Using architecture to design shared ecosystems

The 2022 Seoul Design International Forum has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

Using architecture to design shared ecosystems 

Speaker: Jeff Risom (Chief Innovation Officer of Gehl)

Humans are linear social animals, who have great interest in each other as well as many other places. Gehl has been pursuing human-centered designs for a very long time. As we are faced with climate change and various social issues, we recognized the increasing significance of relational resilience, and that the relationships between humans, animals, nature, plants, and the environment are important. In this context, our work and approach are grounded in connectivity, kindness, courtesy, and a dignified experience for all, and examples can be found all over the world. Just as you dine or have a drink with friends on public benches and small tables to take a rest, small but generous gestures and designs for the public end up providing connectivity and kindness for all. 

If we understand the relationship between humans and the environment and recognize that nature and cities are also influenced by humans, it can be identified that the relationship between humans, the environment, and nature is a crucial factor in determining abundance. Therefore, the concept of relational resilience and design must ultimately begin from life. The soil, water, air, climate, all these what we see are life. You need to have a vision of life, and bright and bold ideas to design the space. We need to think deeply about the life we want and the physical space that supports it, before discussing the building. However, the current perception and methods of architecture tend to focus on architecture only. When designing cities and towns, people first try to figure out how the building crosses with the roads and how it will affect wind and shade. If we approach in the order of human life, space, and building in architecture, we will be able to find completely new outcomes. 


The design challenge we face is very clear. It is to precisely think about ‘how can we invite ALL life to flourish?’.  Unfortunately, as urban designers or architects, we do not have all the answers to these challenges. And even our predictions of human behavior are often unpredictable. That is why Gehl studies real human behavior for better design and strives to shape conditions for life to thrive. The members of Gehl are architects and landscape architects, as well as sociologists and anthropologists. We link ethnography to Masterplanning or social science to urban design. This multidisciplinary approach is important not only in practice but also in the way we collaborate. We have experienced different climates through several projects and accumulated rich experiences according to the city type. With offices in Copenhagen, New York, and San Francisco, Gehl always makes design decisions in each city and region based on the order of life, space, and buildings.



Place changes culture, Culture changes place 

In Copenhagen, about one-third of the population regardless of age, cycles to work and school every day. Even though the climate in the city is not very good on average, citizens ride their bikes whether it rains or snows. This is because bicycles are the fastest and easiest means of transportation in the city. This transformation began in 1962 when a city once filled with cars was pedestrianized for the first time in Europe. The change was rather radical, but at the same time spread rapidly despite the resistance, and as major roads changed to sidewalks, many spaces in the city were transformed into public spaces. The public space, which was formed around parking lots and roads, was extended to the waterfront. Since then, many citizens’ activities in the city’s waterfront public spaces changed the city’s culture. 


There are facilities such as Harbour Bath (a hand-made swimming pool made by blocking the seawater), as well as places where people can rent electric boats and kayaks. As a new public space was naturally created right next to the most expensive apartment, an expensive residential facility and public space co-exist along the waterfront. The waterfront is always full of people, and they actively use the space and enjoy water sports. The weather in Copenhagen is still the same, but the culture has changed and now people use the waterfront for more of the year including the fall and rainy winter, taking a whole new approach.

Everyday experiences shape overall quality of life

What is the most important experience in the city? Normally if you are a tourist, you may think about visiting tourist attractions like the Big Ben, the Colosseum, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Today, many people prefer to spend time with the locals and share their city experience rather than going to tourist attractions. From this perspective, a space where local residents, as well as some tourists, can spend time, in other words how to build a space for everyday life is a very interesting topic. 

Copenhagen’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is a place where beautiful buildings and natural scenery harmonize and is a tourist destination attracting 600,000 visitors every year. It is also the 10th most visited attraction in Copenhagen including both international and domestic tourists. One interesting finding when looking at the number of visitors is that even the supermarket people frequently visit in the neighborhood every day has 600,000 visitors every year. If we pay a bit more attention and apply changes to the everyday places people visit every day, we can make a big difference in people’s lives as much as building beautiful architecture like Louisiana. 


Another example of everyday space is transit stops. This bus stop located in the suburbs of Copenhagen is a place for those who wait for the bus and those who are not. The school yard is also an important everyday space. There was an extensive program to open school fields not only in Copenhagen but also across Denmark. Breaking down the school walls and using them as a meeting place for the local community on weekends or for local residents to place soccer, the design of such space is also very important. 


Systems for flourishing life operate across silos

The next pillar is systems for flourishing life operating across silos. Generally, there are several policy silos or partitions in the city’s administration. Each department is strictly separated, and they each organize the budget and annual plan separately. However, the implementation and operation of the city’s policies and the design for an affluent life cannot be overseen by a single department or institution. 

About 4 years ago, the mayor of London pursued a politically very bold policy. At that time, child obesity in the UK became a social issue, and junk food advertising was banned on the entire Transport for London network. The policy started in South London where child obesity rates were particularly high. While working on this project together, Gehl explored how other environments aside from junk food advertisement bans could help to reduce childhood obesity and further improve the health and well-being of children in the city. We interviewed teenagers aged from 12 to 14 and worked with people familiar with the community and learned something very interesting. When it comes to choosing a place to meet with friends, teens mostly went to fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s which offer both safety and shelter. 


We generally use two methods to collect data. We talk to people, interview with surveys, and install apps on people’s smartphones to have them take photos or record their lives and experiences. And observe. Using this method, we found that teenagers were spending their time primarily at bus stops and fast-food outlets were placed near almost every bus stop in South London. 



Fast food places are an extension, and a part of transit stops, and the teenagers felt comfortable in both places. The city of London’s policy to remove advertising posters at bus stops was a good approach, but due to a lack of multi-faceted thinking, the policy did not address the physical location of food places located near transit stops. After all, the proximity of bus stops to fast food places is equally, if not more important than the advertisements. This means that transport and public health must work together to address this issue to reduce childhood obesity. Through observations and questioning, we examined which places in the city center provide comfort and a multi-faceted perspective was required to think by combining various factors affecting the environment. 

Social infrastructure facilitates shared value

There are various types of infrastructure in society: soft infrastructure, ecological and physical infrastructure. Among these, let’s look at how social infrastructure provides common value. Social infrastructure refers to a library or public space, a park, a street or any publicly accessible meeting place. For example, The Copenhagen Harbour Bath presented in the previous case or ice-skating rink, these spaces provide vibrancy, interaction, and well-being. Sometimes buildings such as community centers, children’s museums, cafes, or outdoor spaces like street-front cafés where people can sit, and work are included. Social infrastructure is the core of the city’s shared values and all those who pay for the project, city investors, developers, users, stakeholders, and citizens become beneficiaries of social infrastructure. Therefore, in order to build social infrastructure, it is necessary to understand the needs and interests of all actors. 

The project that Gehl and the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability (SDSS) worked on revolved around this concept. Stanford established a sustainable climate change school embracing top students and faculty & academic staff, Silicon Valley’s neighbors and business partners, policymakers, and communities. SDSS is the first new School at Stanford in 70 years. A top goal is to ensure people visiting the campus could feel a sense of belonging. To find out what the on-campus environment means to each person, we provided 35 participants with a mobile app and asked them to film and document elements that gave them a sense of belonging or comfort as they moved around the campus. Participants captured photos, annotated images, and traced their walks to map lived experiences through records. We used AI technology to analyze the data to identify which elements on campus attracted and provided a sense of belonging or not. By identifying those elements, we were able to reflect them in the design.  


This process expands opportunities for empathy and helps to understand how people have different views on the city’s issues. This insight helps to establish solid and desirable design principles, and further expand the number of stakeholders and participants who can contribute to the SDSS.

Massive change occurs incrementally

In fact, gradual change can lead to drastic changes over time. 

16th Street in the City of Denver, Colorado, is a major thoroughfare in Denver city which has been operating relatively well after being redesigned by a famous architect in the 1960s. America’s first city bus service is operated, and 45,000 people use the 1.5km section every day, including pedestrians walking along the street. The street is well maintained as a section for transportation, yet it has problems such as a weak retail environment, homeless, and drug distribution. There has been a debate for decades on how to manage this street because the maintenance costs are quite high. 



Gehl set out to explore how this street can be changed. On a Sunday in the summer of 2014, we detoured the buses, created a car-free street, organized spaces for citizens to enjoy spare time, and set up outdoor cafés. As a result, the number of people spending time on the streets increased by 5 to 7 times, and we were able to run two more of these one-time events. The following year, another problem was raised from the detour of bus routes causing inconvenience to the citizens. In order to solve this problem, we held a “walkshop” with related stakeholders such as bus companies, real state owners, and owners of street shops who actually run the business. It was a time to experience the street together and share each other’s thoughts, and after the “walkshop” the participants presented ideas to hold a one-time event periodically along with proactive measures to reduce the inconvenience of bus passengers. 



Eventually, everyone in the city was able to gradually come up with and share new ideas and visions for this street. Based on the experience of this temporary project, a 150 million USD project to reconstruct 16th Street is now underway for completion in 2024. Ten years since Gehl’s small experimental project began, it became an ambitious project on a greater scale than originally envisioned. This is an example of how proactive collaboration and learning can ultimately lead to big investments. 

Learn by Doing

As the examples presented show, you can reduce the risk of your design process when you learn by doing and is not afraid to experiment. Making lower cost early investments to prove desirability before longer term investments is the key to the design for life. It is also important to use data and methods. Gehl uses ‘Eye Level City’ app which is one of a series of tools, and we use both digital and analog tools such as going out to the fields and having discussions. By using these methods, we can understand life experiences from various perspectives, and establish a design strategy or seek changes based on the information provided by people. It can also help you to understand the invisible and to make decisions about your life experience. 


I want to once again emphasize through today’s presentation that places shape culture, everyday experiences matter as much as iconic ones, and systems for flourishing life operate across silos. Social infrastructure can exist in different shapes and sizes, and massive change occurs incrementally and starts small. 

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