To Design a Better City, Consider an ‘Eye-Level’ Perspective

Cities need to ditch internal politics and a siloed approach and embrace urban planning that focuses on the needs of their residents, according to Helle Søholt, a leading urban planner who spoke at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Tuesday.

Søholt is the founding partner and CEO of Gehl, an architectural firm based in Copenhagen, New York, and San Francisco. The firm is named for its Danish founder, renowned architect Jan Gehl, who helped to pioneer urban design that focuses primarily on human needs. Gehl was also an early innovator in using data in design, through “public space/public life” surveys.

More than half of the world’s population already lives in cities, and that figure will swell to more than two-thirds by 2050, according to the United Nations. And many cities are in search of fresh solutions as they attempt to deal with population growth, transportation challenges, migration, governance, and climate change.

Søholt said it’s essential to think about human needs first before moving on to bricks and mortar.

“I don’t think it’s the design itself that matters,” she said. “I think it’s what the design actually does. It’s about the quality of life that that design enables and in our case, that quality of life is public life, how that part of life can be healthier, more inclusive more dynamic and how that enables everyone in cities live a healthier life in the future.”

Gehl has been involved in a number of innovative projects, including a transformation of Times Square in New York, which was very different before its redevelopment. “Ninety percent of the space at the time was road space,” Søholt said. “So really, there was no square on Times Square.”

The firm is also currently involved in the development of a light rail corridor in downtown Sydney, and a 45 kilometer-long pathway along the Shanghai riverfront. The firm hopes the projects will transform the two cities. Gehl is even working with Ikea to turn deserted parking lots into “people places”

Søholt said it’s remarkable what cities can do with a little leadership and some good planning. Copenhagen is a case in point.

“More than 50% of the population is now bicycling,” she said. “And that’s not because we’re a different species than anyone else in the world. It’s not because we have viking blood running in our veins, but basically because the design of the streets are compelling people to do so.”

Søholt said urban design is moving away from the transport centered approach that characterized planning in the 1950s and 60s. That’s a good thing, she said, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

“It’s about how we as human beings from an eye-level perspective, walking in the streets, we are considering all these different things and how they come together,” she said. “We don’t think about the disruption of different agencies, and what is opened by whom and so forth. But unfortunately, this is the way that the cities are managed.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.

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