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Born in Copenhagen, Helle Søholt is the Founding Partner and CEO of Gehl, an Urban Research and Design Consultancy that focuses on the relationship between the built environment and people’s quality of life. Founded in 2000 with Professor Jan Gehl, the agency is considered a pioneer of the field. Through Helle’s leadership, strategic and organizational talent, the company has developed a knowledge base and experience portfolio that is respected internationally in the field of urban design and urban development. Since its establishment, Gehl has been awarded multiple prizes and recognition for its contribution to making cities more livable and sustainable around the world.
“Planning is not just physical, it’s also about supporting people to fulfill their dreams and meet their needs.”
Helle, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Can you introduce us to Gehl and to your work?
Gehl is a global practice working with many cities and cultures. Despite many countries’ growing middle class and higher living standards, we can still see a growing divide between people, which is understandably frustrating to people.
In our work, we have seen that the inherent value of public spaces is something that isn’t always visible to decision makers, but it is something that we strive to make visible. When I look back at my own childhood in Copenhagen, I can see how public spaces, the feeling of safety and the ability to explore these public spaces impacted my own understanding of the city. Good public spaces and public life have the ability to connect people with each other. This is something that we don’t really need numbers and data on, because it is so clear, but while it is visible to me individually — at a societal level the value of public life must be made explicit.
A public realm that improves a city’s public life has an impact on social democracy and social connections between people. My experience as a child in the city and its influence on my work within Gehl is ultimately what drives my desire to bring people together and engage them in solving complex urban issues.
“Cities are made of life and the interaction of lives, and the exchange between people is what a city ultimately is.”
What are the most important aspects of architecture and urban planning that makes our cities more livable and sustainable?
In a couple of words: human scale! You can identify a human scale city through how buildings land in a friendly way at ground level.
A human scale city maximizes the potential of public life and the life between buildings. A human scale city supports people who use slow modes of transportation, such as people walking to public transportation, a quality microclimate which enables people to spend more time outside, and an urban form that supports social connections.
Through a dense urban form and a high diversity of home sizes and building types — some that are new and some that are old — we can also have a high diversity of people and the potential to improve social sustainability.
How important is the dimension of sustainability in your work?
In a recent collaboration in Shanghai, Gehl is considering sustainability and the compact human scale form in new ways as we are using water as an important social connector as well as a tool for improving environmental challenges. What we are doing is creating urban design elements that deploy a natural water filtration process. This water filtration method is creating an environmental impact by cleaning water, while also improving the local biodiversity. This is also meeting the needs of a varied group of residents and visitors by creating new public recreational spaces.
I understand that you are working on both aspects of architecture and social science. You conduct a lot of observations before you begin to work on the technical aspect of the work, just like social science researchers do. Why is this so important for you? What’s the connection between social science and architecture?
Gehl has a wide range of disciplines represented in our practice outside of technical and architectural designers, such as cultural analysts, anthropologists, as well as social scientists. This diversity of skills and expertise is important because the architecture itself isn’t always what is most important, it is what it enables.
We believe that architecture needs to respond to the needs of people — and not the other way around. And while we must understand the needs of people, not everyone is able to express their own needs. Therefore, we have developed over a long period of time, methodology for observing behavior to better understand people and their needs. This is inherent in family structures, work culture, how people interact — we need to understand the local context around people’s needs in all aspects of their lives in order to design the form around them.
In 2013 for instance, Gehl conceptualized a series of pilot projects in São Paulo, Brazil, after an extensive series of surveys, public meetings and workshops. In two urban squares downtown, there was a lack of use, almost no one stayed in these plazas using them merely to pass through, and the streets surrounding them were unsafe to cross as a pedestrian, despite there being a University adjacent. After the analysis and public hearing process, interventions were made through urban improvements and new programming. After the pilots were installed, we found that the number of pedestrians passing between the two squares went up by 230%. We also found that 237% more people were spending time and staying. The squares are now filled with everyday life that they had been missing previously.
Why is the human dimension so important when planning cities? How does it change people’s life concretely?
Cities are made of life and the interaction of lives, and the exchange between people is what a city ultimately is. For a city to be well functioning, we must understand how the city allows people to meet and interact. By building a well-functioning city, we are by virtue creating a city that is also sustainable environmentally as well as economically and socially. A sprawled city is unlikely to inspire collaboration, while a compact city in a human dimension is likely to use less energy and spend less on natural resources. It is difficult to always focus on environmental sustainability, but if you focus on the human dimension first, you will naturally achieve the environmental goals.
It is important to understand that an urban area really is about the people and the meeting of difference, in order to plan for it. Planning is not just physical, it’s also about supporting people to fulfill their dreams and meet their needs.
What’s the first thing a city can do today to improve its citizens’ lives?
Public spaces! They are relatively inexpensive, they raise people’s quality of life, they can help people live healthier lives by inviting people to use different public elements. Public spaces increase physical activity, but they also improve social relations and mental health. In comparison to building rail lines, buildings, and big infrastructure projects, the basic infrastructure of public spaces will allow people to connect in their communities. Public spaces are tools for building social resilience and social connection, which is fundamental to solving other issues.
Do you think things are beginning to change in the way we think and plan our cities? And how?
When we started Gehl in 2000, no one was talking about people in cities or the importance of public life. There was rather a lot of focus on the economy. But there was a turning point with the financial crisis in 2009. City leaders then started to talk about how it wasn’t all about the economy but that maybe people were important too. Within the last seven or eight years, we have seen a tremendous change. Today, cities around the world have become more and more connected through various networks. Cities are now able to share solutions, and there is an exponential growth like we have never seen before. Movements have a new momentum building because there are so many new challenges to tackle, such as population growth and urbanization.
One city we have been excited to see embracing people-centered planning and design is Moscow. We began working with Moscow many years ago, and since our first Public Space Public Life surveys in the city, huge transformations have taken place. The city was defined by car congestion and inaccessibility, and today based on Gehl’s recommendations, they have created a new wayfinding system throughout the city, a riverside highway was turned into a riverfront recreational space, and many streets are now performing as pedestrian spaces with attention to the pedestrian’s experience. These improvements are a showcase of how a city can change focus to put quality of life first.
You’re based in Copenhagen, New York, and San Francisco. What makes these three cities a great laboratory for you?
For many architecture companies, growth is located where signature projects are located. But for Gehl, we are a networked organization. 90% of our work comes through our network. When we evaluate where we want to be present, we look at the city and how it can be a laboratory, and also evaluate our relationship with local influencers, city leaders, and those who we will be working with.
Each city offers something very different culturally, but also in the urban issues and solutions being utilized. All three cities are examples of cities that are using public spaces as a strategic tool for change. Copenhagen has been a pioneering city since the ’60s, but New York City and San Francisco have also been improving their public spaces and putting people first in their planning processes for around 15 years already.
They each have exciting experiments and tactile projects within their cities. However, each of these three cities go beyond public space. They are tackling issues of sea level rise and affordability in ways that are very unique and important.
What are the most important lessons or conclusions you have drawn during your years of experience?
I’ve learned that cities are not built based on one single person’s vision, but by great leadership, and a great collaboration between the public and private sector. It takes a huge focus on change, engagement and participation, and ultimately how to change on a cultural level. I’ve also found that we need to focus on the long term and solving wicked problems while being focused on the here and now. One path to this is through experimenting, piloting and testing solutions to make change visible and concrete to people.
It also comes down to very clear communication. We are always striving to communicate better. What does it mean to think people-first or to have a mission for making cities for people? It is an ongoing conversation. When we communicate something through our work, we are focused on engaging people on different levels and across departments, and communicating through writing, illustrations, presentations, and reports, in an effort to meet most people where they are and through what they have a good understanding of.
What are the next big projects on your plate?
Two projects through Gehl that I am focused on in 2018 are both looking at using data and indicators in smarter ways. At Gehl, the Danish Chamber of Industry have selected us to join a process extending over two years to explore the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as a framework for helping our clients achieve those goals and make a greater impact. We are primarily focused on SDG 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), as well as SDG 17 (Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development) utilizing new kinds of partnerships and collaboration to reach beyond planning, design, impact implementation and systemic change.
We are also working with a Public Life Data Protocol developed with Gehl Institute and the three partner cities Copenhagen, San Francisco and Seattle that was launched in 2017. This is an exciting step, and we are focused on sharing this protocol with as many cities in our network as possible. We firmly believe that what is measured means something. If more cities monitor public life in their cities, we can really make it count.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Gehl aspires to be leading change in urban planning through a network of partners and collaborators. We feel that the time is now, and that there is a global urgency for a people-first approach to planning and to improve people’s everyday lives in cities.
Interview by The Beam Editor-in-Chief Anne-Sophie Garrigou.
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