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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.

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HarborPoint in Baltimore. (Graphic: ASG, Baltimore)

Klaus

By Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, Baltimore USA.
President ArchPlan, Architect, urban designer, writer.
Blog: Community Architect with weekly articles about urban issues and architecture.

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 (Report)

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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.

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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.

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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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By Julia Suh
Architect ǀ Urban Strategist, Australia

Julia_SuhIn 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.

Skeletons of the Christchurch Cathedral remain 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.

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

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.

On November 28th, Mayor Martine Aubry publicly announced a team led by Gehl Architects as the winners of an international competition for the ‘Saint-So’ neighbourhood of Lille, France. The team will have responsibility for the urban design of this new district, formerly a train yard. The 23hectare site will become a new neighbourhood of 2000 residences and will include shops, cultural and sports facilities. Our team was one of four shortlisted teams from 70 applicants, and we are honored to be chosen to stitch a new piece of fabric in this city that so critically connects Europe.

The team is comprised of our representative in France, urbaniste Claire Schorter, and in Lille architects Béal et Blankaert, Mageo, Artelia and tribu; and landscape architects Signes-Ouest.

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Helle Søholt, CEO & Founding Partner of Gehl Architects, reflects on winning the international competition for the ‘Saint-So’ neighbourhood of Lille, France.

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A piece of city

In September, when we were finishing our entry for the Lille – Saint Sauveur masterplan competition in France, I had a dream …

In this dream, I did not see shiny tall buildings and stand-alone architecture. I saw the new district from the air, quiet and at night. All the streets and spaces were beautifully illuminated illustrating a network of lively streets and spaces that continued into the city center and surrounding neighborhoods.

When you see our proposed development framework for the Lille – Saint-Sauveur site, you will note that it has small urban blocks that enable development at a human scale, combining big urban infrastructure and legible spaces with a fine grain urban form. So where is the big idea, some might ask …

What I have described above, is our “big idea”:
To build a piece of the city that connects to Lille – to build a piece of future Lille.

Our team is passionate about what we do.
Gehl Architects does not take a traditional building approach to urban development.
We believe in a knowledge driven process, shared intelligence and great team work.

We are grateful to win this competition. We believe the qualities and goals described in the project – a sustainable, livable and people oriented place, are a perfect match with what we can deliver as an organization.

The types of cities that work with us show great leadership and have a remarkably simple focus in common: They want their cities to be especially kind to people. They have come to realize that people are the key to success in cities today!

And they are ready to work in new ways through a new process.

I started Gehl Architects together with Professor Jan Gehl in 2000, and today we represent a new generation of urbanists and a great team with the ambition to change the traditional planning paradigm and build ‘Cities for People’.

We are already advisors to some of the greatest and most innovative municipalities around the world. Winning this project in Lille enables us to take a next step as an organization. We will now also manage the design development and implementation of these ideas in a lead position with Lille. A city which offers a unique location in central Europe and a great tradition of courageous leaders and great decision makers. Thank you for this opportunity and congratulations to the team!

The Idea

David Sim, Creative Director and Partner talks about the winning proposal.

“First of all just working in Lille was a very enjoyable experience in itself. Lille is a beautiful city with a fascinating historic core  – very much at the human scale – as well as being a dynamic city which has been at been at the forefront of urban innovation for the last couple of decades. Everyone has heard of Euralille and the infrastructural investments which have put Lille at the very heart of Europe – an hour from Paris, an hour from London and half an hour from Brussels.

The Saint Sauveur site is an exciting challenge. As so often with big pieces of railway infrastructure, the site divided the city and there was an opportunity to connect four very different parts of Lille to each other – we just had to work from the outside in and from the inside out, talking to each part of the surroundings in their own urban language and then bring each of these places and identities together into a great public space at the heart of the site for everyone to share.”  - David Sim.

Pilot project in Calle Güemes – Phase 1

The first round of pilot project implementations has been carried out in Mar del Plata by the Municipality, and is ready for the busy summer season! The pilot projects have come to life in a close working relationship between Gehl Architects, the Municipality, the citizens and local business owners as well as through numerous surveys and registrations on site in the city – see Urban Interventions in Mar del Plata by Ola Gustafsson for more information and background story.

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Calle Güemes March 2013

The pilot project is the first of three and is situated in the busy shopping and leisure street of Calle Güemes. As a first step towards changing the street layout, one block has been implemented in order to test the solution before extending it to eight more blocks. Testing the pilot in one block allows the municipality to measure the effect of the changes and to make possible adjustments before carrying out the rest of the pilot projects. As part of the test period of one month, follow up surveys and interviews are being carried out in the street.

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Calle Güemes November 2013 (image courtesy of Municipality of Mar del Plata)

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Calle Güemes November 2013 (image courtesy of Municipality of Mar del Plata)

The pilot project consists of; improved pedestrian crossings in the intersections with enhanced corner spaces also holding bicycle parking, seating and shade; better space for pedestrian movement along the street – space that has been located by allocating the outdoor serving along the street to a series of small parklets along the sidewalk, freeing the sidewalk space from chairs and tables; parklets that are located along the sidewalk and holds both spaces for outdoor serving as well as public seating areas with chairs and tables, benches and urban lounges, umbrellas that provide shade and planters to green the street and to create a safe zone between the parklets and the vehicular lanes. Bicycle and motorcycle parking has been integrated in the parklet zone that also holds spots for car parking.Image

The local team has been working very hard on getting to this stage of the process and we are super exited to see that citizens of all ages have already taken the interventions into use.

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Calle Güemes November 2013 (image courtesy of Municipality of Mar del Plata)

Click to see interview with Santiago Bonafatti, Head of Department, Municipality of Mar del Plata

A kind of blend of place-making and place-based leaning, the first Living Innovation Zone (LIZ) called ‘Whispering Dishes’ launched on Tuesday, October 26th along Market Street in San Francisco. LIZ’s are a new type of public space tailored to the unique context of Market Street of wide sidewalks, but a lack of invitations for public life together with an active community interested in culture and innovation. This LIZ is a collaboration between the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, SF Planning Department, The Exploratorium, Yerba Buena Community Benefit District and Gehl Architects.

Our role has been to help in developing the concept for LIZ as part of the Better Market Street project. The ‘Whispering Dishes’ space is the first of ten spaces that Gehl has identified along Market Street, which will be designed and built in partnership between the Mayors Office and interested private sector partners.

We have worked with the Exploratorium and Yerba Buena Community Benefit District to develop the design parameters and success criteria for LIZ in general and will collaborate with the Exploratorium to evaluate the impact of the intervention on the social life of the street. This feedback and knowledge will then be applied to the next nine LIZ’s which will be rolled-out in the coming months and years.

A few days ago, we received a nice email about the results!

Hello GEHL Architects,

I was walking down Market Street, San Francisco, this morning, and Wow! I came upon your new art installation. How fun it is, how refreshing –  thank you. I sat on all the benches, and the two little seats. And I pedaled, that’s the best part of all.

Best,
Mary 

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“Whispering Dishes” features two 8-foot-tall dishes facing each other on the sidewalk 50 feet apart. Sound is focused in such a way that two people whispering across the 50-foot distance will be able to hear each other even with surrounding street noise.

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Read more here:

SF Gate
SF Examiner
San Francisco Sentinel
ABC News Radio

When Janette Sadik Khan and Amanda Burden visited CPH back in 2007, they were impressed with the overall vibe of the city as well as some of the practical design details. They were inspired by the diversity of public life, the quantity of cyclists, and quality of streets and spaces as well as by smart designs, like allowing parallel parked cars along streets to form a protective barrier for cyclists (aka Copenhagen Style bike tracks).  At that time, we emphasized again and again that as wonderful as Copenhagen seemed on that visit, it took 40 years of hard work by countless city leaders, advocacy groups, and citizens to get it to that state. They replied that it was fine that Copenhagen had 40 years to get it right but that they only had 600 days until the end of the 2nd Bloomberg term!

A park in Park Avenue: Renewing the green tradition

Park Avenue: Renewing the green tradition

As the Bloomberg Administration winds down (The mayoral elections on November 5th will select Bloomberg’s successor to take over on Jan. 1 2014), one of the final acts of the administration is to rezone East Midtown to incentivize new investment and development. Although the area includes Grand Central Terminal, Park Avenue and numerous cultural icons, they are difficult to enjoy, as sidewalks are narrow and congested, public spaces are uninviting and public life is mono-functional comprised mostly of business lunches. The district seems to be better suited to the lifestyle of the Mad Men era, than of the dynamic urban culture of 2013. Together with Jonathan Rose Companies and Skanska, we created a vision for the district’s public realm, addressing issues from the large to the small scale. Our plan to re-engage with cultural and architectural icons, to re-imagine the streets and public spaces and to get the details right block by block was unveiled by Deputy Mayor Steel at the MAS Summit last week. The project is a result of an inclusive process engaging hundreds of citizens and stakeholders through a series of public workshops and in collaboration with numerous city agencies and City Hall. The initial response has been overwhelmingly positive, see more at: www.crainsnewyork.com or www.untappedcities.com

Grand Central Balcony

Vanderbilt Plaza: A great outdoor public space for Grand Central.

Vanderbilt Balcony

The balcony: Bringing public space to an entirely new level.

By coincidence we also launched the NY premier of the Human Scale, which explores the efforts of people around the world, who have been inspired by Jan Gehl and Gehl Architects to make their cities better for people. The film touches on numerous subjects looming large for the next Mayor of New York such as health, income inequality, social justice as well as climate change and resilience. Regardless of who is elected we urge him to remember the human scale in all plans and policy, from the grand plans for East Midtown, Penn Station, and Hudson Yards to the small, such as parklets, bike lanes and neighborhood plazas. To paraphrase Jan’s closing monologue in the film, it is surprisingly affordable and simple to be good to people that live in cities. We can achieve win-wins of economic growth and sustainable development if we prioritize the needs of people and focus on ensuring access for all to amenities and services so vital to quality of life in Cities. Imagine what NYC could achieve with constant dedication and focus on being ‘sweet to people’ for 40 years!

 Read the full plan here.

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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