Patterns in Sustainable Cities from East to West

We often look at cities as a collection of buildings and structures that humans have built and now inhabit; and in many modern cities around the world, that have been designed and laid out by professionals, this is true. In these cities we also see empty streets, and public life-shifting indoors to privately-owned spaces such as malls and shopping centers. Yet if we look back at older cities that have grown organically, without oversight, we see the opposite. Here, cities are not a collection of buildings, but a collection of space in between the buildings: plazas and courtyards and alleys and streets, which humans inhabit. These are the cities where public life thrives, that bring people together in the shared public realm and create distinctive identities of their own. These are the cities that planners must study, and understand, in order to truly design for people.

This was the major takeaway from the webinar entitled “Sustainable and Liveable Cities: From West to East” on December 9, 2021, in which Professor Jan Gehl, Dr Birgitte B Svarre, Dr To Kien, and Dzung Do Nguyen (Co-founder + CEO, enCity) spoke about their work and experiences in studying and designing cities. Professor Gehl and Dr Svarre both spoke on their famous book which has just been launched in Vietnamese version, “How to study public life”, and the studies of street life and public spaces that went into it, with case studies and researchs in Copenhagen, New York and London. Dr To Kien and Mr Dzung both spoke on the Asian context, and Dzung shared real examples of how enCity applies these principles in our current works in Vietnamese context.

The webinar was within the Nordic Sustainable Cities Exhibition

From the west, we learned the importance of studying the public realm. Professor Gehl shared his core philosophy of “what you count, you care for” as the founding principle of his work, sharing how he taught himself to plan for people rather than buildings, through observing the city and how it was used. Data collection is the fundamental first step in understanding a city. Gathering information on how people move and live within spaces allows us to identify patterns and problems; from these, we can understand the roots of an issue and develop appropriate solutions. Copenhagen has had an ongoing studying of public life for decades, which has been crucial in informing its major public policies such as supporting urban cycling. This study has been so successful that the city now has a Department of Public Life within the government, to oversee such policies.


Professor Jan Gehl shared about Car-free public spaces in central Copenhagen

Dr Svarre delved into more detail on this topic, giving examples of the tools and metrics used to determine the success of public spaces that are covered in the book. The eight tools she covered were counting; plotting on a plan; tracing; tracking; looking for traces; photo documentation; keeping a diary; and going for test walks. To illustrate counting, she gave the example of Bryant Park in New York, where the ratio of women to men is counted daily; if there is less than 52% of women occupying the park, they take this as a warning sign that something needs adjusting. Dr Svarre also gave the example of Times Square, where pedestrianisation of the street was measured and found to result in 85% more staying activity, as well as a 40% reduction in pedestrian injuries, and emphasized how important counting and recording these figures is to quantify impact of specific policies. In Copenhagen, these same tools and metrics were crucial in creating the changes that make it renowned as a people-friendly city today.


Tools to make people visible, shared by Dr Birgitte B Svarre

From the east, Dr To Kien spoke about how human behaviour is universal, as are the problems that cities face today, despite the superficial differences that may be observed across cultures. Dr To Kien also highlighted the importance of place-making in the Asian context, from spontanous interventions, whether by individuals (pop-ups and hacks) or collectives (guerilla design), to more organised measures such as initiative participatory design and strategic placemaking. He ended with a summary of the particularities of the Asian context; among them, the idea that space is more ambiguous in the east. Where many cultures have a clear line between public and private, in Asia this line is blurred, and most community life happens within this grey zone, in places such as sidewalks, common corridors or central courtyards. The instinct for spontaneous intervention is also strong, with creativity and flexibility driving the use of public spaces.


“What makes a sustainable and livable Vietnamese city?”, shared by Dzung Do Nguyen

Dzung Do Nguyen followed this with an exploration of two aspects of Vietnamese planning, and how they can be incorporated into modern planning practices to create more human-scale and people-friendly developments. The first is the use of nature as a framework for urban design, in which Mr Nguyen spoke about how historically, cities have been oriented to natural monuments or according to water flow and wind direction, using the examples of Ho Chi Minh City and Hue. He then explained how these principles were adapted and applied to projects such as enCity’s North Dalat District, which is centered on a linear spine leading from a restored central lake to views over Lang Bian mountain, and at a larger scale to strategic planning such as Ben Tre Strategic Vision for 2045, in which enCity used the exisiting patterns of settlement to inform guidelines for future urban growth. The second aspect is the use of public space as a community living room, echoing Dr To Kien’s remarks on the porosity between public and private space in the Asian context. Here, Mr Nguyen gave examples of sidewalks as the centre of public engagement, citing Annette Kim’s Sidewalk City data on peak hours and types of activity, and referenced enCity projects in Bac Ninh and Hoi An as examples where these principles are central to the urban design strategy.


Hoi An Waterfront Eco-community, enCity’s project using public space as a community living room

While cities such as Copenhagen, Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City may appear very different to the casual observer, the same patterns and behaviours can be observed here, and in many other cities around the world. Fundamentally, people seek out spaces to gather, and connect, where they can feel sheltered, safe and comfortable. Good planning and urban design will support and facilitate this instinct, and in doing so will cultivate liveable, lovable, and distinctive cities.

Heather Banerd (Senior Associate in Integrated Design + Sustainability)