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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.

Winter City - Open Air Neightborhood

Winter City – Open Air Neighborhood

Can the darkness and cold be a potential to create activities in the city during winter time? Often these conditions have been viewed as obstacles for activities, but a new open competition and development project focus on the winter city’s potential for activities in the public space.

Gehl Architects is a part of the jury in the Winter City competition, which is running for the next 29 days on Innosite – a platform for open innovation projects supported by Realdania and managed by the Danish Architecture Centre.

Copenhagen based Open Air Neighborhood are heading the project which also counts producers of urban inventory, a lighting firm, the Copenhagen winter festival FROST, as well as the Danish Technical University. The aim is to gain new knowledge on the conditions for activities in winter time and develop new prototypes of urban furniture to enable new forms of events and other activities.

If you have ideas for winter activities, visit Winter City at Innosite, where you can also comment on other’s ideas for the Winter City.

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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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Livable. Strategic. International.

Livable. Strategic. International.

It seems like a predictable law of physics; ­the cities with the greatest gravity in the urban universe are some of the largest. Tokyo, New York, Paris, London, and so on–these global cities are the vital nodes of the global economy, epicenters of cultural influence, and tireless contributors of world-changing ideas. A behemoth mass of life, however, is not the sole predictor of global influence. A handful of outliers–San Francisco, Zurich, Miami, and Copenhagen–prove that with smart urban planning, strategic policy, and the prerequisite embrace of internationalism, small cities can also be global.

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Danish transport minister Henrik Dam Kristensen, Danish congestion commission for Copenhagen, Flemming Borreskov CEO of REALDANIA, Futurist Uffe Palludan and Kristian Skovbakke Villadsen Associate Gehl Architects

On Monday the 1st of October the Danish transport minister Henrik Dam Kristensen opened the first conference of the Danish congestion commission for Copenhagen. Associate at Gehl Architects, Kristian Skovbakke Villadsen, was invited to give an inspirational talk and to be part of a panel discussion together with Flemming Borreskov, CEO of REALDANIA, and futurist Uffe Palludan. The message from Kristian was simple “Mobility is about people” – the strength and efficiency of our macro network  is defined by the quality of our micro network.  Linking all modes of transport to a fine grained micro network for pedestrians and bicycles, supported by high quality public spaces and mix used environments, is the key to invite people to have a choice of mobility and deal with congestion.

In the first installment of this series we discussed how data in cities can give visibility to values that were previously neglected or misunderstood. Here we will look at the city of Copenhagen and see how people- focused-data, people-first values have become embedded in the administration and institutionalised in the city over the last 40 years.  These, amongst other factors contribute to Copenhagen as one of the most liveable cities in the world (according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, and Monocle Livability indices).

The city of Copenhagen actually has a municipal department specifically for city life. In addition to the typical departments of planning, transportation and parks, the social life of the city, the human dimension of creating the conditions to encourage public life have also been allocated resources and a budget. Beginning already in the 1960s, people-first strategies began to be embedded in the governance of the city, and institutionalised at different levels. It was a movement, critically not of one individual’s political vision but a generation of politicians, planners, and citizens supported in-part, by the collected data to shape their vision by Prof Jan Gehl and Prof Lars Gemzoe.  The department now has the ambition that by 2015 80% of Copenhageners will be satisfied with the opportunities in the city to participate in public life.

This data has proved very important in the evolution of Copenhagen as a people-first city. Professor Gehl’s research has shown politicians on both sides of the aisle that careful investments in the public realm result in consistent increase in the vitality of public life. Prof Gehl and his students carried on doing these surveys of Copenhagen every 10 years, demonstrating the changes and advocating further change based on how the city was performing for people. This process of continual measuring, evaluating and creating new targets has embedded the values of a people first city at every level. A cycle account is published every two years and initially unsuccessful or unpopular projects are tested, refined and adjusted allowing the city to be courageous, to fail and learn from their mistakes.  Using these methods it is possible for all political parties to evaluate projects successes and failures from a common city for people perspective.

The culture this foments is evident in the streets and in how people engage with the city. If you wish to have an event in the city or start a business the municipality tries to help you – there’s even a special button on the website to press should you encounter any difficulties. Rather than acting in the negative as an imposing authority, the city seeks to act in ways that respond to needs with an intelligent and open attitude. Confronted with the problem of pizza boxes over-flowing out of the bins near a popular pizza restaurant along the newly renovated Søndre Boulevard, , rather than putting up signs saying ‘No Pizza Boxes!’, the city designed bins with an extra-large pizza sized slat to accommodate them.

Before and after changes made along Kompagnistræde, Copenahgen

Methods

The methods Gehl used to collect data were simply readings of the city from ‘eye-level’, which was a very important aspect of the data he generated. Rather than being another specialised data set, belonging to one silo of abstract knowledge Gehl’s research could be understood by all who lived in as well as acted on the city making it easily understandable in decision making discussion. Birgitte Svarre the co-author of the forthcoming title with Jan Gehl, How to study public life (working title), comments that ‘data that can evaluate projects can engender politicians with a qualified base from which to talk…..they can measure the success of projects and create momentum for asserted change’.

But what can we learn about this methodology and the way it has become embedded in municipality and culture of Copenhagen in light of Open Data?  As the European data forum 2012 came to a close in Copenhagen yesterday we reflected on the sheer amount of data that will be available in the coming years, both about the physical space, the hardware of the city collected by sensors but also digital fingerprints of our social behaviour, the software through social media, ecommerce and search engines. So many new opportunities are on the horizon from better informed mobility choices, to entrepreneurial opportunities in the exciting whole new sector being labelled the ‘data economy’.

However – if ‘empiricism will always confirm the status quo’ , it falls to us to make sure that as it becomes possible to measure, generate and collect more data, we have clear eyes as to what values drive the work, and whose interests it serves. We must be careful of not merely making correlations between that which is easy to compare, measuring the interaction between hardware and software of the city will continue to be difficult. And of course, we must remember to inject imagination into the political debate around city living. We want people to dare to dream, through projects such as Sustainia in Denmark- a collaborative imagining of what the sustainable future city might be. If data is the ‘raw material of the 21st century’ it will surely have a key role in its shaping, but we must be weary of a data determinism – to face the immense challenges of our urbanising world we must also be inspired.

Gehl Institute bloggers are Simon Goddard, Claire Mookerjee, Jo Posselt and Jeff Risom


Book, Spatial Culture

The book Spatial Culture is a response to the otherwise dominant visual culture. It has articles on dance in NYC, the experience of darkness on Christiania, the writings of Rem Koolhaas, the rebuilding of Dresden’s Frauenkirche and lot’s more. With Pia Rost Rasmussen, I have written an article on the plans for Ørestad, a new part of Copenhagen. It is a reading of the competition programme with the use of French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s terms. The anthology is mainly in Danish, but abstracts and image texts are in English + an introduction in English by Henrik Reeh setting the scene for spatial culture and an article by Alberto Pérez-Gómez from McGill, Canada.

If you are in town, you are welcome to the book launch at the Danish Architecture Center, 8 February 2012, 4-6 pm.

On September 15th we experienced a “method day”. Vannesa Ahuactzin, Cultural Planner at Gehl together with David Carlson, founder of Designboost, planned and facilitated the day.

The method days happens twice a year. They are a meant to bring the Gehl Office together to discuss relevant topics. This method day was about discovering ways to build a mindset of knowledge gathering and innovative practices within.

+Why is it important for office to experience a method day?

We travel a lot and work independently in many ways. This time of coming together to discuss, put our minds on a topic together for a whole day, is very valuable to the people who work at Gehl. It is about pushing the boundaries and developing new ways to gather and approach knowledge.

Beginning the day with Vannesa's beautiful illustrated ideas

+Why explore the theme of knowledge and innovation?

Knowledge is important to our business. We focus on changing knowledge to innovation. The core of the day was to understand how we can find new knowledge, how we work together and apply knowledge to our projects and thinking. Knowledge is a strange thing; it is nothing and everything, it is everywhere and nowhere. In fact it is very much here [we are talking together by the yellow table at the office library], but it doesn’t mean anything until someone uses it. What’s interesting is trying understanding that mental and practical process of changing knowledge to innovation, and by having this method day, we can go deeper into this topic.

Discussing ideas - David is as always very passionate

A group went to the café downstairs to explore and discuss their ideas

+The day was planned as a workshop – Why do you think this structure was fruitful in dealing with this specific theme?

Workshops are about bringing people together to discuss different matters or themes. The success lies in our ability to create an environment of openness that allows the participants to freely express their ideas. But it is also crucial to create a sense of expectation and to push the boundaries of what people already know. When they get tired, they get more honest. From the beginning of the day we made our expectations and gave the participant’s parameters to produce their ideas. We divided the day into smaller working groups, had two working sessions with presentations and discussions. By doing this you take the temperature of the discussion – how is it going? And it gets more dynamic and exhausting J

Gathered after workshops and putting our ideas on the boards

+What came out of it?

Lots of good ideas that we can keep pushing forward. Innovation is like a cake: You are continuously building up the layers. The method day brought a lot of the ingredients and layers, but we are still working on making the rest of the cake. Sometimes the actual answers that come out of the day – the well-worked sheets themselves – are not the most interesting output. It’s was behind them, the interpretations of the presentation, the small comments, seeing how the behavior changes. Going beyond the unexpected.

Emmy: For me the most unexpected was that innovative practices are about the workspace culture. It is about how people at the company work together and how they share their knowledge. Vannesa: It is about how children are taught to share. Are they hiding their findings from each other or are they open? Are they willing to discuss before the unfinished? If you want to be innovative, you must break the practices and change the minds by coming together and pushing the boundaries. Basically creating a culture where people take up something and change it into something new.

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