«A Good City is like a Party» - Cities for People?
«Life in a city is like blood in your veins», says Helle Søholt, one of the leading urban planners and co-founder of Gehl, an architecture / urban planning firm which has grown to gain international recognition for their work in making cities for people. She believes that our cities must become more people-friendly.
I chatted to Helle Søholt about what that means for the real estate sector in Switzerland specifically and what the towns and smart cities of the future will look like.
What does smart cities and cities of the future mean consider real estate?
Residential areas best suit our cities when they deliver density in a smart way. There are many ways to deliver density, but not all cater to quality open space. At Gehl, we try to stray away from creating housing with large spaces and long distances which end up offering bad micro-climates and little public life. Rather, we promote typologies that are more human scale and closer in proximity – generating more life between the buildings. Smart cities should allow for diversity of expression and proximity, supporting planned or spontaneous meetings of people.
There is also the importance of programming activities that support community life. From XL to L to M to S, by programming the built form in the right way, we can ensure that communities that come in XL and L sizes have communal spaces between the buildings and in the courtyards, offering diverse spaces with active building frontages, adding an element of human scale in M and S sizes. In this way, we know planning can cater to social connections, allowing people to make smart decisions in their everyday life.
How do you think the people-friendly cities in Switzerland are developing?
There appears to be a big divide between the municipality and developers. Many developments lack the human scale and human touch. While many public spaces are not diverse and inclusive. This can be due to the lack of diverse built typologies or a lack of collaboration between planners and developers. There is also a need for harnessing more creativity in the public realm. The public realm is the missing piece. 25 – 35% of the city is public space, and of that 80% is streets - this is important for developers to understand. Developers are beginning to think more about what they add to the city and how they can design the public spaces around their developments. Streets are an important resource in the public realm. Developers and the planning sector need to solve this problem together, neither can do it on their own.
However, Switzerland has fantastic public transportation. Traditionally Swiss cities have had high quality public spaces and building architecture. In fact, some of the best architects have come from Switzerland!
What will the towns and smart cities of the future look like?
Future cities must rethink user involvement. Cities are most vibrant when we mix the city and bring people together to collaborate rather than dispersing them. Our vision at Gehl is to see future cities become lively places where each neighbourhood offers access to all necessary social infrastructures such as health, school facilities, and workplaces while offering a wide range of recreational and leisure opportunities. Cities should be compact, and complex. In the future, we hope to see more cities adopting strong mobility frameworks so that citizens can choose the mobility they want to use, alongside a coherent public space plan. We would also like to see that future mobility on demand offerings will support shared trips to ensure a climate resilient future for cities.
Currently challenges in cities are upward social mobility, social justice and social resilience. Future cities will allow people to make the right choices effortlessly, by giving them full access to the public realm. A smart city is an inclusive, healthy and liveable city.
What role will digitalisation play in this?
The role of technology in building smart cities is, for many, defined by the ability to collect and analyse data. At Gehl we have developed a methodology for mapping and analysing public life. This is intrinsically something that must be done by humans, however it is obvious that technology is becoming more helpful at making the process more efficient to collect, analyse and store the data. Smart Cities and their champions should aim to strengthen local infrastructures, to connect internal urban links and empower communities to shape their own neighbourhoods.
For example, mobility is increasingly smart and integrated. Technology can encourage cycling by influencing behaviour. In Copenhagen sensors are triggering a green light wave. The green light wave helps commuters get into the city faster, helping people connect their jobs and homes with more ease. Technology can also connect different modes of mobility while collecting data to help decision-makers take the right solutions. We can also measure the impact of campaigns or prototypes. From a financial perspective measuring the benefits of cycling and gathering the metrics on mobility can help us design smart communities that will eventually change mindsets and behaviour Patterns.
What would you want us at SBB Real Estate, a mobility provider and real estate company, to be aware of in this area?
It is important for anyone working in the urban sector to understand that it is not about architecture – it is about the quality of life the architecture enables! The role of developers is about making healthy and inclusive cities, which should involve the public realm at every step of the way. Developers are often focused on reducing carbon and developing the next LEED certified building – but that does not necessarily create a carbon neutral or a smart city. The environment should be designed with the same level of detail as the buildings when targeting energy consumption. By collaborating across disciplines and bringing more innovation into the building sector we will be able to find new solutions to old problems. Collaboration across private sectors, foundations, citizens and more requires a combination of visioning and patience, but this is what will help make cities smarter with a ‘people first’ approach.