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Jeff Risom is head of the Gehl Institute, an initiative inside the internationally renowned Danish architecture firm Gehl Architects, which has been instrumental in transforming cityscapes into urban global centers.
This article is part of a series of interviews that were conducted during the #AskTheMayor event organized by the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative (ESCI), September 5, 2014.
ESCI: What are the main challenges you have encountered in implementing Gehl Architects’ philosophy, and what do you expect to accomplish in cities like Xalapa?
While working in Latin America in general—and particularly in medium-sized cities like Xalapa—we have encountered a few things that are incredibly inspiring and wonderful, and also a few challenges. On the positive side, we have seen an incredible and vibrant public life, a culture that really is open and wants to embrace new types of urban thinking. But at the same time, there are challenges in terms of lacking the ability to imagine another type of future for the city. There is just a lack of good references, so it’s difficult to try to get people to imagine a new reality if they haven’t seen that reality.
Through temporary projects with more tangible types of interventions, our work tries to help people envision what streets and spaces should become, and basically elevate their expectations. What we have seen in Mar del Plata and other places is that the minute that people have this concrete tangible space to talk about and to engage with their politicians, they suddenly have great ideas and goals to make it even better. But I think the real challenge is that first hurdle of being able to put something on the ground and to give people a chance to experience a different type of street environment and a different type of city environment.
ESCI: What is the best way to promote bicycle culture?
In Gehl Architects, when we think about promoting bicycle culture we approach it just as a culture. This is about people, this is about decisions, and about choice. We need to appeal to people’s intrinsic nature to want to take the easiest fastest most convenient route as part of their busy day. So it’s really on our shoulders and it’s our responsibility to provide that comfort, that safety, that convenience with the bicycle infrastructure.
That’s why we need to think about the hardware or the infrastructure that we need to put down, that needs to be robust, that needs to be separated, and that needs to indicate a substantial commitment to cycling. But we also have to think about the software, or more about the culture, about appealing to people’s comfort, appealing to safety, appealing to understanding some of the barriers that keep people from getting on their bike, and then addressing them. And that might be through campaigns or might be also through different forms of design. But we can’t just purely think about this is an engineering issue. It’s actually a culture issue, it’s a sociological one, it’s a one about decisions and behavior more than any type of engineering.
ESCI: What’s the most important contribution that the Initiative has for emerging cities in Latin America and the Caribbean?
It’s been a real pleasure to be a part of this program for the last couple of years. I think that it is exciting to see the IDB using this program to build upon its competencies and go out into new areas. Last year they focused a lot on the infrastructure, on the hardcore type of big investments that need to be made. And this year I think they built upon that but also brought in more issues of governance, more issues of education. It is typically quite difficult for an institution like the Bank to be a part of efforts like these because they are soft and a little bit more difficult to measure. But I think it’s wonderful that the Bank seems to be really committed to that people, that culture, that societal aspect of cities as the well as the infrastructure and energy and the water.
Having that point of view really helps these medium sized cities prioritize what is most important and really begin to think about infrastructure as well as their citizens, begin to reconnect, think about participation, think about engagement. And hopefully the Bank can build capacity and really help the city agencies prioritize, provide some best practices from other parts of the world, and provide a good example of how these cities can take that learning and knowledge and then apply it to their city, and to their culture and to their place. I think that combination of experience and sensitivity with the unique culture of the city is a really strong one.
Watch the full interview here.