Face to face with Ola Gustafsson
Side by side with Jan Gehl
Ola Gustafsson, long-time Director Architect of the Danish studio with Jan Gehl (corner inset). His work can be seen mainly in China, Scandinavia, and South America, where he works in collaboration with local teams.
The appeal of a place begins with the city and its capacity to interpret the needs of its inhabitants. The commitment of the architect and urban planner Jan Gehl and his team is a tangible example of this approach in many international metropolises. We talk about it with the director of the Copenhagen studio.
There was a time when even here in Copenhagen we had an incredible number of cars. Every square had a parking lot and the streets were teeming with vehicles, buses, lorries, and noise.
There were not many bicycles and, for cyclists, traveling was very dangerous. Then the Municipality began to prohibit the circulation of automobiles in some streets and to free up the squares from the cars. In the beginning, people complained, claiming that such restrictions were unnecessary, that they were not inherent to Nordic culture. Then, when they saw how places were transformed and having been able to experiment with the opportunities that were being created for everyone, their attitude changed. At that time I was a young parent, bringing my children to pedestrian areas where they could play and run about freely – something that was previously unthinkable. Thanks to these changes it has become increasingly easy to convince people that these transformations of public areas have delivered valuable benefits. I think it is very important to share what we now call "experiences in excellence".
If we observe how public life in Copenhagen has actually become pleasant, examples created in inspirational models applicable in other cities around the world are transformed. In 20 years, any metropolis will be able to become like the Danish capital, provided that today they decide that this example is something worth changing.” These are the words of Jan Gehl, a Danish architect, born in 1936, expert in the field of urban and architectural planning, during a Masterclass held in 2016 at his studio in Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen.
A sustainable model
Aarhus, Denmark. Trælasten (The Timberyard) is an urban district pre-certified Platinum by the DGNB (German Sustainable Building Council). The development plan for the area included analyses of the businesses, the microclimate, soil and environmental conditions, traffic, circular resources, and surveys on the habits of students. Within the development plan, the study also functioned as a landscaper for streets, squares, and parks.
His research began during the 1960s and strongly contributed to changing the perception of the city and above all of the liveability of public spaces, having worked for years observing and investigating the behaviours of human beings and how they interact with constructions and among themselves.
By doing so, he reconverted human settlements, both large and small, in safe, sustainable and healthy places, restoring homo sapiens to his optimal habitat. In 2000, together with the urban designer Helle Søholt, he founded Gehl Architects, an urban research and design studio with offices in Copenhagen and San Francisco, that today continues to advance its research further and propose innovative urban plans in many metropolises around the globe. We spoke with Ola Gustafsson, Director Architect of the Danish studio, for many years beside Gehl.
His work evolved mainly in China, Scandinavia, and South America, where he works in collaboration with local teams.
The importance of being an architect today. A profession that not only deals with creativity, but also requires an enormous sense of responsibility towards the community, territory, climate, mobility, social relations, health and hygiene. How do you carry out your work?
Compared to many other professions, architects have more opportunities to relate to the complex problems that the world is dealing with, because they are the interface between human life and the surrounding environment. In order to truly make a difference, we must understand not only the technical solutions available to us, but also what lies behind the behaviours of people. The recurring question that I must ponder is: why do we make the choices we do? Only after having sought out the answers can we create solutions that truly work for society as a whole. Creativity is an important resource for architects, but so is empathy, or understanding people and interpreting their needs.
What should the cities of tomorrow be like?
More humane, more “local”, more inviting, more equitable, healthier, more connected, more ecologically diverse, more flexible, more multifunctional. Technology is certainly one tool for creating more sustainable cities, but we must not forget the end user – the person – to project cities that help to improve the citizens’ quality of life.
In order to truly make a difference, we must understand not only the technical solutions available to us, but also what lies behind the behaviours of people. Creativity is an mportant resource for architects, but so is empathy, understanding people and interpreting their needs.
Life around the station
Beijing. China. Liyuan Metro Station doubles as a subway stop and station access. The requalification transformed a zone used exclusively as a passageway into an attractive place for both the inhabitants of the neighbourhood and for those who are simply in transit. The areas for parking bicycles, the bike trails, and the pedestrian walkways were optimised and green spaces were created. Works began in 2021.
An urban integration project
Copenhagen. Tivoli Gardens. This area is the object of a concept study for a new access area for the famous Tivoli amusement park, involving the requalification of the street to harmonise the entrance square with (light) urban mobility, favouring ecological diversity and promoting the use of that space.
From industry to neighbourhood
Stockholm. Sweden. Slakthus District. The objective is to transform an ex-industrial zone into a neighbourhood with a dynamic 24/7 lifestyle. Hosting different activities capable of animating the entire zone all day long, a model area will be designed where people can live, work, enjoy the outdoors and spaces designed for cultural activities and shopping.
Cities have a tendency to be more and more densely populated. How can we create a more harmonious quality of life and reduce the differences?
By concentrating on the things we share. First of all, public spaces. High quality public spaces (intended as squares and parks, but also streets, abandoned areas, and courtyards, indoor spaces, etc.), can be a platform to improve the quality of life and promote social interaction across age, geographic, cultural, and other types of differences. They can also give rise to sustainable behaviours. In the densely populated cities, the sharing of spaces becomes even more important to create access to services we need every day.
Can architecture help to overcome the political, religious, and economic conflicts of our society?
Not in and of itself, but when the practical aspects are combined with social, economic, and other types of efforts, architecture, and more specifically urban planning, this can help to build a more equitable city. In an era when sources of information become sounding boards that echo our convictions and social media create information bubbles where we rarely listen or hear the viewpoints of people with ideas that are different from our own, the public spaces of our cities must instead create a forum where we can meet people who are different from us and learn to co-exist as a community.
Public services: what should a sustainable city offer its citizens?
The first thing is an equitable and sustainable transportation system – which means public transportation, pedestrian and cycling infrastructures -, which offer equal access to urban destinations, as well as vicinity to basic public services, like schools, health care, and work places. An example is the mixed-use city, or places where different services co-exist: offices, schools, shops, cultural centres, private residences. I would add quality public spaces, including green spaces, places of social interaction, playgrounds, recreational facilities, healthy dietary options, clean air.
Personal hygiene and protection from viruses and bacteria have become important demands in our daily routine: how important is it to plan for public restrooms capable of offering hygiene and safety?
It is very important. In effect, these spaces – including those for small children – but also those for socializing and meeting others safely, so outdoors, – avoid social isolation in case of future pandemics / lockdowns.
Can the circular economy be applied to architecture? Can we imagine buildings made with recyclable materials?
Of course. We must not only imagine these things, we need to make all aspects of the construction sector much more circular.
Much of a building’s ecological footprint is determined during construction. The most sustainable solution lies in the reuse of existing structures, so the absolute priority should be to create cities and buildings that are sufficiently flexible, in such a way as to be able to adapt their use to meet different needs over time. The traditional city block is an example of this flexibility, where the ground floors can change their intended use independently of their upper floors, infilling (walls that are not support structures, but only serve to define and enclose the rooms of a building, editor's note.) may integrate existing building and, consequently, these infrastructures can be adapted to serve new uses.
Urban furniture on the veranda
Philadelphia. USA. Thanks to flexible urban furnishings, an area overlooking the 30th Street Station, an important railway hub abandoned for years, has been brought back to life. In collaboration with the University City District, swing seats were created to engage passers-by, creating a zone of social interaction and relaxation. This project dates to 2015.
The city at the foot of the Andes
Santiago. Chile. District of Huechuraba. The Gehl studio was invited by the Tánica group to develop a Master Plan on 150 hectares spread out over abandoned areas and agricultural sites. Image of a public space with an urban imprint at the foot of the mountains. A meaningful dialogue between Nature and the comfort of the citizenry.
A test as a working method
San Francisco. USA. In 2015 this American city started up the Market Street Prototyping Festival, to test how to improve the quality of the zone. The Gehl studio, together with different institutions, involved the public in the interpretation of local needs and the proposal of solutions to create a Better Market Street. Some pics of the cocoon seating shelters.
It is necessary to design urban spaces rich in biodiversity and create environmental opportunities that host wild species; green roofs and walls, permeable surfaces and tree-lined streets that create ecological corridors for birds and insects, that the existing asphalt deserts or grassy lawns are not able to support.
The relationship with nature: can we still recover a synergy between rtificially constructed environments and natural ones?
Of course, absolutely, but we must be much better at thinking holistically about those eco-systemic services that even a densely populated system can provide. For example, planning urban lawns with the diversity of plants and environmental opportunities for indigenous species, green roofs and walls, permeable surfaces and tree-lined streets that create ecological corridors for birds and insects, because asphalt deserts or grassy lawns do not offer ecological diversity.
Culture plays an important role in the development of cities: how should its presence be manifested? In which spaces?
To be more accessible and attract a new public, the cultural institutions of a certain relevance should literally open their doors and connect with the public life outside. In places like the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and the Quartier des spectacles in Montreal, cultural events in quality public spaces contribute to creating a stimulating neighbourhood for all visitors, thereby lowering the access threshold to culture.
Which projects is the Jan Gehl studio working on now?
A large variety of projects that range from data collection, to analysis, to urban strategy and the planning of new districts and urban spaces, all centred on the human experience and the public sphere as a fabric of connection. Among others, I can cite: air quality and urban living, or how to mitigate exposure to pollution in urban spaces, in particular for children. This combines the analysis of two sets of very different data: the levels of pollution and the analysis of public life (where children move and spend their time in the city). The actions include incentives to frequent places less exposed and an urban replanning of spaces characterised by high levels of pollution (for more information:
Reducing pollution with green barriers
Air quality in the city is known to determine the health and quality of the inhabitants’ lives. The project elaborated for two highly-trafficked streets in Copenhagen aims to create green barriers between pedestrians and automobiles, thereby eliminating parking lots on the surface and slowing down the speed of traffic.
Life in the times of Covid
An outdoor concert in the Vesterbro quarter of Copenhagen during reopening after the lockdown. The image is part of a study that the Gehl study conducted in four Danish cities during the pandemic. Find the results of this study by visiting
Another job is a concept study for a new access area for the famous Tivoli amusement park, involving the requalification of the street to harmonise the entrance square with (light) urban mobility, favouring ecological diversity and promoting the use of that space:
I can cite a third study: the analysis and design of a metropolitan square in Beijing, with particular attention paid to the pedestrian and cycling environment and to the role of the square as a neighbourhood meeting place. (for more information:
We are also working on a master plan of new urban districts, with the objective of promoting a sustainable lifestyle, in Huechuraba, in Chile, where Gehl delivered a preliminary project to guide a new urban district that unites the city, the existing quarters and the rural and mountainous landscapes with particular focus on the use of the ecological peculiarities of each site (for more information:
What are the differences between your two offices - Europe and the USA? Are the problems you deal with similar or do they change according to the geographic context?
Influence and inspiration are reciprocal between the two offices and the continual exchange are sources of enrichment for our work. In Europe we have public institutions that are more present and with which we tend to collaborate more, while in the United States private companies assume greater responsibility for urban solutions, as do the strong base movements. Even if the urban contexts are different in the "old" and "new” worlds and influence the work, the basic needs of people are similar and constitute the base of the activities that we carry out both in Europe, in the United States and elsewhere.
Shanghai Street Design Guideline
A manual for designing the Chinese cities of the near future. It begins with the concept of the city being, above all, a place inhabited by individuals. The human scale must be the starting point to create roads, neighbourhoods, sustainable districts capable of safeguarding the health of the inhabitants while triggering neighbourly relations and inter-cultural exchanges.