New urban design institute launches to help build more livable cities

Press Release

May 6, 2015


Gehl Institute will use public-space design to propel city transformation with $1.6 million from Knight Foundation

SAN FRANCISCO—(May 6, 2015)—How can the design of public spaces create more vibrant, livable cities that are inviting to all residents? Gehl Institute, a new nonprofit which launched today, will take on this question by creating a new discipline that puts the design of public spaces at the center of city success. With $1.6 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Institute will develop new tools and methods to help cities create public spaces that encourage civic engagement and promote economic opportunity.

Related Link

"Designing cities for everyone" by Jeff Risom on Knight Blog

Gehl Institute will focus on building cities that put the needs and preferences of residents first (people-first design), by understanding and measuring their behavior in streets, parks, plazas and other public venues. It will test news ways of applying this approach in different urban contexts, so that communities can better understand what works in their unique setting. To break down barriers to participation, it will also explore how to invite people traditionally excluded from planning processes to get involved and contribute. Knight funding will support research, testing and the experimentation of these approaches in cities where the foundation invests.

Cities around the world are looking to reverse negative trends of growing economic and social inequality that too often accompany urbanization. More and more people are moving to cities. At the same time, the increasing costs of living in cities are creating barriers for existing residents, younger generations, seniors, middle- and low-income workers, artists, and new residents. As such, the need to equip cities to ensure participation and equal opportunity for all residents has never been greater.

To tackle such issues, Gehl Institute will enhance and deepen research and knowledge in people-first design. It will work to create a new field that is focused on how people use public space, who uses it and the ways in which the design of it invites or alienates people from engaging with each other and their communities.  

“Growing urbanization and the surprising lack of tools for municipal leaders means the institute is well placed and timed. We will be promoting a new discipline within the fields of urban design, architecture and city governance that will address some of the most burning issues facing cities today,” said Jeff Risom, who will lead Gehl Institute.  “There is remarkably little knowledge about how the design of public space can invite city life that promotes economic integration and civic engagement. We relish the opportunity to help fill that gap.”

“We want to discover how public spaces can be designed to invite people to engage their neighbors and their community. We want to know how this can lead to a culture of civic engagement and how it can advance economic opportunity,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives. “Gehl's long history of studying how people use public space will give city leaders and communities the tools and resources they need to foster public life.”

Gehl Institute will use Knight funding in these areas:

·       Research: Gehl will conduct studies to explore the relationship between design and the ways in which public space – and how it is created – can spark greater attachments and encourage people of different groups to interact; research results will be shared widely.

·       Learning: Gehl will lead intensive, three-day workshops with community members in five cities where Knight invests to discover news ways to create public spaces that invite more public life.

·       Experimentation: Gehl will undertake a series of small but impactful experimental projects in cities where Knight invests.

·       Evaluation: Gehl will monitor and evaluate the impact of these projects and refine them  based on their outcomes. Gehl will also build database of findings from the experiments and research.

·       Implementation: Gehl will produce a “Mayors Guide to People-First Design” and a complementary “Citizen’s Guide to Putting Public Life Back in Public Spaces” to ensure that communities have the resources they need to advance meaningful change. 

Gehl Institute will be led by Jeff Risom, an academic and practitioner of people-first urban design, a partner at Gehl Architects and managing director of Gehl Studio, the firm’s practice in the United States.

Gehl Architect’s groundbreaking work in Copenhagen is highlighted in this Livable Cities Guide produced by Knight Foundation and 8-80 Cities.

 “Core to Gehl’s approach is a belief that the best way to create great cities is to study life between buildings in an in-depth, robust way,” said Helle Lis Søholt, founding partner and CEO of Gehl Architects. “We are thrilled to continue this ambition with the creation of the institute and the possibility to integrate people-focused, place-based research with meaningful urban interventions.”

Support for Gehl Institute forms one part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to invest in in civic innovators who help cities attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of engagement. The foundation believes that designing places to achieve these goals is crucial to city success.

For more information on Gehl Institute visit

About Gehl
For forty years, Gehl has pioneered an approach to designing cities that roots creativity in in-depth understanding of how people do and can behave in the space between buildings. Its approach is manifested in projects worldwide.

Gehl Institute is a nonprofit organization promoting a new discipline within the fields of urban design, architecture, planning and city governance that will enable cities to address the most burning issues facing them today.  From CO2 emissions to income inequality, and from health to crime, we believe in measuring public life to evaluate the impact of design on these trends. This approach provides new tools for cities to more effectively work with citizens to craft solutions rooted in place and responsive to rapidly evolving urban culture.

Our vision is to enable city leaders to enact a people-first approach that prioritizes the very resource most vital to our urban future - people.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit



Mike Harris, Fishburn New York, 212-459-5738, 917-826-4204, [email protected]

Anusha Alikhan, Director of Communications, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 305-908-2677, [email protected]