Livabilitization – Numbing The Urban Experience

by | 12. Apr 2017

Article | The Column
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Chicago Millenium Fountain. Image credit: Gehl

By Jeff Risom, Partner and Managing Director US, Gehl

The term livability tends to sum up what we associate with the welfare of a city, its architecture, and broader urban development. Livability suggests that quality of life is the holy grail of city competitiveness but current definitions create a clear hierarchy where architecture and design is at the top. In order for true meaningful and inclusive progress in livability to be made, more disciplines need to involved in the conversation and broader citizen perspectives need to included.

It is crucial that architects take a more critical view of livability and I am grateful that Gehl has the opportunity to contribute to this conversation in Denmark through conversations like this, and also through our work. What is even better is that more and more people – from city leaders to everyday citizens – are also involved in this debate and that more and more professional disciplines, outside of architecture and engineering, have the opportunity to actively construct the social infrastructure of lives.

Livability as a ranking tool

We know that livability is not a formula. From The Economist to Mercer, livability is used as an indicator to determine quality of life, how to compensate expats working abroad, and how to rank cities against one another. Then we have Monocle who have developed a bestselling model that essentially outlines the coolest places around the world right now. Some indexes have good categories for measurement, like corruption, but there is not one particular definition of livability that can be captured by any ranking system. When one tries to encapsulate livability into a ranking, we end up stripping down the meaning until we are left with something like Monocle, which may be sexy and a good guide book, but is fundamentally flawed as a city livability barometer. To me, livability is a changing process and about paying attention to local contexts. It can be a messy process, but it should always come down to the ultimate question of livability “for whom?”.

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The Economist indicates decreasing livability globally. Credit: The Economist

Livability as a tool for making cities for people

Making cities for people, starts with talking to people and allowing local people to define what livability means for them. To get a picture of human needs and engage more diverse people in differing contexts you must layer methods throughout the process. You must go out to the people. When working with livability at the crux of our scope, we know that we (as consultants) aren’t always the best people to talk to community members because they will not necessarily feel trusting of us as outsiders. So, in that case we will partner with other local groups that embody the community where we’re working and have them do the asking.

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Gehl in the field. Image credit: Gehl

The methodology and ethos should be grounded in the process – we need to go to where people are and ask them questions that only they are experts in. By observing people in their natural habitat and asking questions about everyday routines we get closer to harnessing a good public life. By layering methodologies and inviting more people to participate in the process, livability can flourish.

Livabilitization: The numbing of the urban experience

The process of “livabili-tizing” cities around the world can have a numbing effect on us citizens. The excitement, struggle, conflict of interests that you feel in many cities like London or New York, from their messy or chaotic charm, is often lost as cities strive toward the pinnacle of livability. When we take Copenhagen as an example, everything functions at near perfection for most of society. You can bike to work and live near amenities, and you have an economic situation that does not put personal strain on you. It is a comfortable place to live, but it is also a hyper-regulated society. In this process of creating the most livable city, are we losing the edge of what produces cultural and social innovation?

I see livability as a goal to strive for, but that it should challenge the status quo and center around issues like affordability, feeling included in society, and having public spaces in which you feel invited. One example that puts this into perspective is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Water play, Philadelphia. Image credit: Gehl.

City Hall in Philadelphia is a beautiful building designed in the 1800s. Philadelphia is 35% black, and when we ask, “how many young black kids under 18 have been to city hall?” the answer is somewhere around 1%. Alex Peay, founder of Rising Sons in Philadelphia is a local advocate who has been tackling issues of identity and invitation within the city. He has been working with educating local youth, taking young black kids to city hall and saying, “this is your place, you can go in, look around, talk to people, city hall actually belongs to you”. The reaction is surprising, and why this work is so important. The kids say, “What?! I don’t belong here. Are you serious?” It can take time for them to really understand that a place so fundamentally public as a city hall is a place that they’re welcome. When we see a mission like Alex’s then we can see a holistic view of livability, and avoid the numbing effect of “livabili-tization”. Again, the most important question here is: livable for who?

The spatial form of livability

There are universal elements of spatial form, that achieve livability standards, that are oriented around people’s needs, for example human scale. However, these elements are not always copy and paste, and they should be tailored to a local and cultural context. This is why we create a canvas, empower local groups with effective tools, provide a useful process, and evaluate the successes. In this way livability is not only spatial and social, but also becomes fundamentally a political problem.
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Place de la République, Paris. Image credit: Gehl

Problems are constantly posed in the way that we finance projects. We inevitably ask architects and designers that are very talented form givers the wrong questions.  Rather than asking them to create new landmarks or to emulate beautiful projects such as the High Line, which leads to turning all elevated railways into parks, we should be asking what are the public life outcomes of places like the High Line. The High Line succeeds in many ways as a destination to meet other people, to enjoy leisure time in the city.  It would be incredibly beneficial for livability if designers and politicians can start asking public life questions from the beginning – How do you make people more included and feel invited to spend time? How do you make streets safer? How do you get a good level of local creative entrepreneurship? Asking these questions of designers and many other disciplines might manifest into a landmark like a High Line, a new street type like Nørrebrogade, or maybe something different that we haven’t even thought of yet.


Nørrebrogade, Copenhagen. Image credit: Gehl

As unsatisfying as the answer may be, I do not believe there is a single silver-bullet answer to creating livable cities. When we aim to provide livability in places as different as Philadelphia, Dhaka, and Copenhagen the answer will be very different. Therefore, universal indexes are far too limited. Rather, it is more effective to use a process and tools to better understand people and their experience. By tailoring the process every time, we can be more sensitive to different local contexts. Architects and designers need to begin releasing some control over city making and accept that they might need to redefine the preconceived notions of the success criteria of a project. From one that is about form and aesthetics alone, to one that is defined much more locally and measured by how people “vote with their feet” by spending time and feeling invited to be who they are while celebrating all that we have in common.

In his time at Gehl, Jeff Risom has worked with both public and private clients as well as NGOs in Europe, USA, Latin America, India and China. Jeff’s multi-disciplinary background and design experience provides him with a unique insight into the technical, as well as social aspects of urban design. As an international consultant, Jeff strives toward processes that catalyze local engagement and design solutions that remove barriers to diverse and equitable urban environments. 

This article is an adaption of a blog post that was original posted on Gehl’s blog here