In Search of The Human Scale: Cities That Move at 5 km/h, instead of at 60 km/h

Original article published for The Danish Architecture Centre, available here.

September 22, 2016 /

By Allan Mutuku-Kortbæk

The history of global architecture is replete with examples of monumental constructions. As a civilisation, we often tend to be endeared by that which is mammoth, gargantuan and high-rise; we are a society driven by affection towards that which manifests itself on a grand scale. This is true of the Pyramids of Giza as it is for today’s vast, unending skyscraper skylines of Dubai, New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

However, whilst the architectural feats required to raise grand structures such as skyscrapers several hundred feet above ground warrant adulation, there are many who argue that there is an essential element that is often omitted from narratives of this sort.  In hisTED talk held at Copenhagen’s Black Diamond Library in November last year, Danish architect Jan Gehl discussed the need for pedestrian-driven cities that put people at the centre of the town planning narrative. The TED talk reflects some of the construction philosophies that have been at the heart of Jan Gehl’s work over the last forty years.

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Jan Gehl at TEDxKEA. TEDxKEA Credit: Daniela De Lorenzo 2015

The Human Scale

According to Gehl, one of the most important elements in the construction of habitats for humanity is what he calls, the human scale – the construction of structures and habitats with humans at the centre of the narrative. Now, whilst this may seem like a given, Gehl argues that modernist (post 1960) architecture and town planning has in fact, eliminated the human scale from the equation, in its bid to build for the modern man.

If we look at the cities before 1960, they were built in small instalments – typically around two building blocks- the street and the square.”/Jan Gehl

These buildings blocks were based on the movement of the feet in the case of the street and the eye in the case of the square.  In other words, the old cities were built for and took their departure in, the body. However, with the expansion of the world and the compatibility between mass production and modernism, the human, scale and in essence the way in which people moved on streets and within squares was forgotten.

For Gehl, what followed was a series of cities and construction projects that looked spectacular from the air but lacked essential functionality at the street level. Combined with the increasing role of the car in society, what followed was a prioritization of vehicle transport over people and pedestrians. Gehl had other plans for his city planning endeavours, however.

Strøget

It is needless to say that Gehl is most well known for his groundbreaking work on Copenhagen’s pedestrian street, Strøget. At 1.1 km in length, this is Europe’s second longest pedestrian streets after Bordeaux’s Rue Sainte-Catherine and a major tourist attraction. Strøget’s development was also a cornerstone for Copenhagen’s prioritization of bike and pedestrian traffic. However, whilst the street is revered today, this wasn’t always the case. Rioting motorists and death threats to the mayor of Copenhagen in 1962, Alfred Wassard, at the time the idea of a pedestrian-free street was conceived, threatened to derail the project entirely.

 

None of the cities had any knowledge about how their cities were being used by people but they knew everything about how the traffic used the city…. This gave a fantastic imbalance”

/Jan Gehl, TEDxKEA

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Copenhagen’s pedestrian street in the early 1960´s. Credit: Københavns Stadsarkiv 

Gehl was responsible for making recommendations to the mayor at the time, and started studying Strøget in 1962. Upon his recommendations, the street was pedestrianized the very same year on a trial basis. In 1964, this was made permanent. Removing car traffic from this area of the city was a priority in Gehl’s planning narrative at the time. However, Gehl’s subsequent policies and practicies have also had other focus areas embedded within their narratives (such as encouraging the use of bikes)

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Copenhagen’s pedestrian street, Strøget, today. Credit: Visit Denmark 2015

Gehl’s Influence Globally

Strøget founded the basis of Copenhagen’s pedestrian-friendly city planning policies, as we know them today. However, Gehl’s influence on humanistic planning also extends to the planning policies of other nations.

For instance, in 2007, Gehl was influential in re-mapping New York’s streets in a more pedestrian-friendly manner. Through his advice to the department of transportation, numerous city planning policies in the area have been made in in the interest of pedestrian-friendly urban architecture. Similarly, Gehl’s work has also been influential in Australia and New Zealand, where he has prepared public life studies for the city centres of Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Hobart.

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Times Square, pedestrian plaza pre Gehl intervention. Credit: Gehl Architechts, 2010 

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Times Square, pedestrian plaza postGehl intervention. Credit Gehl Architechts, 2013
Today, the town planning policies of numerous cities the world over are increasingly concerned with placing pedestrians at the centre of the architectural narrative. This is nothing new in the history of construction, as pre 60´s architectural traditions dictate, so essentially, what is needed, according to Gehl, is a return to some of the architectural paradigms that defined the way we built cities in the past.  This, he argues, creates intimacy and interaction; it creates a human scale that places people at the epicentre of the city and the life around it.

 

Christian Stadil, TEDxKEA

Original article written for TEDxKEA

Closed door equals open door

We live in a world that is increasingly interconnected. The manner in which we, as individuals and corporations interact with one another and ultimately with the world around us is such that we are, on the whole, closer and more transparent. Whilst this does increase the volume of information being processed and debated, creating more pressure, friction and ultimately, clashes of interest, there are also numerous positives to behold.

Meet Christian Stadil – one of Denmark’s foremost entrepreneurs that many will recognise from his ownership of sports brand hummel or his appearances on the jury in DR’s “Løvernes Hule” (The Danish version of Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank) – a show that features up and coming entrepreneurs pitching new business ideas, in the hope of captivating the jury and gaining that all important starting capital.

Christian Stadil is the owner and CEO of the Thornico conglomerate, consisting of around 120 operational companies within food, technology, real estate, packaging, financing, sport and fashion, the latter being in the form of hummel. Christian Stadil took over the hummel brand in 1999, which back then was in a poor condition, transforming it into one of the world’s leading fashion and sports brands, finding a unique position in a very competitive market up against giants.

Besides being a business owner, founder and investor (most recently in numerous tech-based upstart companies), he is an author, active lecturer and adjunct professor in creative leadership at the Centre for Business Development and Management at Copenhagen Business School.

Christian’s corporate success is underpinned by a devotion to company karma – “A kind of CSR version 3.0 where we try to, where possible, think more holistically, in a “4x win” where our companies, customers, partners and a cause (in which we believe and find important), all benefit – especially in terms of the climate and the local environment,” he remarks.

And whilst he is not afraid to admit that combining the varied interests of stakeholders is by no means easy, Christian is adamant that one can indeed capitalise on synergies and create win-win situations to everyone’s mutual benefit. Known for doing things differently, Christian Stadil is an impassioned entrepreneur with a particular way of doing things that we all could learn a thing or two from.

Eske Willerslev, TEDxKEA

Original article co-written with Anton Tarabykin for TEDxKEA, available here

Forming the future by studying the past

Constant discoveries that prompt revisions of what we previously knew to be true are at the very core of our evolution. The merits of science in forming the present and ultimately the future cannot be overstated. Just as important, however, is understanding our past. Studying how problems developed, how our ancestors approached them, and ultimately where they have failed or succeeded, is crucial to understanding who we are today, and what we will be in the future. Lessons harnessed from the past can and should influence social, political and environmental decisions that we make today, and help us build a better future.

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Eske Willerslev is an evolutionary biologist known worldwide for his pioneering work with ancient DNA. He is renowned for several groundbreaking expeditions in Siberia along with his twin brother, anthropologist Rane, during which they gathered ethnographic material and Megafauna remains (Megafauna is a zoological term for large animals).

Eske’s discoveries have in fact re-interpreted much of mankind’s history. His studies on Aboriginal migration patterns proved that the indigenous people of Australia migrated to the continent at least 24,000 years earlier than it had previously been argued. Similarly, Eske’s studies have shown human presence in North America more than 14,000 years ago, which is a thousand years earlier than previous assumptions. Based on samples from the arm bone of a 24,000-year-old Siberian boy, Eske’s team discovered a genetic link between Eurasians and Native Americans, which at the time was a major surprise.

Among other Indiana Jones-esque feats, Eske has become an adopted member of the Crow Tribe of Indians in Montana, United States. Of all the lessons learned from such epic voyages, Eske believes that his research on ancient human migration patterns ultimately shows how the spread of people advances innovation and, ultimately, our evolution: “If you look at the past, you will see that the societies that survived were the ones that changed, not the ones that remained conservative and closed in around themselves. The ones that do well are those that constantly learn from others and take in new impressions, while the ones that stay in isolation, like the Paleo-Eskimos, die out in the end”, he points out.

Jan Gehl, TEDxKEA

Original article written for TEDxKEA, available here.

Cities That Move 5 km/h and not 60 km/h

Mankind is evolving and so too is the manner in which we interact with our surroundings. From traditional hunter-gatherer groupings to industrial age production, to modern day office environments, the progress of our civilisation ultimately changes our lifestyles. This progress represents societies that are more efficient, where the obstacles of physical distances are minimised and less and less movement is demanded from the individual. This, however, creates new challenges for mankind. As our need to move diminishes, so does our health, with obesity, diabetes and heart diseases on the rise. So now that fewer jobs are demanding it, how do we get moving again?

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Meet the legendary architect behind Copenhagen’s Strøget – no less than the world’s longest pedestrian street. Jan Gehl’s studies in the early 60’s played a significant role when Strøget was rid of vehicles, in a ground-breaking move that formed the core of many green urban initiatives that have catalysed Copenhagen’s development ever since. Since then, large cities around the world, such as New York, Moscow and Sao Paolo, to name a few, have been inspired by Copenhagen, and have called on Jan Gehl to help them pedestrianise.

Dubbed “the last living worldwide renowned guru in urbanism”, Jan Gehl has raked in innumerable accolades for his approach to urban design, winning everything from The International Union of Architects prize for exemplary contributions to Town Planning and Territorial Development to a Prince Eugen Medal for outstanding artistic achievement in architecture.

An honorary member of the American Institute of Architects and a fellow of the Design Futures Council, Gehl is of the conviction that “we need cities that move at 5 km/h and not at 60 km/h.” His approach to making cities liveable stems from a collaboration with his wife, psychologist Ingrid Mundt, together with whom he began to study how people interact with their environments. Gehl believes that we need to approach architecture in a human manner – it should and always be about people first and foremost. “Studying people rather than bricks” helps us build cities for people, encourage healthier lifestyles and invite people to use the urban space for physical activities.

Anja Cetti Andersen, TEDxKEA

Original article written for TEDxKEA, available here

The universe and how we got here

Of the many mysteries of life, none can compare to the quintessential question: where do we come from and what are we doing here? For hundreds of years, science, culture and religion have put forth contesting arguments to try to put an end to our existential doubts. Meanwhile, as the list of Kepler planets found in “Habitable Zones” that exist in earth-like conditions grows, questions of whether or not we have the luxury of the universe exclusively for ourselves must arise.

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Anja C. Andersen is as outstanding an astrophysicist as they come. Currently an associate professor at The Dark Cosmology Centre at the Niels Bohr Institute, her career spans many years of research in the field, for which the list of accolades she has won is almost as endless as the universe itself. Anja’s interest in the mysteries of the stars began as a teenager in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked at the time. “One of the few things that girls could do was to study, so I sat and looked at the stars through a telescope”, Anja remarks.

Whilst Anja doesn’t claim to have all the answers to the tirade of questions that keep many of us up at night, she is of the opinion that an evaluation of the manner in which we approach existentialist mysteries is necessary. “When can one be sure that something exists, even if one cannot see it?” Anja asks. We are certain, for example, that black holes do exist in the universe, but we have yet to see one with our own eyes.

The mysteries of life are endless and the approaches to solving them equally so. “Physics is a dynamic study, and its approaches and premises are changing constantly – they are constantly evolving.” Prepare to be enlightened.

 

Vigga Svensson, TEDxKEA

Original article written for TEDxKEA, available here.

Sustainability 2.0 – sustainable consumption without compromise

A central theme within TEDxKEA Evolve is that of continuous improvement. We live in a dynamic world that is constantly shifting. One of the recent shifts in consumption patterns has been the idea of circular economy – a trend that has been cashed in by both consumers and innovative businesses alike. However, it is one thing to have an intention to be sustainable and another to actually pull it off. We need to re-think what it means to be sustainable and re-think again just in case.

If Vigga Svensson sounds familiar to you, she probably is. Formerly a radio and TV host at P1 and DR2, respectively, Vigga has been the voice of TV2 Zulu since the turn of the century, for which she still finds 15 minutes for in her busy schedule every week. But her real passions are entrepreneurship and sustainable consumption, to which she has dedicated the last 12 years of her life.

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Having previously founded the world famous baby clothing company Katvig, Vigga’s latest venture is Vigga.us – a firm that rents out baby clothes for a small subscription fee, saving parents vast amounts of money whilst providing a sustainable solution in a clothing industry otherwise notorious for its wasteful production practices. The first-ever brand to combine baby fashion with ideals of the circular economy, Vigga.us has been nominated for and awarded a long list of sustainability awards, and currently features in Sustainia’s top 10 sustainability innovations of 2015. Most importantly, it is an idea that makes no compromises, unlike many other sustainable solutions – prices are in fact lower, the quality is good and the product is accessible: “It is sustainability 2.0 – a better, more clever way of thinking sustainability,“ contends Vigga.

But it hasn’t always been this easy. If Vigga’s ideas of combining sustainability and a profitable business model seem well thought through, it is because they have undergone many years of review, refinement and ultimately, evolution. “The way people used our products in the past went against our ideas of sustainability. There was no recycling. We didn’t create a whole new way of thinking,” says Vigga. By comparison, the current business model in practice is one where sustainability is the main driver in the process as opposed to being an annoying add-on. It is time to show consumers that sustainability no longer has to entail compromises, a message that Vigga is eager to spread around the world.

Rob Scotland, TEDxKEA

Original article written for TEDxKEA, available here.

The new wave of entrepreneurial creativity and the growing power of the audience

On all levels, certainly in the portrayal given by much of modern media, the world is a grim and unbecoming place. Seek and you shall find however; there are innumerable positives to behold. Whilst there are many who are plagued by concerns over ISIS or Greek financials and long-winded statements by the media, others, choose to see things in a different light.

Meet Rob Scotland – a man with a sense of humour that extends well beyond his positive mind-set towards the world of today and the society of tomorrow. In the midst of all the crises fed to us on TV, Rob stresses the importance of stopping for a second to appreciate the talent and adaptability of our generation. “Five years ago there was no iPad, 10 years ago there was no iPhone and in the last hundred years we’ve had more innovation than in the last 1000.”  “The next generation is probably going to be the greatest we’ve ever had!”

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Rob has spent the last 10 years working in advertising with a client portfolio that includes the likes of Nike, Carlsberg, Telia and Procter & Gamble, where he has ”argued passionately under the guise of creative strategy to turn anthropological understandings of audiences into commercial returns.” For Rob, radical changes in the manner in which audiences think and feel have brought about a paradigm shift that requires more value-based products, services and ultimately advertising. A graduate of illustration, Rob wanted to be an artist for Marvel comics. However, as is the case “with most of our generation”, necessity shifted him into other fields – namely magazine sales and later advertising. In this capacity, Rob founded the much revered ad agency, Bandit, in Copenhagen 8 years ago and advised big brands on how best to target their audiences.

Dubbed a ‘modern cultural anthropologist’, Rob has been championing the understanding of modern culture in marketing communications over the past ten years. Our generation often gets a bad rap in the media, but from Rob’s perspective “Far from being lazy, Generation Next’s unprecedented surge of entrepreneurial creativity is what will solve many of the challenges facing this world”.

Mathias Lundoe, TEDxKEA

Original article written for TEDxKEA, available here.

Monetising Big Data

Big data is the word on everyone’s lips. The exponential growth and availability of data has come to play a pivotal role in the manner in which individuals, companies and society at large operate. So what is big data and how exactly is it a game-changer for consumers and businesses alike?

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Mathias Lundø Nielsen, a 26-year old serial entrepreneur with a devastatingly effective track record within international e-commerce, might just have the answer. The youngest-ever Scandinavian to be accepted in to Henley’s MBA programme, Mathias’ latest venture is Nustay.com, a tech startup that has received one of the highest-ever valuations of any Danish tech company prior to launch, based on the sole idea of its business model. Making a serious case for disrupting the hotel industry, Nustay epitomises what monetising big data is in practice through matching guests with hotels by ranking them using information such as profiles, interests and past consumption patterns. Advanced algorithms work on producing a match between guests and hotels, creating an experience that is both exceptionally customised and that saves both time and money for customers and hotels alike.

In a world that is replete with data and information overloads, Mathias is determined to demonstrate how and why it makes sense to see big data as a new raw material – a commodity that can and needs to be processed in a way that adds value to our societies. However, in order to derive advantages from big data, we need to know what we are looking for, Mathias points out: “If you’re drilling for oil, you need to know exactly what you are looking for before you begin.” As is the case with oil, big data becomes a commodity only when you know what you will use it for: “You also need to know exactly what your end consumer wants, you should have a very sound knowledge of what your end product is.”

So the question we need to ask ourselves is how do we use what we know more effectively? How do we utilise the endless data at our disposal in a way that meets global and individual needs in a more cost-effective and less time-consuming manner? Let’s talk big data.

Khaterah Parwani

Original article written for TEDxKEA, available here

A Lifetime Battle to Fight for The Right to Freedom and Independence

Violence against women is a major hindrance to the development of our societies. Whilst measures and organisations are in place to attempt to overcome this problem, many focus on helping the victims and not on nipping the problem at the bud; namely men who indulge in acts of violence against their spouses. Add context to this within the frame of the society in which we live in, here in Denmark, and you will find that violence against women of ethnicities other than Danish tends to be both more common and harder to uproot.

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Khaterah Parwani is the vice-chair, legal adviser and ambassador of the Exit Circle, an organisation that engages victims of physical violence, social control, bullying and radicalism in a dialogue. A victim of violence herself, both in childhood and adulthood, Parwani has spent the last few years channelling all her time and energy into helping those deprived of the rights to freedom and independence, using her background in law and a deep-seeded passion to make a difference in the lives of others.

Parwani’s work also focuses on the brothers and fathers involved in the circle of violence and social control. Understanding the underlying social circumstances that explain why, for example, the percentage of uneducated or unemployed men with Muslim backgrounds is as high as it is represents a key point of focus for Parwani: “It is harder to become integrated or accepted in Denmark when you are a brown man with a Muslim name than when you are a woman. A lot of these men feel marginalised.” Similarly, over and above violence and the need to understand why it happens, Parwani is of the opinion that it is more important to comprehend and work at disrupting mechanisms of social control and cultural radicalisation amongst minority societies.

An ardent debater and orator, Parwani has represented her views across numerous media such as The BBC, Der Spiegel, TV2 news, DR1 and Radio 24/7.