Allison Dutoit, Gehl Architects, talking about quality of life in cities, needs of pedestrians and cyclists, the Gehl approach to projects and cycling strategies in Graz and Copenhagen.


Allison Dutoit, Gehl Architects, visited Graz and took an afternoon to bike through the city.

©: Martin Grabner

Allison Dutoit biking around Reininghaus

©: Martin Grabner

Allison Dutoit, Gehl Architects

©: Gehl Architects

Allison Dutoit, associate partner at Gehl Architects in Copenhagen was in Graz for two lectures at Graz University of Technology and at HDA in May 2015, invited by the Institute of Urbanism, Faculty for Architecture and the City of Graz. The office, founded by the architect and author of several books Professor Jan Gehl, is doing studies and concepts on urban space worldwide. Starting more than 40 years ago Jan Gehl developed a methodology of studying and counting what people do, as a means to understand quality and what makes some places well used and loved and others ignored. Gehl Architects is now a leading office for urban space studies, strategical concepts and design, working on Manhattan’s Times Square as well as in São Paulo, Chongqing and dozens of European Cities. Their various projects have one thing in common: focus, aim and starting point are always the people’s quality of life.
GAT took the chance to talk with Allison Dutoit.

The titles of Jan Gehl’s books indicate clearly that the starting point of your studies and research projects is not a functionalist architects view from above but the eye-level view on people’s life. What defines life quality in today cities?

Allison Dutoit: We are social animals, we want to be around other people. If you have a comfortable environment that offers a high quality for your senses, then it’s an enjoyable place to be. It raises the chance that you might engage with other people. What makes life quality is an everyday environment that affects you positively in your body and your senses – the visual, the hearing, the smelling, the tactual qualities.

According to Jan Gehl, urbanity is much more than just the built environment. What is „urban“?

Allison Dutoit: Of course urban means also buildings. There is a scale of density that defines urbanity on that level.
But when we are talking about life quality and about urban qualities then we are talking about the social and communal aspects. Urban life is about being together in a space. There is a certain proximity, there is a certain set of services and opportunities that are available to you and create a civil society, a community. So urbanity is both a very practical thing – a number of people and proximity – but we also talk about the quality that you can assign to a place.

Most cities claim to be unique for marketing reasons. For city planners it is more interesting, what all cities might have in common and makes it possible to transfer concepts.

Allison Dutoit: Jan Gehl would say we are universally more or less the same animal, we share the same desires. Of course there are differences how we manifest these desires as cultures, as families. There are local differences on heritage and topography, on traditions, habits and climate, but the universal „people qualities“ are the same. You basically want a scale of environment that’s appropriate to you [a human scale] and allows you to live a healthy and safe life.

You mentioned a word that seems very important to me: proximity. Traditional planning instruments are talking about density. However, there are different possibilities to define density: the density of buildings, of inhabitants, of people present, of functions etc. What is a reasonable definition of density for your work?

Allison Dutoit: We are really involved in this conversation in our office. The mono-functional habits city planners developed since the 1950s in building districts that are only financial, only retail or only housing do not allow people to come together. They do not enrich our lives in any way and actually cause us to travel, which takes a lot of time.
We refer back to a everyday quality of life and to the mix of people. You achieve that mix of people by mixing work and school, entertainment, pleasure and play, institutions and services, transport and housing,… Rather than segregating all of those elements you can pull them together and create an overlap of functions. Getting different kinds of people proximate and overlapping – people who are young or old, people who are working, studying or retired, people who are partying – makes our lives rich. It also makes sense for value, socially and environmentally, and it appears economically.

How do Gehl Architects start a project?

Allison Dutoit: Often a city recognizes that they need a new strategy, for example for cycling. Or they want to better understand how the public space can be used or want to invite a different kind of users. Our way to start – going right to the core of what Jan Gehl did – is the Public Space/Public Life study. That’s the methodology Jan started to develop in the 1960s: sitting, watching and counting. Making a qualitative assessment of what is going on in public space by watching people, by seeing what they do, where do they move, where do they stop, what is the quality of the environment around them, the qualities of the ground floor facades, the quality of the pavement. Learning where and how the environment is creating invitations through obvious things like a bench or less obvious things like a building edge or a step in the sunshine, which might be the perfect place to sit down.
The public space/public life study provides a baseline of data what is happening there, what the local assets are, what is being missed, who is being missed. Additionally we come up with some recommendations from benchmarking the data against best practice from our work in lots of other cities.

A lot of your projects work on existing city centres or districts. How to deal with completely new developments?

Allison Dutoit: Obviously, the situation in a new district is a little bit different. The question is if I can still do that kind of study if there is no place yet. We might do a similar type of study or spot checks around the adjacent area. We would also involve the stakeholders, the city, local residents to find out how they use the city now, what places they like and use, etc. and again trying to gather the data to understand what might happen in the new district.

A high density can be reached with different types of buildings. A lot of the current developments consist of a tower and „something“ around it. Gehl Architects prefer other typologies…

Allison Dutoit: Indeed. We know that children who live above the fifth floor don't go outside as often as other kids. And if children don't do, the elders don't do it either. So there evolves isolation. We also know that children who go to school by bike or by walking do better in tests as well as being in better health. It is in the architect’s duty to create an engaging and stimulating environment.
A high-rise point building often functionally works with one or two cores what means that you have a number of units going in and out of one door on the ground floor – nobody has a front door, nobody feels any ownership of the ground floor and the space around. In Le Corbusiers vision of the world it looks pretty good, but in the way we manifested that vision the ground plane is actually owned by no one and it’s quite uncomfortable being there. 

An important aspect is the interaction between buildings and public space. What are the key features on the building side to achieve this interaction?

Allison Dutoit: When we think of villages where people would have front gardens, you typically would have a very private but also a semi-private place. If your neighbour walks by you could say hello, wave, make eye-contact. There is also a semi-public zone that might be our street where the children can play safely. And of course there is the very public.
In many contemporary developments that span from private to public has been lost: You have public and you have private. The public spaces tend to be over-scaled and the private places become incredibly interior. It is important that people have a sense of a scale to be able to locate themselves.
In a residential street in Copenhagen you typically would have entrances for every eight or ten units on the street, providing a regular rhythm of doors on the street and people would keep coming and going. And if you manage to create a mix of activities on the ground floor – a bakery, some shops,… – then you have a working public space!

Another threat to the public space is its commercialization and privatization. Are there already too much cafés?

Allison Dutoit: That’s really a topic. As the economic crisis proves, not everyone can afford a four-euro-cafe-latte. If you are relying on the cafés to activate your public space, you risk failure when the cafés fail.
When we are making urban spaces, I think we need to think about the qualities of the edges of the spaces. Jan says, if the edge fails the space fails! A basic question is: Where are the places to sit down? Because very busy places are not necessarily good places – when people choose to linger or stop it can indicate quality. You should have seating in the right places, where people want to sit and not because somebody bought too many benches. Buildings and infrastructure have a great capacity of offering secondary seating. We see that in the old cores of cities where we have buildings articulated with steps or a window ledge – those become places where people find places to stop and to stay in a very good microclimate. Little places that invite you to lean or sit in the sun, even to sit on the ground in some cases.
In our studies we also found out that the cities that excite us are those where something interesting is happening every four to six meters. That’s because we walk at three to five kilometres an hour. Cities need to have articulated and active ground levels creating invitations, creating a street space that offers a lot of choices. We need to make buildings and spaces interesting – also without the café latte.
Further I think we really have a problem with the privatization of public space if larger development areas or even parts of cities are sold to private developers. They design something that increasingly looks like public city space but it is actually under private ownership. You are not allowed to photograph or to congregate. That’s problematic because it’s against the principles of public space.

An intrinsic problem of Graz is the air-pollution. We have to reduce traffic emissions while the population is increasing fast. Copenhagen achieved a significant and sustainable shift of the modal split towards cycling. What could Graz learn from Copenhagen?

Allison Dutoit: It needs to be a process that engages many people: businesses, professionals, stakeholder, political representatives and the average people. There may be hard decisions to make, however they may spur good opportunities as well.
In Copenhagen the shift of the modal split was achieved by linking a lot of things together. It was not only about „let’s take the cars away“, even though it was a front problem there too. There was a significant effort in improving public transport, making it better connected with other modes of transportation. The city became a bikeable city by making the bicycle network inviting everybody, small children and elderly people, students and workers to cycle. The city basically created better options for the people to do something other than using their car. Because you can’t tell me to get out of my car if I don’t have a better option.

Graz is proud to be Austria's „Cycling Capital“. What is your first impression after an afternoon cycling in Graz? What are the main differences to Copenhagen?

Allison Dutoit: The main difference is that the system in Graz is much more changing than in Copenhagen. Sometimes there is a bikepath, sometimes there is none, sometimes it’s on the pavement, sometimes on the street, sometimes in coexistence with pedestrians, sometimes not, sometimes it’s two-way,… The inconsistency relies on the user to either know the city and the network, being very intuitive or able to read signs. None of which are very good solutions for children, for tourists, for the elderly. Copenhagen in contrast has a very clear system that is an invitation to really everyone.

Could you give us an impression of Copenhagen’s cycling strategy?

Allison Dutoit: The Copenhagen bicycle network developed from an evolutionary process. It is about defining key-routes, where we can see that there is a desire. The route from the north into the city centre to Nørreport station for instance has always been a place where you needed a bicycle lane. Later it was changed to a bicycle track, which is separated to make it safer. It got congested what meant it needed to get bigger. It also needed a right-turn-lane to make it safer again. Then the bicycle route needed its own light system. Then it had to be three meters wide because there are so many cyclists. And then green-wave-system was developed for the cyclists to catch all the green lights. That is a set of generational changes that followed the use of people – and it helps the total efficiency of movement

Does pedestrian and cyclist-friendly automatically mean car-hostility?

Allison Dutoit: No. But it means that there is a priority in the sense that people are soft and easily hurt by large metal things and that those large metal things are less easily hurt. And bikes are somewhere in-between. That defines a hierarchy.
There is still a place for cars, taxis, delivery vehicles. All those things have to happen in a city. But you can create a city that is very walkable and bikeable and by pulling the cars out you reinforce that. Of course there are still specific reasons to take your car into the city centre, but it need not be the everyday norm. Because there can be far better options.
The really important thing is that a decision has been made for the common benefit of everyone. In Copenhagen kindergarden groups walk into the city to be in the city, to be on the plaza. You don’t have that happening in kinds of cities like Detroit where I grew up. The parents there wouldn't be happy if their children were taken into the city to go on a walk in the afternoon…
It’s not about banning the car, it’s about creating an appropriate hierarchy.

How do we convince the decision-makers? The car lobbies for instance are fighting for every single parking in the city.

Allison Dutoit: Money always speaks, lobbies always speak. So it can’t be a battle, it only works by getting all those people into the conversation. If you can holistically measure the costs to the city and the society it often gives a better understanding of what the arguments are. There might be an obvious decrease in revenue from car parking, but there will be equivalent increases that compensate that – the health benefits, the social benefits, the tourism benefits, the benefits from a higher quality of life. This is where it is important to have data not only on vehicular traffic, but on people, on use, on quality. We need evidence to make good decisions, and we also need some ambition.
People who drive cars are also people. Everybody is a pedestrian at some point of his or her journey, as Jan says. He doesn't like to talk about pedestrians – he always talks about people.

After the short insight you had into Graz, is there a good advise you can give a small but fast-growing, traditional but committed city?

Allison Dutoit: Graz is a very beautiful city that has many assets. It has got topography, and an amazing change of the seasons. It has got heritage and diverse people, institutions and industry. I think it is about recognizing these assets, recognizing what makes Graz particular and local. Recognizing what is it that makes the students not want to leave Graz after their studies. Those are great things to build on. Take the time to test things out and see what can happen.

Thank you very much for the interview!

Allison Dutoit has practiced and taught in the United States, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Her broad experience encompasses small to large scales, from interior design and spatial planning to architecture and the urban scale, and private and public sector work. She has been responsible for the delivery of complex teams and remits, from inception to implementation. A dedicated collaborator and respected teacher, she treasures bringing the right people and components together, crafting processes and dialogues that elicit delight and deliver better places for people.

16. + 17.11.2023