chance to learn from both bigger and smaller cities around the world.

Ola: When you come to Sweden, it can sometimes be difficult to find that powerful story of change, because the basic needs are already catered for regarding accessibility, safety etc. In many other cities that we work in, you can go out, take a photo of a very poor, inaccessible or even dangerous pedestrian environment and try to change things quickly. Sometimes you lack that possibility in Swedish cities because, at least in the central locations of the city, all the basic needs are covered there. However what is often lacking or is less obvious at least, is the second layering, invitations to use and enjoy the city. It is in many cases a series of smaller changes that will uplift the situation, which is hard to present when talking about a sense of urgency. We don’t have a definitive point where there is a sense of crisis. How do we turn that around?

Collaboration between Public and Private

Ewa: To me the biggest challenge is to engage people and create collaborations between the private and public sector. What could make a difference is getting that engagement and collaborative process working. Currently, we don’t have a tradition for needing that, not like the US has always relied on these collaborations and engagement. Especially in smaller cities where you lack public life and people in the streets, then collaboration is the key for change.

Ola:  I think this is a key issue; to get people to commit to doing things together and not just to be opposed or reactive to what other people are doing. People are already used to participating in workshops, but it rarely results in a commitment to do something concrete.

Ewa: I think that goes back to the Scandinavian tradition of relying on municipalities or the state to fix “it” for you. Now this is not enough, it does not work, not even for the municipalities, because they have realized that they will not be able to pay for all the investments needed in the public realm, infrastructure, etc. They need collaborators, also financially. We see more and more cities where there is almost a rule saying you need to pay for investments in the public realm by selling the plots of land, instead of being strategic about how to communicate the collective benefits of what you are doing, the investment is presented solely as a cost.

In cities where the public sector has been less dominant, the public sector has developed better methods for explaining what they do; otherwise, they could not do it. This demonstrates some cultural and organizational differences we have the possibility to learn from.

I think that the municipalities in Scandinavia could help the private sector to become more organized. We can see more and more that the commercial cores in the smaller cities are dying, shops are closing and shopping centers are growing, and one of the reasons is because shopping centers have an elaborate organization to take care of the common issues, but the private sector along the high streets does not.

Dreamhamar in Hamar, Norway

Dreamhamar in Hamar, Norway

Public Engagement

Ola: Maybe that is the missing layer. Talking about collaborative processes, there are also other aspects lacking in Scandinavia and that is public engagement. It comes back to relying on the public sector to initiate change and then react to it. “Public Engagement” is a buzz word in cities, but I do not think cities have found the right tool for doing this.

It is difficult to engage people through online surveys and traditional consultation processes. I think we are lacking the right tools to engage the public, and I think we can learn and promote some of our experience from New York, for example.

Ewa: Engaging people in 1:1 scale pilots can be very effective, because people can evaluate what they experience and provide feedback on how to make the pilots better. They are not limited by the fear of change. It is not only about getting people to say what they do and do not like, but about being included.

The most interesting thing about the pilot projects in New York is the Plaza Program, where non-governmental organizations can apply to get one of these public space transformations in their neighborhood. The city says “we give this to you but only if you ask for it”. They turn the process around, to “yes in my backyard” instead of “not in my backyard”. The community needs to be engaged and this is a much better foundation for change.

Ola: Including China in this discussion is difficult because the situation and culture are so radically different, both in scale and speed of development. In addition, it is hard to talk about public and private since they are intertwined. It is a completely different world and hard to compare to Scandinavia.

Maybe one thing that is interesting and inspiring in this context, is how Chinese people have other traditions of using public spaces. Chinese people are good at “claiming” space. If the right conditions are present, public spaces can become great group meeting grounds for enjoying dancing, exercise, etc. They have these traditions, maybe especially the older generation, of  spending time in the park, etc. where they use and benefit from the public space.

Ewa: In the Scandinavian context we need a much stronger citizen engagement as well as private (organizations and businesses, etc.) engagement, to be able to transform our city and create these lively cities we talk about. We cannot rely on municipalities to do it for us.

We need to take responsibilities of our cities and learn that we make it happen together.

Parascopes - "imagine potential futures" in Malmö City

Parascopes – “imagine potential futures” in Malmö City

As the conversation ended, I was left with ideas for development in a Scandinavian context but also a renewed view on sharing and learning from each other on a global scale. The different processes of attaining development in cities, highlights not only cultural differences, but also provides examples of collaborations between public and private sectors that Scandinavia could learn from. Also that there seems to be a common factor of engagement that is essential for a project to flourish.

So the final question when considering cities in Scandinavia remains – are we too content to improve?

The will to change seems to be present and with this in mind the potential of re-establishing our approach to development; with collaboration and engagement as essentials which provide possibilities in Scandinavian cities; where the advantages of small-scale are a benefit for cities to work as a laboratory for engaging both public and private interests in urban development. The small city has many possibilities in Scandinavia, because they might be better at creating synergy between different actors in their city due to their need to evolve.

Here are some examples of how Scandinavian cities have started the process of engaging citizens as a means to contribute to the development of their city.

Hamar, Norway – A city that with interesting citizen engagement projects and is one of four pilot cities for a Norwegian BID project as well as working with public life and public space quality.

Dreamhamar, a collective dream to redesign the city center of Hamar.

Hamar Municipality, Buromsplan (report by Gehl Architects).

Malmö, Sweden – A city that actively uses different dialogue tools to engage citizens and evolve
the city.

Parascopes: Imagine potential futures in Malmö City.

New trial pedestrian street in central Malmö.

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A sense of urgency and a need for simplicity

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In early February, Jan Gehl and I went to Washington DC and New York City to present How to Study Public Life and engage in a conversation and debate about how to create cities for people. It was evident from our varying types of public engagements that there is a sense of urgency to create cities for people in the US. There is also the need to acquire simple tools that enable politicians, planners and others engaged in making livable cities a reality – not only a reality for the few or those living downtown – but for all in the city centers as well as in the boroughs and suburbs.

In How to Study Public Life, we outline the field of ‘public life studies’– with many representatives from the US, such as Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte, Peter Bosselmann. This story has not been written before, and we have often been puzzled by how few people work within this field. The weeklong visit underlined many engaging conversations,  the need to address climate issues, questions of equity, health issues, livability, an aging population and many other challenges where the urban – the cities – are key to finding solutions.

It is not only ‘cities’ which see that they have to work with the issues, foundations, developers, NGO’s and many others are also engaged in solving these complex issues which are in  desperate need of intelligent solutions. A part of the answers could be found by asking more qualified questions and learning more about what it is that actually works and doesn’t work in cities – not only in terms of function and intention, but on a daily basis, to bring quality into people’s lives and address the big challenges in society.

From complex to simple

In the 1960’s, Jane Jacobs raised fundamental questions about what kind of cities we want, there seems to be an urge to go from the complex to the simpler. The field of public life studies started with epicenters in Berkeley, California, New York City and Copenhagen, to systematize knowledge on the interaction between form and life and ask basic questions about who, when, where, etc. The tools are more complex today, with more possibilities/techniques, but there is at the same time a demand for the simpler tool to gather what can be really complex: life in cities.

How to Study Public Life is a book that presents tools and stories which are meant to inspire people to look at and experience the city themselves, not only in quantitative ways, but to really understand the essence of the living city. What works, what does not? What kind of city do we want? If the answer is a livable city for everybody, we should go out and document if ‘everybody’ is already there, or who is missing? Children? The elderly? How about activities on a Tuesday morning, a Sunday afternoon, a dark night? And then use the knowledge we already have as well as new knowledge on these topics so it does not just become a series of hollow visions, words on paper, ideal plans with renderings of a varied life in new neighborhoods and then a deserted reality when realized.

We need to pose the right questions

Today, we are gathering more and more data and will only get even more in the future. But then the big question becomes: And then what? What do we do with the data? And in order to pose the right questions to know what data to look for and to know what answers to look for, we need an understanding of how life works.

Cities strive to be attractive, competitive, to do-good for the climate, to be safer, more sustainable, accommodate an aging population and many more challenges, but it is quite rare that we actually learn from what we build and what has already been built. It is not a matter of doing it perfectly, but to make cities better for people based on knowledge in the cross disciplinary field of public life studies which  deals with people’s behavior, the built environment and how we can make cities better for people to supplement other more technical evaluations and input.

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It Takes a Village to Create Transit Oriented Development

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HarborPoint in Baltimore. (Graphic: ASG, Baltimore)

HarborPoint in Baltimore. (Graphic: ASG, Baltimore)

Although the linkage between land use and transportation is well understood, the debate about what is cause and effect causes consternation in the land use and transportation agencies.
Therefore, a few thoughts on urban transit and what it takes to do Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

Even in cities one can find plenty of areas that are not transit supportive.Often brand-new transit stations preside over a hole in the doughnut, when sitting in an old railroad, streetcar, or highway right-of-way.  Neighborhoods grow and shrink, shopping areas shift, attractions get added or abandoned, many reasons why transit supportive urban fabric is not necessarily located where transit is or is planned to be.

Development typically follows “the market”. No market and nothing will happen regardless how much somebody would like to fill a hole in the doughnut.

Baltimore has lost much of its industry and a third of its population. It has tried every transit technology: A subway line, a cheaper light rail line, commuter trains and a spaghetti bowl of bus lines. Now a new $2.6 billion cross-town Red Line light rail is planned, downtown in a tunnel, on the surface beyond. In short, transit stations galore, many of them in doughnut holes.

Seen from the development angle stations fall into two groups, those with a market and those in disinvested areas with no or little demand for new development. Given those fundamental differences it may feel illogical to call both areas “TOD challenged”. But neither absent development nor development without consideration for transit are TOD.

Nothing will change if transit agencies declare “we do transit and not land use” and city departments hide behind the walls of their core responsibilities like housing, parks, traffic, planning and economic development. To make TOD happen, it takes all these parties to interact with each other and bust out of their own comfort zones.

In Los Angeles then Mayor Villaraigosa realized this and directed an interdepartmental TOD Subcabinet

LA TOD, Meridian Village, South Pasadena (Photo ArchPlan)

LA TOD, Meridian Village, South Pasadena
(Photo ArchPlan)

In Atlanta the Atlanta Beltline Inc. and the Beltline Partnership, both non profits, worked with a somewhat reversed priority: Trails and parks, have been created prior to transit creating value which spurred new development.

Atlanta Beltline

Atlanta Beltline

In Minneapolis/St. Paul the Central Corridor and the Green Line light rail projects received a HUD Sustainable Communities grant to leverage community benefits (article) resulting in the Corridors of Opportunity. (Video)

In the Washington suburbs a Purple Line Corridor Coalition pursues similar goals for the planned circumferential light rail line connecting various metro terminals.

One of the granddaddies of successful TOD is Arlington County, VA which has used Washington’s Metro for decades to concentrate growth around the county’s subway stations. (slide show). Which brought smart growth to the county and more riders to transit than surface parking ever could.

Clarendon, Arlington County VA, TOD with retail, offices and housing

Clarendon, Arlington County VA, TOD with retail, offices and housing

In Baltimore the state transit agency (MTA) and the city recognized the TOD challenge in a Red Line “Community Compact” for better communities. Land use improvements are required by the Federal Transit Administration for federal funding. In the spirit of these considerations the MTA conducted community based station area planning and the city created new TOD zoning. Yet, while bad regulations may prevent development, even the best regulations and visions will not make development happen. How to get from plans to actual TOD?

The Baltimore Community Compact names a few: Land banking, land disposition, public private partnerships and creative funding. Other steps would be development “freezes” (to prevent new non transit-supportive investments next to a station), facilitation with developers, and land owners to find out how they could be enticed to invest in high risk zones. This could mean scaling development so that several investors come out of the gate together instead of one early pioneer taking all the risk. It also means carefully leveraging public infrastructure investments. A mayoral TOD working group would not simply review developers submissions, but remove obstacles for investment.

Transit supportive land use is not only good transit, it  also grows the tax base and creates equity within communities, many starved for services and access to jobs. An obvious catalytic element in “market challenged” station areas would be good affordable housing.

To make catalytic projects reality, suitable development lots need to be assembled, master developers found, public private partnerships created and public assets leveraged. Assets can be land, entitlements, tax increment financing or bonds.

A proactive interagency group that goes beyond policy and regulation and focuses on implementation is needed to coordinate these steps.

Uneven markets, fear, false perceptions about transit, sentiments against density and years of auto oriented policies must be overcome, investment in the wrong places be made less attractive. In short: Each city needs the “entire village” before TOD visions can become reality.

Read the full-lenght article on the subject at Klaus Philipsen’s blog Community Architect

 

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Former Gas Station fuels Community

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Once upon a time, a city’s affluence could be measured by its transportation infrastructure: a constant flow of traffic pulsing along asphalt veins, reaching outwards from the heart of the city was an indubitable symbol of progress and prosperity. Today, this attitude is increasingly challenged. In Montréal, I have come across one of the clearest examples of contemporary skepticism towards the automobile-enthusiasm of previous decades that I have ever encountered, in the form of a Mies van der Rohe gas-station-turned-community-centre.  The gas station was transformed to its new vocation by the architects “Les Architectes FABG”, who have succeeded in turning the glass and steel-framed modern building into warm and welcoming place for the local community. While the former gas station fuelled the lives of people in four-wheeled metal confinements, the community centre bursts the bubble of individualization with a message of togetherness and shared responsibility. Though the architectural alterations to the building are subtle, they herald a significant societal change.

In 1966, world-famous architect Mies van der Rohe was commissioned to build the gas station in a relatively unknown Montreal suburb, and for forty years the station faithfully served automotive commuters. The building was both architecturally and substantively a luxurious expression of modernism – a temple dedicated to the two gods of modernity: technology and consumerism.  The era came to an end in 2008 when commercial operation ceased, and the station was closed. In 2009, the building was recognized as an icon of urbanization and given heritage status by the city of Montréal. The conversion was then carried out by FABG, and in 2012 the gas station reopened as a community centre running on collectivity and green energy.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Nun's Island Gas Station (1969), converted to a Community Center and reopened in 2012.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Nun’s Island Gas Station (1969), converted to a Community Center and reopened in 2012.

Today, cars galore are still passing the former gas station, but their rhythm is interrupted; the station fuels a different style of life. Situated on the corner of a busy intersection, the transparency of the glass facades mocks the passing drivers with clear views of the people gathering in the station. Inside the glass volumes, the banter of seniors engaged in an animated round of pool, mix with the voices of teenagers standing around a foosball table. The former sales station is now the “youth lounge” and on the opposite side of the pumping island the car-service has turned into a seniors-lounge.  The project’s success in honoring both the original building and the demands of its new vocation lies in the sensitivity of the discrete transformation. It is the silence of the change that leaves room for the community’s voice. The warmth radiating from the people inside the glass and steel station inspires visions of a world, where all the worn car-pledged marvels from our parents’ generation have become green community centres; a fresh response to our hectic and individualized society.

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The rise of the suburbs: What will become the future of city-living in Christchurch?

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By Julia Suh Architect ? Urban Strategist, Australia

In a suburb called Ilam, only 5 minutes’ drive away from the “red zone” in the earthquake-struck city of Christchurch, lives and works Richard Gardiner, a retired high school design teacher. His one-and-a-half-storey bungalow, built in 1927, was relatively unaffected by the earthquake. “We are very fortunate,” he said and took a moment to reflect before continuing. “We had no major structural damage to the house apart from the chimney. The day after the earthquake I climbed onto the roof to take down the remaining bits of chimney. A silly idea I realised afterwards, with all the relentless aftershocks!” he said. Gardiner set up his architectural model making business Scaled Down not long before the earthquake shattered the city on 22 February 2011. The disastrous event unexpectedly turned what began as a personal hobby into a full-time career. “I would say 75% of the commissions are from ordinary people wanting to keep something to remind themselves of their destroyed houses, and more importantly, the memories they built in them,” Gardiner said. With the opportunity for renewal also comes the tension of how much of our past we should hold onto.

Almost 3 years after the catastrophic day, standing in the midst of vast gravel fields of the Central Business District (CBD) where office buildings, hotels and restaurants once stood, I certainly have difficulty picturing what the city, my hometown since 1994, used to look like. As a high schooler in the mid-nineties, my usual hangouts were limited to friends’ houses, suburban malls and numerous neighbourhood parks, while taking the bus to “the city”, “the (Cathedral) Square” or “Hoyts on Moorehouse Ave” was a special and almost rebellious action. Not that there was anything particularly exciting in the CBD, but at least it was a good place to watch tourists with large cameras hanging from their necks, see who is winning the Giant Chess game and, sometimes, hear the Wizard speak nonsense – or the truth – from the top of a wooden ladder. At the end of the day, after what seemed like the longest 20 minutes of wait, I would be glad to be on the bus back to the comfort and safety of my suburban home.

When I turned 16, I had a weekend job in a souvenir store on Colombo Street. A short segment of Colombo Street to the south of the Cathedral Square was lined with restaurants and shops then, mainly serving foreign tourists, and in turn activating the otherwise quiet CBD. In the following decade, I would frequently visit my hometown from Auckland, New York or Sydney, and enjoy its slow-paced suburban life as well as urban renewal projects in the CBD: the Christchurch Tram reappeared after 41 years of absence, as a tourist attraction; the City Mall underwent significant facade and landscape upgrades to become more pedestrianised; public buses became better organised at a central bus interchange; and a new NZ$47.5M art gallery became a welcome addition to the arts precinct. All of them are now partly or completely closed due to post-earthquake repair works.

Skeleton of the Christchurch Cathedral remains for now

Skeleton of the Christchurch Cathedral remains for now

The site of former City Mall is cleared for new developments.

The site of former City Mall is cleared for new developments.

Some vacant lots have been turned into parking lots. They largely remain empty

Some vacant lots have been turned into parking lots. They largely remain empty

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament awaits future demolition or restoration. In the meantime shipping containers support its edges.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament awaits future demolition or restoration. In the meantime shipping containers support its edges

Now constant road works and the lack of amenities in the CBD are driving businesses to relocate to or start new in the suburbs, begging a question that needs to be asked: what characteristics do we intend our suburbs to have? While suburban malls like the Westfield in Riccarton have been busy around the clock with the loss of CBD, earthquake-displaced boutique stores were left with no place to go for a while. A recent redevelopment of a former tannery site in Woolston, rightfully called The Tannery, is already proving to be a success. The 1.8-hectare site is to house 70 tenants when completed, including a pilates studio, an art gallery, bars and shops. “No corporates. We only accept boutique retailers. Keep things nice and local,” Bruce, a project manager of The Tannery, said.

Julie, a manager at a home store called Cosi Fan Tutte, likes being able to stay close to her neighbourhood. “The earthquake changed everything from the way we shop and work, to the way we socialise. To be honest, I hardly used to spend much time in the CBD before the earthquake, apart from picking up a few things from Ballantynes (department store). And now, I never go there. The roads are bad, and there are more stores popping up in my neighbourhood. I shop here, work here, live here and socialise in friends’ homes. There is a stronger sense of community than before but I do miss live music – there aren’t that many places to go for entertainment,” Julie said.

Hornby, one of the damage-free suburbs, is also booming. Mitre 10, a giant hardware store, set up a mega store there following the earthquake. Next door, other big boxes selling things like curtains, paint and bikes followed suit. (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has wonderful mapping of rebuilding efforts including the current status of demolition/building works, population change, and “anchor projects” in the CBD.)

However, this unique opportunity to recast a vision for Christchurch must not look at the suburbs and CBD in isolation. Evan Smith, a community organiser of CanCERN (Canterbury Communities’ Earthquake Recovery Network), argues the city must be built upon “village values”. In the first instance the phrase scares me (and also reminds me of Howard’s diagram of The Three Magnets, where he advocates values of Town-Country). A city is not a collection of suburbs, it is not a village or a town. A city must aspire to innovation, culture, education, creative arts: it must be a hub that fosters congregation of people in an organised and accidental manner. I appreciate “Village values” interpreted as self-organising communities that help each other at times of needs or as a set of more independent infrastructure systems. I also don’t see the suburb as the devil in urban development – some folks like my parents enjoy living in their suburban house of 20 years with a large vegetable patch, two cars, and kind neighbours. However, the City of Christchurch must not go back to its past that had two separate entities: the CBD for working and suburbs for living.

While the city presents an ambitious vision for a new CBD with various specialties from Retail Precinct to Health Precinct, it is not clear, without residential or mixed use mapping, how these precincts will accommodate and foster vibrant city living. Cafes, restaurants and bars alone do not make public spaces vibrant; people do. The city centre needs to be a place for living, not just for working or socialising. In contrast to suburbs that can take on distinct, excluding characteristics over time, Christchurch Central Development is an opportunity for more diverse, walkable, mixed communities in the city centre. One that I hope, will encourage my parents to try out city-living as they reach their 70’s.

World Buskers' Festival takes place on the site of Re:START, CBD's transitional pedestrian mall.

World Buskers’ Festival takes place on the site of Re:START, CBD’s transitional pedestrian mall.

RAD Bikes is one of many community-led initiatives to activate the city centre. Everyone is welcome to use the workshop or seek help from a volunteer on duty to repair bikes.

RAD Bikes is one of many community-led initiatives to activate the city centre. Everyone is welcome to use the workshop or seek help from a volunteer on duty to repair bikes.

New bike lanes are encouraging residents to cycle more. The network is still far from complete, but it is a start. Check out the network map on Transport for Christchurch

New bike lanes are encouraging residents to cycle more. The network is still far from complete, but it is a start. Check out the network map on Transport for Christchurch

Read more on Julia Suh’s observations on city-living at her urban research blog Urbia.

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Tokyo – Small Scale in Mega City

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Six years ago, Gehl Architects traveled to Tokyo on a study trip. Throughout the many planned site visits, meetings and collaborative sessions, we managed to meet Darko Radovic, who recently joined our ‘team of specialists’ – our external collaborators who bring ‘specialist’ knowledge to our projects. Darko is founder of Co+Labo at KEIO University, where David Sim, Partner at Gehl Architects, has been a guest lecturer for the last 3 years.

Students mapping 'life' in Tokyo

Students mapping ‘life’ in Tokyo

In the spring of 2013 David collaborated with students from Co+Labo to observe and map ‘life’ in the streets of Tokyo. As a result of this collaboration, a new publication from Co+Labo at KEIO University is in the pipeline, the fifth book in the series called “Measuring the Non-Measurable”. The “Measuring the Non-Measurable” topic encompasses seminars and publications which highlight the methods of putting numbers to, and understanding what livable (and loveable) cities contain, while determining key qualities of best practice human centered urban environments. In book number 3, “Intensities in Ten Cities” David also contributed an essay entitled “Notes on Nyhavn – 34 Observations”.

Yesterday I had the chance to sit down with David to talk about the collaboration with Co+Labo. We talked about the Tokyo experience and what we can learn from this fascinating city and how we can further inspire each other to continue developing better cities for people. Here are some of the essentials from the conversation, which highlighted the importance of focusing on details and the necessity for the human scale in mega cities.

Capturing City Life

Gehl Architects has a tradition and methodology for capturing city life, and these methods have been transformed and developed since they were first introduced by Jan Gehl in the 1960’s. Different contexts and cities influence the evolution of the methodology and how it is applied. For example, the city of Tokyo provides, through its careful attention to detail, culture, and small-scale experiences, inspiration for how we capture and measure the broader picture of city life. This awareness to details and small-scale situations fits perfectly  with the Gehl methodology of listening and looking to evolve an understanding of city ‘life’, and therefore serves as an inspiration, and points to a possible evolution of our methods.

Small-scale situations in a big city

When you visit Tokyo you are immediately struck by the scale, size and intimacy of the things and environments around you. You come to understand that a big place can actually have a human scale, a combination, which we can learn from as our cities urbanize at a quicker and quicker pace.

City 'life' in Tokyo

City ‘life’ in Tokyo

The human scale can be introduced when you connect the physical environment to the people and businesses using them, for example in Tokyo where small design shops and creative businesses are reusing basements, former apartments, etc. over the expanse of neighbourhoods. This is a tendency which is the opposite from the symptom of gathering a cluster of shops in one place, as we see in large scale malls. Acknowledging that this can be part of the urban fabric, an urban environment with an emotional appeal as well as a functional and physical one, offers an interesting way to introduce the human scale into a highly urbanized environment.

There are many ‘life’ situations that you can never recreated in malls or high-streets. The experience of personal encounters between people is a value for city life that has been overlooked in the functional and effective evolution of western cities. Thereby, Tokyo’s small scale offers us some insight and inspiration on how to introduce the small scale in big cities.

Scale in Tokyo

Tokyo is a mega city and there is a paradox in its attention to the small. Although the growth in Asia is increasingly rapid, Asia has an incredible tradition for detail and small scale interactions which offers many opportunities for creating new developments that apply best practice knowledge of planning and designing for the human scale.

Human-scale in Tokyo

Human-scale in Tokyo

The Japanese tradition for sophisticated and detail oriented design and behavior resonates with an attention to the human scale in city development. Japan has  an interesting focus on quality, highly developed and sophisticated design, combined with a tradition of smallness and human scale, a focus that might help us as we develop mega cities around the world.

Inspired by the experience in Japan, our tools, for determining and developing city life, have potential to evolve for and in an Asian context, and could add to the global experience of inspiring for small-scale development in cities around the world.

Have a listen, to another thought about the  Tokyo, where children and families benefit from the human scale in their everyday life. From The Urbanist broadcast from Monocle (Tokyo Story starts 23 min into the program)

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Brussels – a city of cars, Amsterdam – a city of cyclists

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2014-01-22_brussels1

In September, I moved to Brussels for my studies. Before arriving I knew little about the Belgian (and de-facto European) capital besides what I learned when I visited in 2010 and what I heard from friends:  tasty waffles and fries, a strange statue of a boy peeing, two official languages and a good system of trams. I had been told it often rains and each time I told someone my Master’s program involves studying in four European cities, unequivocally Brussels prompted the least enthusiastic response.

It turns out that Brussels is an incredibly interesting city – the politics, the culture, the diversity and its interesting past make it great material for learning about cities. It is also a liveable kind of city; with everything an urbanite needs (although public transportation could be better: all transit ends by midnight during the week). However, there is one major problem:  the car culture.

The thing that hands down surprised me the most about Brussels is the number of cars and the sheer place devoted to automobiles in the city. Cycling in Brussels is challenging for several reasons (the hills, the cobblestone), not least the cars.  In fact, Brussels is arguably the most congested city in Europe.

This surprised me not only because of the stereotypes I had about European cities being from North America, but also because during my internship at the Montreal Urban Ecology Center last year we would often cite the progressive highway code in Belgium, which (it would seem) gives priority to the most vulnerable road users (pedestrians first and then cyclists). However, after five months in Brussels, it seems that at least in this Belgian city the code is not fully embraced – or enforced.

First, pedestrians are not given priority. At crosswalks they often they wait for cars to stop and often the cars do not. Distance between crosswalks exacerbates the problem as pedestrians choose to cut across to avoid long detours. In 2009, there were 88 deaths for every 1 million inhabitants in Belgium (compared to 43 in the Netherlands) and Brussels has the most traffic accidents of Belgium with 1000 accidents per million vehicle kilometers driven in 2010, in comparison to less than 500 in both Gent and Liège (CEESE – ULB et Transport & Mobility Leuven 2009).

The Atomium in Brussels

The Atomium in Brussels

Second, there are cars everywhere, even under the Atomium, which is something like the Eiffel Tower of Belgium. There are many parking lots in Brussels, including large lots in front of the town halls. Finally, there are even cars in the parks. One of the largest parks, Bois de la Cambre, is cross-crossed by roads, with few pedestrian crosswalks, forcing pedestrians to cross traffic to continue walking, running or cycling (although the roads at closed Friday to Sunday in the summer months).

In comparison, Amsterdam is a cyclists’ paradise. This came as no surprise, Amsterdam is known to be one of the most cyclable cities. However, I felt it all the more after living in Brussels.  Amsterdam is smaller and flatter than Brussels, which makes walking and cycling easier and more enjoyable, especially along the canals which give a romantic feeling to the city (Brussels also has a canal, but it remains largely industrial). The bicycle paths are extensive, connected and separated from traffic. Cyclists have priority, even over pedestrians it seems, as many times I had to stop to allow cyclists to pass as I walked in the centre.

Cycling in Amsterdam

Cycling in Amsterdam

In the four days I was walking around Amsterdam I only heard a car honk once, while in Brussels drivers honk habitually. In Brussels you must plan your trip by bicycle ahead of time to avoid congested roads and steep inclines, but in Amsterdam even as a tourist I was able to manoeuvre the city with little difficulty though it is true that pedestrians must be wary of oncoming bicycle traffic. I was even able to cycle outside the city, explore residential areas and make my way back to the centre thanks to a system signage along the bicycle path network.

The level of car usage and congestion is a problem for Brussels. So much that recently the mayor of Brussels commune, which is the city centre of the Brussels Capital Region, has talked about decreasing cars from the city centre, namely from Anspach, a large boulevard. The Netherlands do not have significantly less cars than Belgium (449 per 1000 inhabitants versus 471 in Belgium), yet car usage is visibly lower in the Netherlands. While there are challenges to shifting mode choice in Brussels – a car culture, a sprawling urban population, and a challenging topography – the city should move towards a less car-dependent model, as the current state of congestion, stressed drivers and vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists resembles more an American city than a city that wishes to be capital of Europe.

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‘SkyCycle’ in London

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Image by Exterior Architecture, Foster + Partners and Space Syntax

Image by Exterior Architecture, Foster + Partners and Space Syntax

IN CONVERSATION – Just before, we entered into the new year, Foster + Partners, Exterior Architecture, and Space Syntax presented their spectacular, and maybe utopian, project SkyCycle.

A project, which would provide over 220 kilometres of safe, car free cycle routes on elevated decks above the existing suburban rail corridors of London. For details of the project visit Foster+Partners website.

It’s not a wonder that this radical suggestion for improving cycling in London has been proposed in the wake of recent tragic cycling accidents in London, and the media attention this has evoked.

The challenge of improving cycling in London was already a hot topic in the Gehl office, so it did not take long before the SkyCycle project sparked a conversation between three of the Gehl partners; Kristian Villadsen, Henriette Vamberg, and Jeff Risom. (Please note that we do not know all of the details related to the SkyCycle project, but would love to know more!).

Here is a peek into the conversation between the three…

The ´Skycycle´ project

Kristian: SkyCycle can been seen as a conversation starter for discussing the topic of cycling in London. Visualizations can be a great way to motivate a discussion as long as they don’t elude people into thinking it’s simple solutions, putting bicycles up in the air isn’t going to solve all conflicts, they are bound to come down at some point and then how do they fit in to the cities network, we need  integrated thinking.

Jeff: In short, I think it is part of a trend of Architects visualizing bold ideas and perhaps exaggerated ideas to start a discussion.  It is great that other major architecture firms help to put focus on bicycling as a part of a sustainable, healthy and economical beneficial model for cities

Henriette: I do not think you should put it off as a crazy idea, because the idea should be understood in its context. Overall bicycles in cities can be used in two ways; The short convenient ride, or the longer commuting ride, the SkyCycle project presents a way of using the railway corridors for efficient commuting by bicycle, going to the city center and then continuing via the cycle lanes, it demonstrate an interesting view on how to commute. Providing people with long tracks for longer and faster transport, and creating an alternative to the daily train ride.

Jeff: It is interesting, but bicyclists are not train riders, and this solution is built on an assumption of what users want when commuting 25 km a day. As opposed to train riders, we have to give bicyclists choice to stop simultaneously, alter their route and interact with their surroundings in another way then you do moving by train.

Henriette: Trains, are overcrowded and break down. This opportunity to cycle provides another possibility that is independent of anything other than you.

Commuting on bicycles?

Kristian: The city of Copenhagen has seen that the willingness of users to commute long distances on bicycles is growing every year, when you make these super quality routes. What is important is that these super cycle highways are a complementary solution, and not a sole solution to the cycling infrastructure of a city. An integrated network into a city, where the flexibility of designing your route every day from your bicycle is still possible. You can diversify your route to incorporate your shopping, visiting the library, or pick up the kids. If you are up on a segregated highway, you are not offered the conveniences that characterize the bicycle ride.

Henriette: In London you have a number of big train stations in the periphery of the city, and it is interesting that a lot of these corridors link the suburb to the city center. I see the SkyCycle network as a possible complement for commuters.

Kristian: But it could be a heavy investment to create this segregated bicycle network.

Henriette: Well not compared to developing the overburdened railway line. The smart thing about using the existing railway corridors in London is that they are continuous, where bicyclists can ride undisturbed by red lights. It is interesting since there are journeys that you just want to use to get from point A to B, a completely different thing than riding your bicycle in a city centre. Important to understand it in that context.

Kristian: There are three aspects related to the height. First, the height itself might exclude children and elderly and people with poor health conditions, simply by being too steep and these are really the groups that needs bicycles to go around. Second, it does seem a little out of the way to put the mode of traffic most influenced by weather conditions up in the air where winds are stronger and there is no protection from climate… they actually end up protecting the trains. Third, of course there is also a safety aspect, when you are up in the air you don’t have the same level of passive surveillance from people in windows and if you meet someone you don’t want to meet, how do you get away if the nearest exit is a mile away, you can’t really jump off…

Cycling in London 2014

Henriette: London has a rising bicycling population, as we know from Andrew Gilligan, Cycling Commissioner for London that accidents are actually going down, there have been a lot of unfortunate accidents.

Kristian: There are lot of other measure you can take other than segregation, when you are aiming for a safe bicycle infrastructure. We had a lot of right turn accidents in Copenhagen, but then a campaign was made and the right turn accidents were radically reduced. It is also about building a culture, not just infrastructure and street. More bicyclists will in themselves generate awareness because car drivers will start to expect cyclists. Still only 2% of people are traveling by bicycle in London, and they still need to get used to the consequences of incorporating cyclist into the city landscape. There are other ways to incorporate cyclists into the city infrastructure without putting them up in the air.

Jeff: It is about creating a joined-up mobility network, with many choices and comfortable, safe viable options where it is possible to go from bicycle to public transport easily and …

Henriette: There is a difference between commuting and city bicycling, the challenge is to integrate the commuting with the bicycling street infrastructure in the city.

Kristian: Another solution is the Green Wave, as in Copenhagen. Where the lights are matched to the bicycles through sensors that will register the speed on the bicycle lanes and adjust the lights. This is not about insisting on being very analog; it is about being smart about using new technologies and ideas for supporting an integrated network.

Jeff: My biggest concern would be a project that invests in mono-functional infrastructure. In 2014, given limited funding and material resources of today, we have to find ways to design and build the next generation of infrastructure that satisfies numerous problems and demands simultaneously. Could investments like this that would be good for cyclists also aid in distributed district heating, trash collection, material recycling,  or work together with regional production and distribution networks to make the ‘last mile’ of supply distribution more efficient.  Or we have to find smart ways to utilize disused infrastructure to satisfy current demands. Could dedicated bicycle tracks run along disused rail corridors?

As the conversation came to an end it was clear, that there is probably not a golden solution to the challenging task of creating a bicycling infrastructure in London. The thing that struck me as the main consideration after hearing the three partners, is their repeated efforts to bring the attention back to the users and their varying needs in the city. What do you think?

On a side note, here is a different type of cycle project in Hamburg that you might enjoy.

And an interesting piece of background to the latest media focus on dangerous bicycling in London.

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