Tag Archives: Livability

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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Helle Søholt participated at the London Assembly Committee Meeting (Planning coverage) January 15 and her contribution really got the attention of the members. Alex Csicsek, Planning Researcher at London Assembly Labour Group, commented to Helle that “the members really perked up” when she made her presentation.

Building Design’s coverage of the meeting focuses on Helle’s thoughts on densification, in terms of compactness. She pointed out to the assembly that architects and urban planners are in a paradigm shift at the moment, trying to figure out which type of physical form actually supports people and enhances livability. She called for more research into this topic and more focus from government and city agencies. Helle further stated that it is about “managing incremental change. That’s the model for change my company is advising cities on — not fixed masterplans”.

Helle Søholt said densification was the key — not necessarily height but compactness — and cited Barcelona as one of Europe’s densest and yet most popular cities. “It doesn’t mean the public spaces are cramped and dark: the spaces between the buildings are very nice and have a human scale,” she said and further commented, “Spain might not be a great economic model at the moment but Barcelona’s compactness and liveliness are absolutely admirable.”

Read it here at Building Design Online (you may have to register, which is free, to read the article).

ImagePhoto from New Road, in Brighton UK, where Gehl Architects have an implemented streetscape project.


In 2011, The Economist named Melbourne  the world’s most liveable city. In many circles this was celebrated as the culmination of two and a half decades of investment in the quality of Melbourne’s centre – particularly the amenity provided in the public realm. But this is not a fair reflection of the reality. The Australian and Canadian Cities that consistently top The Economist’s liveability indexes do so in large part due to their suburban densities, the very suburbs that are the focus of increasing criticism on environmental and public health grounds. The rural/urban dichotomy does not adequately describe the modern city.  As we edit our cities to prepare them for the 21st century, the last thing we should be doing is glossing over the form, the fabric that generates the differences, for comparison’s sake.

There are in fact two Melbournes: Greater Melbourne and the City of Melbourne. Greater Melbourne is the full extent of the Melbourne Metropolitan Region with a built-up area of around 2,152 km² and a population over 3.4 million. It can take two hours to drive across. This region is what The Economist bases its liveability survey on. The City of Melbourne is a small municipality within Greater Melbourne with a population of 100,000 in an area of just 37.6 km². It is the commercial hub of the region and can be cycled across in 30 minutes. The City of Melbourne has been celebrated for innovative urban design while Greater Melbourne has been criticised for suburban sprawl. 73% of residents of Greater Melbourne live in detached, single-family dwellings compared to 77% who live in apartments in the City of Melbourne. In this way, two distinct patterns of habitation are described by the same moniker: Melbourne.

The trumpets have sounded and the critics have heralded mankind’s passage into an age of cities, with more than 50% of the world’s population now ‘urban’. Indeed, The London School of Economics has declared the beginning of the Urban Age. But is it too soon? Or as Malu Byrne in the NYT suggests, is it too late, and the young creative class is fleeing cities in search of affordability. In Melbourne’s case, is it right to label a predominantly suburban agglomeration (defined by a flexible administrative boundary) a city? Or is it the case, in fact, that we need a better definition of what constitutes a city, particularly when we discuss quality of life, sustainability and health in relation to urban form?

Suburban densities of the kind found in Greater Melbourne (1,567 ppl/km²) and many western cities are the subject of intensifying criticism for their environmental impact, exposure to increasing oil prices, congestion and over-representation in lifestyle disease statistics. These statistics are often embedded in an administrative boundary that describes both suburban and urban conditions, just as The Economist’s quality of life data is. The endemic lack of articulation has resulted in situations such as people leaving cities to pursue a ‘healthy lifestyle’ in the suburbs – when studies have shown they should do the opposite. Likewise, when we say the majority of the world’s carbon emissions come from cities this is misleading – they come from the suburbs (of cities).

A better definition

What if we took the rural/urban definition and added a third category: suburban. In Australia it may work like this: According to The Economist, 89.1% of Australians lived in urban areas in 2011. But if we include 2006 Australian Census Data for housing typology a different picture emerges:

11% of Australians lived in rural houses (rural)

67% of Australians lived in detached houses (suburban).

22% of Australians lived in apartments and attached houses (urban )

Australia is not in an Urban Age, nor is most of the Western world, and most of the cities that top the quality of life indices (Vienna is a notable exception worthy of further study) – the same cities that have some of the highest per capita carbon emissions and obesity rates in the world. We have declared globally that it is the beginning of the ‘Urban Age’, romanticizing humanity’s migration towards the cause and panacea of its problems: the city. In fact, many western cities are in a Suburban Age where large, detached, single-family homes are considered a birth-right. As liveability, health and sustainability merge, it will become increasingly evident just how suburban the world’s most liveable ‘cities’ actually are.  One of the great architectural challenges of our age will be urbanising suburbia. Another will be convincing developing countries what first world cities have experienced first-hand – that cities built for cars are less successful than those planned around pedestrians. Liveability data should be carefully studied before it is used for anything other than what it was intended: a tool for remuneration. Until we link urban form with quality of life in a more robust way it will be difficult to argue that sustainability, liveability, health, connectivity and competitiveness are one and the same – as many of us already feel to be the case. Meanwhile, we can celebrate Melbourne, the world’s most liveable suburb.

Further Reading: Urban does not necessarily mean central city, as this article by Christopher B. Leinberger of the Brookings Institute explores.

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

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


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

Last week David and I travelled to Bogotá for the second time to collaborate with the World Bank on a scoping workshop. Throughout the four-day process, we meet and worked with various secretariats, including habitat, planning and mobility on imagining the future of the ‘7a’ avenue, one of the most prominent and historic arteries of the city.

The ‘7a’ project is being lead by the Secretariat of Habitat, under the wing of their ‘Taller de la Ciudad’ or ‘City Lab’. Their aim is to revitalise parts of the city centre beginning by enhancing public life, easing movement and increasing security. The ‘Taller de la Ciudad’ has identified 15 nodes along the 7a where they plan to trial pilot projects. Later this year, they will launch an international ideas competition to help gather innovative ideas for the 15 nodes.

The ‘City Lab’ team has already begun their first pilot between the 19th and 26th streets of the ‘7a’ – cars have been re-routed and the road re-distributed to include space for pedestrians, cyclists and service vehicles. Although it is being pitched to users as a pedestrian street, it seems like the opportunity is much bigger and linked to the current mayor’s slogan – Bogotá Humana (Human Bogotá). The planned initiatives along the ‘7a’ translate into projects that are about making an already incredible and inspiring city into a place that exhilarates our senses by smartly transforming them into destinations, experiences, hubs, and magnetic centers that offer the best of city life to every citizen.

7a avenue pilot

Towards a human-centered Bogotá

Standing and observing the altered flows between the 19th and 26th we were struck by the lack of clarity and conflict between users despite the delineated spaces. There appeared to be very little natural propensity to follow the painted lanes and no alliance between pedestrians and cyclists. It left us wondering how Bogotanos can be moved towards and inspired to respond to something that is entirely new? Does this type of lane segregation and order suit the culture? It seems like an incredible opportunity for both the secretariats and the citizens to investitage city-goer behaviour and to trial innovative urban solutions.

The exponential and ambitious transformations of Bogotá, such as Transmilenio BRT program and associated ‘hardware’ restructuring projects by Enrique Peñalosa, socially experimental and unorthodox ‘software’ approach by Antanas Mockus, have yet to be surpassed in fame or efficiency by successive administrations. These projects were, in thinking and finance a product of their time. Now it seems like a new, more dispersed and open city agenda is surfacing. One in which bottom up processes of small change that inspire participation, social connection and trust are developing, needing an understanding of the inter-play between the hard, and the soft infrastructures of the city. The pilot project shows that one size doesn’t fit all and that intelligent design must come from user and cultural understanding.

Main city centre plaza

Gehl Architects have handed in our first Communication of Progress (COP) for the UN Global Compact initiative.

Launched in July 2000, the United Nations (UN) Global Compact is both a policy platform and a practical framework for companies that are committed to sustainability and responsible business practices.

Gehl Architects joined the UN Global Compact in 2008.

Read about our first COP on – The Danish Architecture Centre (in Danish only).

Chongqing visiting Copenhagen

Chongqing is one of the fastest developing cities in the world and Gehl Architects has just made a Public Life Public Space survey and a strategy for how to make the city more livable under these rapid transformations.

Director Yu Jun, Ms. Zhang Meining and Ms. Wang Mei from the City of Chongqing and Mr. Jiang Yang and Ms. Zhou YUXIAO from Energy Foundation in Beijing just spend the last days in Copenhagen working with Gehl Architects, both in workshops in the office as well as ‘on the ground’ around the city of Copenhagen. At Gehl Architects it was primarily Kristian Skovbakke Villadsen, Camilla van Deurs and Ola Gustafsson who were responsible for Chinese delegation when they were visiting.

Chongqing visiting Copenhagen

We have known about it for years, but now The Danish Federation of Cyclist together with Megafon have delieverd the proof: Cyclists are the happiest people in traffic. The amount of happiness, that cyclists associate with their mode of transportation by far surpasses that of both buspassengers, trainpassengers and car drivers.

As for anger, cyclists have the lowest feeling of anger associated with their mode of transportation, again compared to that of people choosing bus, train or private car for their transportation.

This result underlines the multiple positive benefits of cycling, that has to do with both health, sustainability, safety, livability and happiness. All that through promoting cycling and making it more attractive for more people to chose the cycle as their mode of transportation in the city.

Read more about the results of this survey here. (In Danish only).

Below excerpts from the DCF homepage.

To which extent do you associate the feeling of happiness with your choice of transportation?

To which extent do you associate the feeling of well-being with your choice of transportation?

To which extent do you associate the feeling of anger with your choice of transportation?


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