It is somehow absurd to look at an auditorium full of architects and planners and see a slide declaring “It is all about people!” Did we not know that already? Apparently, this fundamental message had happily been forgotten, and we must thank Ewa Westermark, architect and partner at Gehl Architects, for bringing it up in such a clever and competent manner in her lecture in Helsinki on 16th December 2013.
Gehl Architects is a Copenhagen based urban research and design consultancy firm that was co-founded by esteemed and awarded architect Jan Gehl in 2000. Gehl is renowned especially for his many books on the quality of urban design and for his uncompromising approach towards contemporary cities. He sees them foremost as human habitats and not just as platforms for business. The wintry Monday evening in the heart of Helsinki proved that urban design still has a lot to say when it comes to the global challenges, more livable urban environments and more sustainable ways of urban living.
Ewa Westermark′s constructively critical lecture focused on the prevailing paradigm to conceive urban planning as as controllable system: people are expected to behave as predicted in the computer models. Her sad example was Ørestad, a new city district of Copenhagen, the masterplan of which is based on a prize-winning design proposal by a Finnish team Palo-Artto-Rossi-Tikka awarded in 1995. Today, despite all the good intentions and great architecture, the desolate urban scene is void of signs of life.
″We adapt our culture to the environment″, was Westermark′s principal lesson. If the environment is unattractive or if the plan and the policies do not entice to come and stay, then there is no public life. Sustainable buildings, efficient public transport, high density, high quality architecture, and high design standards are very valid criteria as such, but they do not necessarily yield to a lively and attractive place, Westermark argued. The source of everything is what people think and how people behave. The illuminating examples showed during the lecture convinced the audience about the fact that ″other people is the biggest attraction″.
Another subversive angle to the quality of the urban space comes from research. Gehl Architects are notorious for their use of carefully collected data based on participative methodology and hands-on research about the discrepancies between the quality of public space and its usage. Although we have plenty of statistics available about traffic amounts, peak hours etc., Westermark prompted the audience to question whether we measure the right things? When sustainability is at issue, data on how the pedestrians and the cyclists use urban space can be far more crucial than data on car traffic. According to Westermark, the best human habitat is based on a ″5km/hour architecture″, whereas the best environment for car traffic is designed to be moved about at the speed of 60 km/hour. Westermark′s examples showed the difference clearly: large signs, poor walking environments and the lack of details are tokens of an environment that lacks the human scale.
Westermark′s lecture proposed that, pertaining to the global challenges of health, obesity, crowding and global warming, to focus on grass-roots level may yield quicker and better results than other strategies. Here, the city of Copenhagen gave a stunning example: the city is today so well-know for the pedestrian shopping street Ströget and streams of cyclists of all age and in all weather. We tend to forget, however, that Copenhagen was not always like this. The current situation is based on deliberate political decisions made in the 1960s. This proves that a change of course is possible. We can achieve a dramatic change only if we want to.
The City of Helsinki has keenly celebrated her international achievements recently. The latest triumphs are probably the status of the World Design Capital in 2012 and claiming the top position in Monocle magazine′s Quality of Life Survey in 2011. In spite of that, the quality of urban living in Helsinki is defined by more complex matters than flexible opening hours or the amount of design hotels and trendy restaurants. As reminded by Ewa Westermark, the quality of urban life means foremost a city that is healthy, lively, safe and attractive for all. Urban quality of life entails an urban environment that is designed and planned for everyone and usable by everyone in every season.