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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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The presence of both men and women in public spaces are good indications of spaces with a high level of sense of security, and for this reason we at Gehl Architects also do gender mappings as part of our PSPL’s. But perhaps we need to sharpen our understanding of how – not only men and women but also boys and girls use and perceive the public spaces differently? Surely ‘girls’ are by no means a homogenous group and it may not – despite all good intentions – be possible to create ‘public spaces for all’ as is often stated in vision documents, but an increased awareness of the issues at stake seems to be an important place to start.

Vienna has since the early 1990’s worked consciously and strategically with the implementation of a gender mainstreaming programan initiative which has led to an increased focus on the many different needs related to public spaces (Read more here) . Some would (rightly) argue that it would be a shame to start creating spaces for either men or women, but to see ‘defining needs as a continuous process’ doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

For inspiration I invite you to take a look at the website created by Mira and Camille based on their impressions from a tour looking for ‘urban worlds’ in Copenhagen.

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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.

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

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.

A sign declaring, “Please Don’t Touch” sits in front of an indestructible 12 meter tall steel sculpture in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Oblivious to the warnings, kids run up to play on the massive red steel structure until, inevitably, someone points to the sign instructing them not to touch the artwork.

This sign, and other familiar signs such as “Please Don’t Walk on the Grass” characterize a common understanding of the urban landscape and its features as something to visually admire from a distance rather than interact with. While play and physical interaction with our surroundings is an intuitive social behavior, playful uses of the urban landscape and its features are often regarded as an illegitimate use of city space.

Over the last five months, I have had the opportunity to travel from my hometown of Seattle for an internship at Gehl’s office in Copenhagen. In the projects that Gehl does, and in a number of public spaces and buildings I have visited in Scandinavia, I’ve seen ways in which designers, artists and city inhabitants are challenging this traditional view of urban space as something to be passively observed from a distance.

mg_0160The undulating deck of the Maritime Youth Center located in Amager Strand in Copenhagen invites rolling, climbing and exploration of the sloped surfaces.

Kalvebod BryggeA financial plaza at the SBC bank headquarters in Copenhagen is designed for many users, including skaters who find new challenges on a series of sloping concrete ramps.

tumblr_ma6y0v6vKr1rapwr0o1_500A trampoline along Copenhagen´s waterfront invites many users to test their own limits, as well as spectators to watch.

Image Credit: Jan Kronvold, "Robert Jacobsen Sculpture, Odense"

A sculpture by Robert Jacobsen in Denmark doubles as a fun place to hang out.  (Image Credit: Jan Kronvold, “Robert Jacobsen Sculpture, Odense”).

These are a few examples that show that play does not need to be limited to spaces designated as such, but many features of the urban landscape can be designed and thought of as playscapes.

peopleincitiesThe winter season is upon us in the northern hemisphere and in Scandinavia that means few hours of daylight, low temperatures and less people spending time outdoors in our cities and public spaces. But the darkness and the cold also bring possibilities. In cities all over Scandinavia the ‘Winter City’ is being celebrated with beautiful lighting and outdoor activities that invite people to enjoy city life and the changing seasons.

Here are some examples of winter-time activities and ‘spaces for people’ in cities…

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Children of all ages sledding in the snow on a slope in the park. Ørstedsparken, Copenhagen.

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Ice on the lakes in Copenhagen invites for curling. Curious spectators line-up to watch the game.

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The frozen lakes of Copenhagen invite for various activities. Combined with the wind, which is well known to Copenhageners, ‘blokarting’ is possible.

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A spot in the sun to enjoy the view, and a rest in the daily bicycle commute. Copenhagen.

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Even in the winter most people in Copenhagen prefer to commute to and from their daily activities on their bicycle.

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A Christmas market in central Copenhagen attracts people.

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Winter barbecue in Vinterparken in Östersund in Sweden.

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Building a snowcastle brings together children of all ages and adds a new building to the city, framing a new public space and meeting spot. Östersund, Sweden.

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Deckchairs form a great spot in the sun for people watching. Östersund, Sweden.

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Night-time ice skating framed by historical buildings and beautiful lighting. Kongens Nytorv, Copenhagen.

Does your city lack opportunities for spending time outdoors in the winter? Or is your city already a great ‘Winter City’ that can serve as inspiration for other cities?

We hope that this served as inspiration for your ‘Winter City’ or has inspired you to share how your city stays active through the winter months.

Enjoy the season!

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Brownfield-to-greenfield conversions offer many challenges for planners and architects – but how these become embedded in the social fabric of a community is a completely different story.

The story of this Toronto Halloween tradition is also the story of how a seemingly trivial decision on City vehicles’ parking allocation spurred the creation of a popular local park, and how events grow organically from the strong sense of community the park evokes.

In the early 1990’ies, the residents of Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood objected strongly to the City’s decision of allocating overnight parking for its garbage trucks to a local site previously used as a garage for city busses. The area was in dire need of green space and the community therefore proposed building a park ‘on top’ of the concrete pad of the parking lot. Created from a very limited budget but on extensive community volunteering and support, Sorauren Park was inaugurated in 1995 for the enjoyment of the many residents of this West Toronto neighbourhood.

Despite its small size, Sorauren Park sports two five-a-sides soccer fields, two tennis courts, a dog off-leash area, and a baseball diamond. The baseball diamond is surrounded by a swale which also functions to manage surface water run-off and doubles as an ice skating rink in the winter. The park is wonderfully landscaped, a gravelled footpath runs along the edges of the park has benches donated by individuals and local businesses alike, and there’s water posts for people as well their four-legged companions.

A small fieldhouse is a great setting for community events which spans from a weekly farmer’s market and yoga classes to private birthday parties and the monthly meetings for the park’s ‘friends of’ community group, called the Wabash Building Society.

The park is extremely popular with residents of all ages and draws scores of visitors from neighbouring areas too. People meet and chat and socialise while their dogs run loose in the off-leash area or their kids play Little League baseball. Friendships are formed, information is shared. Others play tennis, while others still sit on one of the benches reading or watching the spectacle going on in the park. And there’s always something going on! Not only did the residents of Roncesvalles initiate and realize the creation of this park, they continuously support and invigorate its ‘life’ by using and reinventing uses in the park. One of such ‘new’ uses of the park is the annual Sorauren Park Pumpkin Parade.

In 2007, Colleen Kennedy, a local resident, took the initiative to suggest doing a display in the park of the neighbourhood’s jack-o-lanterns on the evening after Halloween. The event was an instant success and the park was adorned by some 120 pumpkin lanterns on the first year of the parade.

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Since then, the Sorauren Park Pumpkin Parade has become a much-loved annual tradition and the number of pumpkins has increased many fold – this year almost 2000 pumpkins are expected to be displayed in the park. The parade attracts thousands of visitors from all over Toronto and has inspired other communities to initiate their own pumpkin parade in their local park or street.

The parade is so popular and attracts so much attention that it has almost become “a pumpkin carvers convention” as one local observer puts it. ‘Old fashioned’ jack-o-lanterns sit next to ones almost overly artistic as well as pumpkins carved with political statements.

Despite its popularity, the Sorauren Park Pumpkin Parade has remained true to its original idea of being about neighbourhood kinship and artistic and personal expression – there are no hotdog vendors or concession stands, and there are no competitions or prizes to be won. The only commercial enterprise being the pre-Halloween pumpkin sale at the Fieldhouse which helps raise funds for the Wabash Building Society’s (the park’s ‘friends of’ group) efforts to acquire the adjacent derelict factory building and convert it to a community centre.

Another appealing feature of the citywide pumpkin parades are that – in recognition of their popularity – the City of Toronto collect the pumpkins, which amass to many tonnes, and make sure these are composted correctly. So the pumpkin parades of Toronto are organic events in more sense than one; people coalescing unprompted to create a community event displaying their Halloween pumpkins, and at the same time strengthening the social fabric of the neighbourhood, while the City has responded reasonably sympathetically to ensure that the ‘organic matter’ of the event stays part of the natural cycle. It’s almost frighteningly perfect…!

Happy Halloween to all!

All pumpkin parade photos courtesy of Hamish Grant.

These days we are burning the midnight oil in order to finalise an analytical report about the capital of Norway: Oslo. This particular report has been on its way for about a year, but the Oslo/Gehl relationship was established 26 years ago when Jan Gehl, in collaboration with Karin Bergdahl, made the first Gehl’ish-survey of Oslo for the Norwegian Institute of City Development (IN’BY). In the true spirit of the office, the 2013 report builds upon the same clear principles of observation, as were applied in 1987; there are pedestrian counts and well-documented observational studies of stationary activities from both a weekday (Tuesday) and a weekend (Saturday). The data-collection and comparative ability of the data is crucial. Yet, as the footman that has to type-in, organise and keep track of these numbers, I would like to register a personal note of observation: It seems that the complexity of city-analysis has increased more than six-fold from 1987 to 2013.

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Graphics showing how the study area has expanded since 1987.

In 1987 when Jan Gehl and Karin Bergdahl collected data, they had – quite ingeniously – chosen 8 primary locations for their survey. We chose 55. They also limited themselves to span 1½ seasons. We chose 3. They registered pedestrians and stationary activities. We added age/gender registrations on top of that. You might be thinking that this is a great improvement of the survey. I think that it is an insane amount of numbers to collect; 9.425 rows of figures in excel to be exact. I counted them…thrice.

The reasons for this expansion of the survey area lies partly in the expansion of the city itself, but also largely in the changing attitudes towards city boundaries. Today, the old city centre of Oslo only has 900 inhabitants, compared to 8400 in Copenhagen and 3100 in Stockholm (source: Gehl internal data).  Therefore, the city centre is dependent on the inhabitants of the surrounding areas, from where it draws its life. Figuratively, the city centre can be seen as the heart of Oslo, and in order to figure out the well-being of this ‘organ’ it is necessary to check the flows through all the veins that feed into it – hence the expanded survey.

At Gehl Architects, we still rely largely on being in the field. The Oslo report has had almost 100 helpers on the streets to collect data from the 55 locations, on Tuesdays and Saturdays throughout 3 seasons. Could we have digitalised the process? Yes and no. Because, although some counts could be digitalised, a computer is still not able to give us clues as to why the daily rhythms appear in the way that they do, on our data charts. When a count drops from 3000 pedestrians per hour at 3pm, to 100 pedestrians per hour at 4pm, the note from the observer stating that “A crazy rainfall left the streets bare” is essential to understanding the numbers. A digitised count would have left us to wonder about the dramatic change. A computer does not have the ability to register street-artists, kids playing, adults chatting, dogs being walked, gardens being tended, jugglers being cheered  by the shopping crowds or crows being fed by elderly ladies. Or any other wonderful, crazy and energetic activity that makes a city lively and lovely!

Once the data has been collected and organised it does create an amazing insight into the life of the city – throughout the days, the weeks and the seasons. The extensive survey is an endless goldmine to understanding the city’s rhythms. We need this understanding in order to deliver qualified recommendations for improving livability. Even if I have to go cross-eyed over 9.425 numbers for a couple of weeks.

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By John Bela
Co-founder of Rebar and creator of Park(ing) Day

 

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Parking Day in Copenhagen

This year was the eighth annual celebration of Park(ing) Day, a global event where people take over parking spaces and turn them into temporary parks. Park(ing) Day was started by Rebar Group in San Francisco in 2005 as a guerrilla art intervention.

Quite by coincidence, I found myself in Copenhagen during Park(ing) Day, taking part in a month long designer-in-residency at Gehl Architects. I borrowed a cargo bike for the day from my friends at N55 and set out to see how the world’s most livable city would engage in the event.

First stop was in Valby at a Park(ing) Day installation set up by Dorte Grastrup-Hansen at Mellemtoften 1, close to Valby Station.

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Dorte and friends had set up a nice, tiny, social space and were serving coffee and dream cake to passers-by, while a colleague was doing air quality and noise monitoring, using the park to demonstrate the need for calmer streets and more green spaces in the area.

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We were paid a visit by the Copenhagen environmental and engineering Mayor Ayfal Baykal. Ayfal and I had a great conversation about the City’s goal to increase bike ridership.

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Next stop was across the city to Nordre Frihavnsgade where a group of folks were sharing coffee and beers in a Park(ing) space. We chatted and hung out for a while and were given a great laser cut wooden plaque that says “one less driver” to attach to our Moble XYZ cargo bike.

Apparently there was also a Park(ing) installation set up right in our neighborhood on Flintholm Allé, which we somehow missed. This space was created by the Creative Roots group. See the Parking Day Copenhagen facebook page for more photos and info on this year’s event.

It’s been wonderful to see the growth and evolution of Park(ing) Day from a guerrilla art event into a global movement that engages everyday people in the process of transforming the city. You don’t have to be an architect or a planner to participate in Park(ing) Day although many do. It’s also been gratifying to witness the change in thinking that has occurred in city governments and within the private development community whom now engage in temporary projects, interim use, and pilot projects to kick start the process of remaking the city while cultivating life and activity in the commons.

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In San Francisco, Park(ing) Day has been eclipsed by the Parklet Program, an initiative led by the SF Planning Department which created a permit process to enable people to semi-permanently transform a parking space in front of their home or business into a tiny public park. And this is just one example from around the globe of an emerging synthesis between strategic and tactical actors, top down planning and grassroots actions, all of whom share a vision for a more livable, resilient and socially just cities.

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My wife Denise and I created a minimal but mobile park for the Park(ing) Day Copenhagen event and so we pedaled over towards the ‘Stork Fountain’ to catch some rays of afternoon sun and celebrate the 8th annual parking day, an incredible month in Copenhagen, and a fantastic time in collaboration with the smart, energetic folks at Gehl Architects.

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On Friday the 30th of August ‘the Wave’ opened in Copenhagen harbour designed by Klar and JDS Architects in colaboration. Critically for us, it has begun to enliven the Western side of the harbour in a way many never thought possible. Enough so, that anyone there around 8am on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday last week may have found a small group of Gehl staff swimming (incuding on one occasion John Bela of Park(ing) Day fame). We were also there on Saturday for a few shots in the sun. Even in Copenhagen, we can swim in the harbour in September if the invitation is right. Enjoy!

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We were whispering. We were trying to be very quiet. But every few minutes, one of them would explode. It was very dark in the courtyard. Stine was out on the scaffolding, untangling ribbons and trying to lash together a bundle of balloons. I heard someone speak very quietly. I saw a couple sitting on the next balcony over, watching the stunt. I climbed out over the balcony and onto the scaffolding too, so that I could help Stine tie the ribbons. Looking down into the dark courtyard, I could see Jordan looking back up at us from four storeys below. The idea was that when Jordan had his end, we would tie anohter ribbon to the center of the bundle, and cast the thing out into the courtyard. Together, Stine and Jordan worked the tension on the lines back and forth in a silent conversation. In this way, the balloons could be hung at nearly any spot in the volume of the empty courtyard. We started unraveling more and more ribbon so we could pass it down to Jordan, who would climb the stairs in the scaffolding and tie off his side. But the spindel slipped out of my hands and soon clattered on the ground. There was a collective groan and some calls. We realized that people had gathered on their balconies below, and we had a small invisible audience. Here, and we thought we were alone! People arrived in the morning, entering the office from the street. They sat down at their desk and noticed that there was a large balloon taped to their computer. Confused, they looked around and realized that each person's desk had a balloon. Sensing motion, they looked out into the courtyard and saw the balloons floating and sinking in their bundles. At that point, nearly everyone said something to the effect of, "What's with all the balloons?" Mission completed, Tuesday August 13, 2013

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