Designing the Human-Centered City

By Stephen Goldsmith • January 31, 2019

Across the globe, leading mayors now champion a new appreciation of the role of design on livability. Last year, the City of Los Angeles gained attention for hiring its first chief design officer, tasked with improving civic architecture and public design across the city. Poached from a role as architecture critic for the L.A. Times, the city’s new design guru promises to tackle a variety of challenges ranging from homelessness to climate change through the lens of urban architecture.

But while L.A. was lauded for its new commitment to design, it is far from the only city that has recently strengthened the connection of design with livability and human behavior. In fact, today’s cities are ushering in a new era of design, defined by a human-centered public architecture that mirrors the user-focused design process found in many Silicon Valley product shops.

This emerging movement is centered on three pillars: the presence of high ranking officials with responsibility, access to much more data collection that allows cities to better understand the implications of design on wellbeing, and better visualization techniques to enrich community feedback.

Part of this process involves asking residents what they want their city to look like. Today, a host of new technologies exist that allow residents to meaningfully understand and contribute to city design plans to ensure projects represent their priorities.

UrbanSim, an open-source tool created by a UC Berkeley professor, integrates a host of datasets in order to visualize projects and predict effects on things like land valuation and employment patterns. On the platform, citizens can create their own designs, comment on existing plans, and share their input with neighbors and government officials. The City of San Francisco is using the technology to evaluate the suitability of land parcels and buildings for affordable housing, relying on the tool’s data-driven predictions and resident input to find the best solution for locals.

Urban designers have begun to understand that designing a city means designing for the well-being of the people who live there.

Other cities have offered residents simulated experiences of new design projects so they can offer personal feedback. In Boston, Emerson College created a multiplayer game that allows users to participate in simulated activities in the Chinatown neighborhood. Users are tasked with finding a job, a place to live, and a place to socialize, and then provide comments to inform planning priorities. A host of other cities have used augmented reality technology that allows residents to enter immersive visualizations of urban redesigns and give their feedback on proposals.

In addition to surveying residents on their preferences, urban planners have increasingly begun studying resident behavior in order to understand the effects of design changes.

Danish architect Jan Gehl is one of the pioneers of this strategy. He intuited that the rationalist design of cities was detrimental to civic health and vitality, as the urban landscape often prioritized machines over people.

To test this theory, Gehl would roam the streets of cities counting the number of people sitting, standing, walking, and biking in public spaces. In many cases, his observations supported his theory: public spaces were underused, often dominated by cars and skyscrapers rather than people.

Over the years, cities across the world have increasingly enlisted Gehl’s help and adopted his strategies. In 1994, Gehl worked with the City of Melbourne to increase pedestrian-friendly public space. By 2004, the number of public spaces on streets and squares increased by 71 percent, and pedestrian traffic on the city’s central Bourke Street Mall surged from 43,000 to 81,000 per day. In 2008, Gehl studied New York’s Times Square and found that while 90 percent of users were pedestrians, only 11 percent of the space was allocated to them. Per Gehl’s suggestions, New York carved out new bike lanes and pedestrian plazas for non-drivers, and pedestrian traffic increased by 11 percent while pedestrian injuries dropped by 39 percent.

Lately, Gehl has sought to spread his methodology more broadly. In 2015, he launched the Gehl Institute, an effort to drive human-centered architecture in cities by offering strategies for understanding human behavior via pedestrian data. The institute launched the Public Life Data Protocol, a playbook for collecting, organizing, and sharing data that can reveal how public design affects residents. In 2017, both Baltimore and Chicago used this strategy to understand activity in public plazas, and redesigned underused spaces to create vibrant social hubs.

Some urban planners and architects have sought to dig even deeper into human behavior, teaming up with behavioral scientists in an effort to align the urban landscape with human psychology. This emerging field, often called behavioral architecture, seeks to understand and integrate those elements that contribute to lasting citizen satisfaction.

In a variety of psychological studies, researchers have measured subjects’ responses to different physical landscapes using devices like bracelets that monitor skin conductance and electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that measure brain activity related to mood. Unsurprisingly, these measures often bely subjects’ first-person accounts of their experience, in some cases indicating stress when they report calm or dampened mood when they report happiness.

In one study, researchers led subjects through the streets of Manhattan, measuring their mood via smart wristbands and on-the-spot emotion surveys. As they walked past the uniform glass facade of the Whole Foods in Tribeca, their arousal and mood states took a noticeable dive, and they walked faster as if to escape the area. Later, as they passed a stretch of smaller diverse restaurants and stores, their mood improved, and they reported feeling more lively and engaged.

One of the takeaways from this and other similar studies is that people prefer areas with visual complexity over more homogeneous landscapes, as diversity in landscape keeps them more engaged and interested. This accounts in part for cities’ emphasis on green spaces and other natural architectural elements, which offer contrast with the typical industrial features of city life. Vancouver, for example, has sought to ensure that residents have a view of the mountains, forest, and ocean to the north and west even while downtown.

People also tend to prefer areas where they interact meaningfully with other people. For many years, urban designers have intuitively known that socialization is important to city health, and have taken steps to encourage interaction. Starting in 1970s, William Whyte advised planners to arrange objects in public spaces closer together in order to nudge people closer and spark conversations.

Today, psychologists have been able to test and confirm these conclusions, showing that residents of cities are more prone to mental illness than those in rural areas due to a lack of social bonding and cohesion. In response, planners have pursued projects intended to improve social life, such as co-housing developments where residents share common spaces. And, other more common interventions like replacing roads with pedestrian and bike paths have also enhanced a sense of community, encouraging more spontaneous social interactions like stopping in local shops.

Urban designers have begun to understand that designing a city means designing for the well-being of the people who live there. Going forward, it will be critical that designers think about how their work affects all people, in all their differences. Today’s data collection and visualization tools allow better planning, more inclusivity and a much better ability to actually model the effect of changes. But it also starts with mayoral recognition that design affects behaviors and livability.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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