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Architecture urbanism

Making cities by people

Inspired by a prompt from the Jan Gehl Institute, Charlotte asked me about cities on one of our morning walks. This is what I had to say.

CG: How do you make cities for people?

IH: Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s enough to say ‘make cities for people.’ You have to make cities by people. You know, in my profession—I’m an architect—I see this problem a lot where architects and designers generally fall into a trap where they think they have all the answers, you know, all they have to do is sit down and solve the problem, when it goes against the nature of our work. The nature of our work is to affect many peoples’ lives for long periods of time, and more often than not the best solution to that kind of problem comes from the very people whose lives we’re changing. Jane Jacobs, for example, observed this in Boston. She went to the North End neighborhood, which in the 1950s was labeled a complete slum by city officials because of its density. And yet when she went there, she didn’t see a slum. She saw kids playing on the street, neighbors greeting each other. She saw more vitality in the public realm than in any of the shiny new development going on around Boston. In New York City also—I’m a New Yorker—I take the subway. On the subway every single day you see rich people, young people, poor people, old people, weird people, all kinds of people rubbing shoulders every single day, and when you encounter somebody with a different background from yourself it expands your mind of what it is to be a citizen. If I see a busker playing music, for example, I’ll give some money, I’ll strike up a conversation. If I see a homeless person, I might be inspired to go donate to a nonprofit. Actually, there’s a quote that I like by the former mayor of Bogotá, his name is Enrique Peñalosa. He said ‘an advanced city is not one where the poor use cars, but rather one where the rich use public transport.’

CG: Seems like a very noble goal. How do you get people to do that?

IH: You do that by—like I said—instead of designing your way out of the problem, developing design tools and opening channels of communication. So, I think architects should learn from systems thinkers, like economists, sociologists, behavioral psychologists, data scientists. These people are very good at taking complex problems and breaking them down into discrete parts. Actually, one architect that I think has done this with some success is Jan Gehl. The Jan Gehl Institute has developed a tool called the Public Life Data Protocol which provides a series of steps for municipalities or neighborhood organizations to follow whenever they want to make a change in their city. It also has guidelines in it for how to collect data on city life, such as the air quality in this neighborhood or how many people are passing through this intersection at a certain time of day. This kind of approach is both passive and active at the same time, you know, it’s standardized and yet its flexible. And I think that is successful because it matches the spirit of the complex task of city-making.

CG: I’m asking myself, like, what’s the most difficult thing facing cities today?

IH: The most difficult problem…. I think it’s embedded in what Enrique Peñalosa said, and that is how to balance prosperity with inclusivity. You know, it’s easy to promote shiny new bike lanes and park space in neighborhoods where the residents are well off or where the property values are high. It’s a completely different challenge to do the same thing in a neighborhood where the residents are not well off, where they don’t have a lot of political resources, where there’s no clear financial gain, or it’s just not as sexy to develop. You know, talking about bike lanes, “Copenhagenization” as a design philosophy maybe is not a one-size-fits-all. It doesn’t work in a hilly city like Lima, Peru, or in a crowded city like Delhi where families are larger and people need more than just a bicycle to get around. You know, each one of us has an idea of what good city life is and what good city life should be, but we should never assume that it’s the same for everybody. So, I think anybody who acknowledges context, uses collaborative tools, and really elevates the voices of those without power is meeting the challenge head-on.

By the.vonz.himanen

Ivan Himanen is an architect, writer, and artist based in New York City.

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