Designing cities for everyone

communities / Article

A busy intersection in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Torbjorn Larsson.

Jeff Risom, a partner at Gehl Architects and managing director of Gehl Studio, the firm’s practice in the United States, will lead Gehl Institute, an urban design nonprofit launching today.

As an American living in Denmark, working in all the geographies of the world, I am very aware of how fast urban cultures are changing and how differently cities are responding.

Cities have always had their own ever-evolving identities. For some people, it is the monuments and structures of the city that define this identity. For me it is also about the life of the city: where people spend time, the activities they engage in and the buzz or tranquillity of a place. Understanding how people behave in public spaces, testing how they respond to new forms of public space design and applying this knowledge to address global trends is the essence of the work of the new Gehl Institute. Funding from Knight Foundation will allow us to investigate the impact of robust public space and vibrant public life on how people from different socioeconomic backgrounds meet and interact—and civic engagement.

With nearly 70 percent of the world’s population projected to live in cities by 2050, and with the cost of urban life threatening to exclude younger generations, older residents, middle- and low-income workers, artists, and new residents, the need to enable cities to become platforms that facilitate participation and equal opportunity for all residents has never been greater. While some cities are booming, the total number of people living in poverty in U.S. cities is higher today than it was 40 years ago. Polarized forms of civic engagement vary from antagonistic not-in-my-backyard activism to civic apathy where voter turnout in local elections is at historic lows with on average 30 percent fewer people voting in local elections than in national ones.

Cities have always been engines for diversity, culture, equity and solidarity. From Times Square, to Tiananmen Square, to local neighborhood parks and street corners, this urban spirit expresses itself during special events and in the everyday routines of urban citizens. How can we design places that are also accessible and inviting to all citizens regardless of socioeconomic status? Can places of robust culture, integration between different people, and vibrant public life help remedy issues of inequality and civic apathy?

While we know design affects behavior, there is very little information about how the quality of public space and the vitality of public life in a city help people engage with their city, both socially and economically. Our research at Gehl Institute will facilitate both urban experiments and a people-first approach of measuring the impact on socioeconomic mixing and civic engagement in streets and public space.  

Which brings us back to public spaces ranging from Times Square to neighborhood street corners. Every city in the world holds important assets in the form of streets and public spaces. Together they comprise between a quarter to a third of the total area of most U.S. cities. The co-benefits of high-quality public space – from economics to health – have been well documented, but the way public space contributes to a robust civic commons, from social mixing to voter turnout, are not as well quantified or qualified.

Gehl Institute will promote a new discipline within the fields of urban design, architecture, planning and city governance that will address some of the most burning issues facing cities today. From CO2 emissions to income inequality, and from health to crime, we hope measuring public life can provide new insights and tools for cities to work with citizens to craft solutions, using public space design. Our vision is that this work will lead to empowered city leaders testing and measuring new ideas and to a more robust research framework that includes new methods and tools to study public life.

We will work with city governments, advocates, researchers, local consultants and citizens to foster an approach to city making that prioritizes the resource most vital to our urban future: people.

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