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Memo: People-friendly planning and temporary as a strategic tool for change

Ewa Westermark is an architect and partner at Gehl Architects. The office is known for participating in public space processes around the world and its contribution in research finding new solutions utilising public space.

This posting (Part I) is a summary of the talk. Ewa Westermark´s slideshow is under this link.

Part II will comment on this post.

Ewa Westermark: People-friendly planning and temporary as a strategic tool for change

Ewa Westermark tells an anecdote how Jan Gehl, her associate and the founder of Gehl Architects, started studying the city life. When Jan Gehl met his wife Ingrid, she worked as an environmental psychologist. She called into question the heritage of modernistic movement in architecture and asked why architects don´t know more about the human side architecture - do they actually care about people at all when they create people hostile environments? The foundation of Gehl Architects’ methodologies is based on the following 40 years of research about "the relationship between the built environment and people’s quality of life". The book Life Between Buildings (first published 1971) is essential reading about urban planning and public space.

There are global challenges that the cities need to respond to, issues like health and obesity, mobility and congestion, the environment and global warming. Westermark shows a slide of Copenhagen. "The thing is that we are really good at making efficient systems and making sustainable buildings. Copenhagen is a city of efficient public transportation, it´s known for high quality architecture and quality of the design standards; it is dense and it has got sustainable buildings. But this doesn´t necessarily create lively and attractive place when you are at ground, at eye level. And it doesn´t necessarily create sustainable behaviour."

A resent study looked at some sustainable certified building - Leed being one of them. It revealed "28-35 % LEED accredited buildings exceed an uncertified building´s energy use". Westermark cites the researchers: "Designers are optimistic about the behaviour of the occupants and their acceptance of systems." People don’t behave as computer models. "Do we actually know enough about behaviour to be able to create really sustainable cities and to think sustainable behaviour?" she asks.

She calls for an equal focus on the "hardware" - all the physical aspects of the city - the buildings and the infrastructure, as on the counter issues on "software" - the culture, habits, behaviour and activities of the cities. "So, what is a good habitat for people? One thing we know that is common for all of us: we are all walking animals. We are curious and like to be stimulated. We have social and physical needs. Nowadays the science knows a lot about our brains. We need a stimulus every four seconds, otherwise we are bored and don´t feel the environment attractive. And, of course, we need other people." Westermark continues: "We have to have some environments that support slow pace 5km/h walking. A city, that stimulates our senses, that have dimensions that makes us meet other people, see other people, and hear them, an environment that invites us to walk, cycle and stay. This is the reason (shoving a slide from Stockholm, Gamla Stan) why you would spend maybe ten times more buying coffee, sitting in a quite uncomfortable place. Why do you do that? Because that is the environment where other people are!" Other people are the major attraction of the city. "We don´t really go to cities to look at the buildings, but to meet and to see other people," she says.

The opposite for a human scale environment, with its many details and possibilities for face-to-face interaction, is made for cars. This 60km/h environment lacks human scale, details and there is impossible to encounter other people. Poor pedestrian qualities make people to choose another way of moving. Westermark says: "We spend more and more time in traffic jams. The solution lies not in building more roads (the more roads - the more traffic) but designing them to be more efficient. That will increase the quality of life. Instead of measuring on vehicular traffic, have data on pedestrians and public life. Measure what are the things we care about and want to spend time with. Without knowing these we cannot design high quality environments."

Gehl´s office studied public space and public life in Copenhagen in the course of 1968, -86, -95, and 2005. Westermark says that Copenhagen "the city of cyclists" hasn´t always been known for its good public space culture. Turning some of the driving streets into pedestrian streets - changing the culture by reorienting the people - took good 40 years. The arguments against the change were that the shops would die, that the climate is wrong and that it´s not the local culture to spend time outside. The case "Strøget" has shown these arguments wrong. In fact, the study from 1968 to 1995 shows that building four times more pedestrian network builds four times more city activities. She argues: "When the streets are prioritised for pedestrians and bicyclists, the children and the elderly people become visible. It indicates that the city is safer, equal and user friendlier."

Different cities and different challenges need different approaches. While the society is changing new demands are rising. Westermark asks: "Does the physical environment respond quickly enough? Are the traditional planning tools sufficient? Is the period of master planning the city over?" The rising trend is citizen run events in the cities. The city is not seen as a ready concept but the rules and the practices can be changed according to the time, need and season. She reminds that the physical environment can be changed temporarily. In Paris, for example, the riverside of Seine was transformed into a beach by bringing masses of sand onto the boulevard. "There is power in the temporary", Westermark says. "If we don´t like it, we can take it away. Whilst she speaks, on the screen we see a medley of ad hoc monuments and spaces by Anish Kapoor (Leviathan), Kurt Perschke (RedBall Project) and Raumlabor (Space Buster). The text lines attached to the illustration say: "We can allow us to do something bold. It can create a city in constant renewal and surprise. It can create new meeting places and utilise unused potential while waiting for better times. It can be a catalyst for change or a tool for local initiatives to engage dialogue and neighbourhood activities. The temporary can allow us to test new ideas and give people a chance to experience the change in real life."

2007 Gehl Architects were hired as consultants to Dept. of Transportation (DOT) in New York. The challenge of The Pilot Project Approach was changing culture and mind set in 500 days instead of 40 years. New York faces serious competition from other Metropolitan areas in the world. Gridlocks are caused by increased development and the public transportation is at the limit of capacity. The survey the office did showed that pedestrians and vehicle passengers don´t share the public city space equally. There are twice as many people as cars, yet pedestrians are provided less than third of the space. It means that people squeeze into the small concrete islands between the driveways and to the narrow sidewalks. Few children and elderly were seen in the street environment dominated by traffic. The streets had little opportunities for pedestrians to stop and sit down. Gehl Architects made a plan that was realised along the Broadway and at Times Square 2008. The city department workers executed the plan. With the budget of 1,5 million dollars the sections of the road were closed (access was allowed but through traffic was prohibited) and the streets were claimed by paint. The colour codes marked the space for pedestrians. Adding temporary outdoor elements, such as movable tables, chairs, planters and umbrellas, also created the new public space.

What happened was that new user groups found the areas. Times Square became more accessible for tourists and brought new opportunities to experience the city also for the locals. According to the speaker, the project revealed existing treasures of the city and it stimulated micro economies and local businesses. But the arrangement was not perfect causing sometimes dangerous mix of bikers and pedestrians in the same fairways. Another downside was that the painted streets were worn out quickly and did not sustain the appealing high quality appearance for long. It was, however, a start and New York City Plaza Program was launched the same year. This time the citizens could apply the designs to the public space using the same kind of temporary toolkit as in the pilot project: paint, gravel and movable outdoor furniture supplemented by permanent solutions, such as benches, bike parking, street lightning and parking regulations. Measuring the impact on behaviour, Midtown Evaluation Report showed that the pedestrian numbers increased and the injuries decreased. The increase of stationary activities increased and the residents did shopping in the areas more often. The project did not lead to permanency yet but the feedback shows that investing in public city spaces activates both people and economy.

Prioritizing people, public life and liveability at the centre of planning generates healthier, livelier, safer, more attractive and sustainable cities, Westermark concludes.