Copenhagen is the quite possibly the best city in the world to learn about livable urban design. Livable urban design is, quite literally, design that makes our urban areas livable on a human scale and not merely a space to exist in second to car transportation. Livable cities satisfy the needs of the soul, not simply the needs of the biological body.
This summer I’m taking the course, Livability of the Modern City taught by Bianca Hermansen and Sophia Schuff. With Bianca I’m learning, not just from an expert in her field, but from a key and active player within the urban design world specializing in livable cities. And in doing more research I’m discovering her direct connections to people I’ve been following for a while on social media.
This course challenges me in ways that I wasn’t entirely expecting to be challenged in. I’m finding that I don’t necessarily agree with every suggested solution but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I’m learning a lot and am finding that I’m opening more to some of the solutions that are being suggested now that I’m started to get a better grasp of the theory behind those solutions.
As an environmental studies student and a person who bikes for transportation I’m interested in moving society away from the predominant car culture that grips the United States and much of the world. This concept of livability, however, goes beyond simple conservation and sustainability strategies. It is also largely about social well-being and the health of the person’s mind, body, and soul.
We care about the things we take data on. And what is becoming apparent to me through this class is that we’ve been mostly collecting data on car traffic.
We know that the more car infrastructure we build, the more car traffic we have. And if we build more pedestrian and bike infrastructure? We get more people walking, riding their bikes, and staying in public spaces. We’re learning the massive importance of collecting data on how people use a space and how that can easily be a catalyst for change.
Yesterday we visited the offices of Gehl Architects here in Copenhagen. They are a leading consulting firm that works on projects all over the world from Moscow, to Melbourne, Australia, to New York City.
In New York, people from Gehl observed the human traffic patterns in Times Square. They use methods like mapping desire lines, counting people and observing how they move through the space and who they used that space. And what was discovered was that cars had claim to 90 percent of the space in a location called a ‘square’ when a square existed in the minds of most as a place of public domain and human gathering. With pedestrians claiming only 10 percent of their own, this didn’t exist in Times Square.
With a modest budget and limited time, a pilot project was installed that provided increased public space with seating areas. Almost immediately, people took to the space, data was collect and New York saw measurable gains in pedestrian use and economic benefits of local businesses while injuries decreased by some 63 percent. This data was crucial for New York to be able to move forward and invest greater funds in public space with great public support.
Our site visits to the ‘Potato Rows’ neighborhood and the streets and squares of Copenhagen’s city center allow us to employ these same tactics of data collection and observation to learn why some areas work, why others don’t work and how those places can be improved. We practice asking questions and then figuring out a way to quantify a clear answer to that question and using data to add credibility to give credibility to the resulting theory.
I’m getting a lot out of this course and I’m glad that I’m being challenged. If my beliefs weren’t being challenged a little bit, the course wouldn’t really be doing its job, would it?