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Welcome to the wonderful world of livable cities!

Urban planning and design involves working with wild visions for the future. Urban designers shape environments into lively and attractive centers all over the world.

“It’s great to be an urban planner” Head of Urban Planning and Design Jenni Lautso summed it up after Sito’s Living City event.

The theme of the seminar was People and  Smart City: Our Living Environment Now and in the Future. The difficulty of forecasting the future was made clear at the start, when futurist Elina Hiltunen from What’s Next Consulting Oy amused the audience with the visions of her colleagues from decades past on life in the 21st century. However, trees that glow in the dark and eliminate the need for street lighting, clouds that change color to warn of pollution, 3D-printed houses, and robot pants are existing and developing technology.

Design for people

“It is essential to step back and pose the fundamental questions. Cities should be made for people”, stressed the seminar’s keynote speaker Birgitte Svarre.

Svarre represents the Danish firm Gehl Architects, which has implemented a number of projects to revitalize the centers of the world’s metropolises. Brigitte Svarre holds a doctorate from the Technical University of Denmark. She is the author of several books, of which the latest,  ”How to Study Public Life”, was co-authored with the founder of the firm, architect Jan Gehl.

Jan Gehl already noticed in the 1960s that modern urban planning does not respond to people’s real needs. “Oversized spaces and the dominance of cars drive people away,” Birgitte Svarre said. “People are social, they need other people to enjoy themselves, and maybe benches to sit on.”

“We need to decide whether we want to design cities for cars or for cyclists and pedestrians,” Svarre pointed out. “At least the latter form a presence in the urban space.”

The implementation of Gehl Architects’ urban design projects to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists and for spending time in the urban space always starts with careful research. The urban space is analyzed by means of observation, user surveys, and experience analysis. After short-term pilots, the results are analyzed before the final implementation of the plan. It may come as a surprise that the revitalization of urban space has often resulted in measurable positive effects on trade activity, and traffic problems.

According to Svarre, the same method can be used to revitalize urban space anywhere, even if the model as such cannot be directly copied from one city to the next. “Local, cultural, topographical, and climate differences naturally need to be taken into account,” she noted. “Basically, however, people are the same everywhere.”

Revitalization of urban space

A good example of the revitalization of an area is the Tulli area in Tampere, which is gradually becoming more functional and lively through infill development and is developing into a true urban community. Project manager Veikko Vänskä from the City of Tampere explained that traffic, lighting, art, and events planning for the area is underway, and decisions are expected to be made as early as next year.

The increasing popularity of online shopping has resulted in a fundamental change in commerce, emptying shopping centers and medium-sized city centers all over Finland. Not all is lost, however, as the online shopping survey conducted by Sito showed that there will continue to be a high demand for genuinely appealing commercial destinations. Consumer behavior is also changing. Even traditional hypermarket operators can now be found in city centers.

“In the future, shopping centers as well as city centers need to be increasingly experiential to attract customers,” Olli Jokinen, M.Sc. (Eng.) emphasized.

Smart urban designer

“With the world changing at such dramatic speed, what should an urban designer’s expertise encompass?” asked Aija Staffans, Senior Research Fellow at Aalto University, who served as the facilitator of the panel discussion. “They should understand people,” said Mikko Rikala, Design Product Manager from Sito Oy. Head of Department Elina Väistö, whose work includes research on intelligent transport, highlighted an understanding of automation and robotics, while Elina Hiltunen brought up a vision of future scenarios, the skill to envision, and strong technological skills. Veikko Vänskä called for communication skills and the ability to analyze information, and Vesa Siitari, Vice President, Sales, at Elisa Appelsiini mentioned the courage to experiment and fail.

2015_Elava_kaupunki_paneelikesk_1400x800Urban planning requires knowledge, and there does not seem to be any shortage of information as such. “The problem may be whether it’s the right kind of information, in the right place and in the right form, and how well it can be found and exploited,” Veikko Vänskä pointed out.

“An urban designer must have very wide and multidisciplinary know-how. No individual can master the complex issues of sustainable communities alone. Multidisciplinary teamwork is a necessity. This is one of basic principles of the Sito Livable City approach,” stressed Jenni Lautso.

“That is just one more reason why urban planning is such a fascinating field!”

Text: Dakota Lavento