Every day, 1.5 million people around the world move to urban areas, according to The Ideal City, a book from the Ikea research and design lab SPACE10. The past year, of course, has upended both the professional and personal sides of city life, but it has also given us a chance to reflect on how to create that ideal city—something that Gehl, a Copenhagen-based urban strategy and design firm founded by Jan Gehl and Helle Søholt, has been doing for years.
Gehl, a longtime professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture, and Søholt, a former student, started the firm in 2000, when Søholt was just 28. One of their guiding principles was to design cities that would work better for their residents. “We have what we call a ‘people first’ approach to planning,” explains Søholt, who is now CEO. (Gehl, 84, retired from his active partner role in 2011 but continues to serve as a senior advisor.) “That really means exploring what needs people have in cities and communities as a beginning phase for understanding how to develop an area and where to put our investments.” The most common needs, she continues, are “access to greenery, having access to high-quality space, and feeling that they are prioritized at an equal level to the people in cars.”
Gehl now has offices in Copenhagen, San Francisco, and New York, and the firm has tackled projects all around the world. Søholt drew inspiration from her hometown of Copenhagen—which has numerous public parks and some of the best pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in the world—when working with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to conceptualize a series of pedestrianized plazas along the Broadway corridor. That network has since expanded to include more than 80 public plazas throughout the city. Gehl also engineered the redesign of San Francisco’s Market Street, starting with a research phase that led to the city banning private vehicles on its most prominent commercial artery. In Argentina, meanwhile, the firm worked with the city of Buenos Aires to create a blueprint for a strategic, people-centric 10-year development plan known as Roadmap 2027.
Today, the firm is focused on adapting urban living to the post-COVID landscape. Unsurprisingly, that involves more people getting outside. Gehl conducted a series of public life surveys in four Danish cities and found a 35 percent increase in outdoor activities. “This is a very positive trend,” Søholt says. “People actually seem to be more physically active, seeking community interaction more, talking more with people outside, being more attentive to the needs of their neighbors.” She sees this as an early indicator of a movement toward 24-hour neighborhoods and “15-minute cities,” i.e., urban areas where people can live, work, enjoy leisure time, and meet their basic needs—all within the radius of a 15-minute walk.
The idea of 15-minute cities may seem more akin to quaint small-town life than to the realities of the modern metropolis, but in the wake of the pandemic, Søholt believes that we need to make our cities more compact, more sustainable, more accessible, safer, and healthier for all. COVID may have brought these ideas into the spotlight, but they’re themes that Søholt has been researching for decades. And while these public-leaning initiatives may all seem quite, um, Scandinavian, she rejects any notion of a regional superiority complex.
“Our mission is not to Copenhagenize the world,” she says. “In fact, I don’t like the term at all. However, it is our intention and purpose to humanize the world and to make visible the life of communities and the needs of people.”