The city whisperer

City planner Kristian Skovbakke Villadsen of "Gehl" explains in “Brass tacks with smart heads" why many cities lack the view for the human being. Around the world, more and more people are looking for quality of life in the city. In many metropolises, however, this leads to the opposite: traffic jams, hectic pace and little space for encounters.

Mr. Villadsen, you are passionate about improving cities. What is important in this context?

A city is only worth living in if its inhabitants consider it worth living in. Whether in the southern or northern hemisphere, in any city, at any time of the day: we want to feel free and comfortable, our children should be able to go to school safely, public places should invite us to meet friends there - and we want to be part of a community. Which cities are particularly worth living in? Exactly - those in which children and elderly people cavort on the streets. This is no coincidence.

A city worth living in: where children and elderly people cavort on the streets.
Info box: Kristian Skovbakke Villadsen says about himself: "We improve cities for people worldwide." He is a partner in the architectural firm "Gehl" and a guest lecturer at the University of Copenhagen. Villadsen participates in political discussions around the world to identify methods and strategies that help define urban and project visions. In 2016, together with his project team, he developed a new street design guide for Shanghai.

By contrast: What reduces the quality of life in cities?

Worldwide, we observe how strongly life and form of a city are connected with each other. In other words, if we change the shape of a city, we also change how people live their lives. We can do this positively by designing cities that lead to a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle. In the 20th century, and even in the 21st century, there was a tendency to plan cities separately rather than integrated. This means, for example, that many people have to leave their district for the working day. As a result, a city loses its character: parallel worlds were created instead of a centre of life.

With what consequence?

A day has 24 hours. We have to sleep, we have to work, we have to do the household and we have to commute back and forth. The rest of the time is the time we have to spend with the things and people that make us happy. Such fragmented cities lack a good mix of community and opportunities for exercise, recreation, strolling and working in the surrounding area. Why not create cities where good public spaces, playgrounds, sports clubs, music clubs or citizens' initiatives, housing and workplaces is all reachable within 15 minutes?

How can cities grow meaningfully when proximity plays such an important role?

This is not possible without seeing the city as an uninterrupted network. A place where boundaries between pedestrians, cafés, squares, local shops and infrastructure float: I get off the train and happen to meet my old friend and colleague who enjoys his coffee in the sun. A few metres further his children play badminton on a green area.

The city as a place where boundaries between pedestrians, cafés, squares, local shops and infrastructure float.

What does this mean for the infrastructure?

Infrastructure is the node that holds the network together: We need to build or rebuild cities so that they foster a sense of community. Street planning and mobility are an important part of this.

What role will vehicles play in the urban scenario of the future?

What we city planners understand by the car of the future is no longer necessarily comparable to our private car of today: Instead of driving home in my own car, I order a vehicle in the city of tomorrow conveniently via an app. This will massively change the way we use mobility - and in all likelihood how we think about mobility.

In what way?

Currently, 95 to 98 percent of city dwellers arrive to public transport on foot or by bike. In the future, people will make more context-based decisions about how to make this last mile. On a sunny day, I might walk. When it rains, I order a vehicle. Streets thus become a multimobility scene in which pedestrians, cyclists and automated vehicles all occupy their space.

How can sustainability and mobility in a city be reconciled?

Of course, switching to electric mobility improves air quality in our cities - this is certainly a step in the right direction. However, most electric vehicles still occupy the same space, are individually owned, and are usually used by only one person. Only with a wide range of mobility services will we be able to move more environmentally friendly. The way we move around every day has a considerable impact on our individual carbon footprint.

There are quite a few pedestrian zones in Germany that seem deserted. Why?

In the past shopping malls had a negative impact on pedestrian zone, today online shopping is adding to this challenge.

So as to definitely make sure that no one shops at the store around the corner…

With the loss of the small traders, the inner cities have lost charm and humanity. That's why cities have to be completely rethought - by bringing back the feel-good factor: People go where other people are. For the pedestrian zones and urban centres to survive they have to look at creating good experience and invitation to stay.

What contribution should Daimler make to urban development?

You have to put mobility services on the road – in such a way that they fit perfectly into the network of the modern city. In doing so, it is important to address the needs of the future. How else can we ensure that we do not build the infrastructure of past mobility? For example, massive investments are currently being made in the development of underground parking structures, which we may no longer need in ten years' time. There is obviously a need for discussion here. You can advise cities on developing the infrastructure of the future.

What must be avoided in the matter of infrastructure?

Road traffic was divided in the 60s. This means that pedestrians, cyclists and cars take part in traffic life side by side instead of together. The objective of this separation was to avoid conflicts. From my point of view, adhering to this would be disastrous for modern cities. Especially when it comes to automated driving, it is important to find solutions in which vehicles are a well-integrated part of a well thought-out street design. Our streets are the largest public space we have in a city - they have to be designed in a way that works for people.

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