An interview with Gehl Architect’s CEO and founding Partner, Helle Søholt by McKinsey
Helle Søholt is a founding partner of Gehl Architects, which she launched in 2000 with Jan Gehl, a fellow architect who had been studying the sociology of cities since 1966. Based in Copenhagen and with offices in New York and San Francisco, Gehl Architects aims to help clients create what it calls “cities for people.” Søholt herself has worked on projects around the world, including Beijing, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Kuala Lumpur, London, Mexico City, São Paulo, Seattle, and Vancouver. Trained as an architect in Denmark and the United States, she emphasizes improving the quality of city life and making people the center of urban planning. Søholt spoke with McKinsey in May 2016.
McKinsey: What makes a great public space? A poor one?
Helle Søholt: A great public space, first and foremost, is one that is used by people. Public spaces are defined by the activities that take place, the culture and identity of the communities they support, the social mix of people, the kinds of programming. On the physical side, a great public space needs to be well connected to its surroundings, easy to get to, and have “active edges,” meaning functions that help to bring people together and build community. It needs to feel safe and not be too noisy or windy or sunny or cold.
The opposite is a space that is derelict, disconnected from its surroundings, and not being used. People see it as unsafe; women, children, and the elderly would never dream of going there.
There can be too much focus on creating great event spaces with the idea of making places for tourists to enjoy. If we design spaces that are wonderful for residents, the city itself will be that much more interesting for visitors to visit.
McKinsey: What do you do? And with whom do you do it?
Helle Søholt: We have developed some on-the-ground methods for mapping public life. And when we go out into the streets, so do the people we are working with. We want to get them out of the offices in order to experience and see the city in a new way. In working with communities, sometimes we make temporary interventions. We’ll experiment with a redesign of a square or a street, perhaps rerouting a local bus to create a nicer ambience. By measuring foot traffic before, during, and after such an intervention, we can see how people are, in effect, voting with their feet.
We work with cities, developers, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations. We also identify local partners that have an interest in these projects; these could be community groups, philanthropies, health organizations, transport entities, or NGOs. We did a prototyping festival in the redesign of Market Street in San Francisco, where we invited the community to come out and do different installations and test different solutions—everything from spatial design to technology.
McKinsey: Roughly two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. What does that mean to you as an architect?
Helle Søholt: The social sustainability of cities is a challenging issue. The development of cities globally is also leading to pressures on mobility in terms of transport. There are a lot of problems—congestion, gridlock, and a lack of public investment in transportation. This leads to poor environments. Congestion, for example, leads to poor air quality. We see our role as helping the cities we work in to innovate, to redesign their processes, to focus on what is important. Our ethos is to manage cities with an emphasis on improving the quality of people’s lives.
McKinsey: The population of Mumbai has more than doubled since the 1990s, to almost 22 million people. Are Gehl’s principles appropriate for such fast-growing megacities?
Helle Søholt: Yes, I think our principles are applicable to any city. The public-space focus that we advocate—to me, this is a human right. And if there is any place where this is in danger of getting lost, it is in developing cities, where things are happening so fast. There is a desperate need to help these cities to manage urban growth. Of course, many of them are understaffed. They are short of resources and do not know how to manage or to work with planners. We are very aware, when we come into cities under such pressures, that our role is not only to develop a good plan or to implement a project. It is also to build capacity and provide support to the urban leaders, so they can make better decisions after we are gone.
McKinsey: You have said that some cities are becoming too large. What do you mean by that? Why is this a problem? And what can be done?
Helle Søholt: It is super difficult to control the growth of cities because this is affected not only by urban factors but also by global ones and by conditions in rural areas. What I was thinking of was places like São Paulo and Mexico City. These are great cities, but because they have become so large, traffic in particular has become really bad. That influences people’s lives in a way that is unheard of, and for the worse. People are spending three hours in traffic getting to and from work. That has a giant impact on people’s health, their connection to their families, and general quality of life. In our own work, we try to retrofit existing urban centers, to make them more walkable and bikeable, with shops, parks, and public spaces.