Jeff Risom: Creating "Platforms for Yes" to Spur Mobility in Cities of the Future

Posted 03/16/18 by Amy Kapp in America's Trails

RTC's Amy Kapp interviews Jeff Risom from Gehl at 2018 SXSW
Rails to Trails was at the SXSW Cities Summit this week, exploring the role of trails in the cities of the future. I sat down with Jeff Risom, partner and managing director U.S. of Gehl—a cutting-edge, international design firm that focuses on the intersection of quality of life and the built environment. Jeff talked about innovative solutions to making cities more equitable with regard to mobility and transportation. Here’s what he had to say—thanks Jeff!

Amy Kapp, Rails to Trails magazine: Jeff, tell us about what your firm specializes in.

Jeff Risom: Yeah so we're urban designers, but we really take a social science angle with that as well. So it's a lot about people's behavior in space and really the way that the built environment impacts that behavior.

From what I understand Gale focuses on the relationship between the built environment and quality of life as a big approach to a lot of their work. All your all your work. Tell me more about that.

Yeah so basically what we believe is that you shape spaces or buildings or infrastructure, and that's only about half of the job. Right? Because then people use it in a way that either you predicted as a designer or that you couldn't have imagined. And so the job is to go back and then understand how people were actually using that infrastructure, using that design, and create more of a feedback loop between ... design and usebetween what we planned for and how it's actually lived. 

That's great. From your experience ... I know you've worked in major cities in New York and Mexico City ... San Francisco …

We’ve worked in about 100 cities around the world.

From your experiences, what are some of the major challenges cities actually are facing and have been have been facing with regard to transportation and land use, specifically.

I think one overarching problem is that they're not thinking about the two joined up …. People are making transportation decisions, and maybe loosely equating it to issues of affordability, to sprawl, to the way that the communities either are integrated or not—both socially and even racially or social demographically. So I think the relationship between transportation and land use planning is oftentimes just too siloed.

I think another issue is that every city is afraid of change of any nature. So anytime you go in and try to change the status quo, there's an automatic backlash to it. I think it's interesting; in cities we work in, every city says, “Hey we're different. You know our citizens are really against change.” And we hear that everywhere, right? So we try to find a way to invert that relationship and basically create platforms for yes, rather than the way that a lot of the planning system is put together now—[in] which basically, the only way that you get to have input as a citizen is if you’re against something. So those are a couple things that we see around the world, actually.

That's interesting. So what are some of the platforms for yes? How do you go about that?

One example, you mentioned New York before … so working with the city … we helped make some principles and guidelines, but the city had to run with this plan, which was that they wanted to invert supply and demand.

Union Square in New York City
Union Square in New York City

The city created the New York City Plaza Program, which basically says, 'Hey, we're going to invest in two or three plazas next year. Who wants one?’ Then the people that are invited to go participate are the ones that want change. It's like, if you don't want a plaza in her neighborhood, then don't go to the meeting. Right? That is I think the most brilliant example I've seen to date.

And what we help the city do is really identify which sites, which neighborhoods … what typology of spaces would be ripe for that platform for yes. You can't go do that everywhere, but if you're pretty purposeful about where you want to do it—what are the conditions that you’ve got to supply—then that’s just a great example to get voices at the table that are constructive and that want to make their communities better, rather than the voices at the table that have other interests beyond necessarily the collective quality of life.

That's great. I just have two more questions for you. What trends are popping up that cities are using to increasingly tackle issues such as traffic congestion or making sure that there are balance transportation systems that are reaching everybody—the entire population including underserved communities.

I don't think they're doing enough. This is South by Southwest, and there are probably 20 panels about autonomous vehicles—it's all about, you know, ride sharingand I think a lot of folks are resting on that technological innovation to be the silver bullet.

Ride Share App
Ride Share App

And our experience is, we're trying to always invert that discussion. We're saying, “What do we want our streets to be like? What kind of life do we want to see there? What role will they play in civic society in places of meeting and commerce and the delight and curiosity? So let's set those values for our streets, and then let's figure out transportation innovations or technology that can support that rather than the inverse.”

I haven't heard enough of that here. I keep on saying that to everyone. To people, I’m like, “That sounds great, but how is this electric scooter going to get us there?” I think we're still very gadget fixated and not process oriented enough and not really inverting—not really focusing on the values that we want for our streets and communities, and then making rules, making guidelines, making investments based on those values.

That makes a lot of sense, and so asking this next question I feel like I'm putting a qualifier of trails, biking and walking on it. But my next and last question would be: How do you feel that trails and walking and biking infrastructure can really play a role in these efforts or are playing a role in these efforts already?

Well I think they're vital, right? What I think is interesting … what I love a lot about this idea of … rails to trails is this idea of using what you have. Using existing infrastructure and really revealing the beauty and potential of it, and building upon it rather than always trying to build new. That's one thing.

I think especially when talking about sidewalks, we think sometimes that we can just put a sidewalk in, and if it's a certain width, then people will walk. But we know that there's much more to walking than walking. It's directly related to land use, it's related to the functions, to the experiences that you have while you're walking along that sidewalk. So, I think we see a huge role for those efforts. But again, they can't be done in isolation, and they really need to be joined up with all sorts of things ranging from economic development, to education and health, to climate change and resilience. And the more we are thinking really about, ‘How do we kill multiple birds with one stone with an initiative,' the better off we're going to be.

Jeff Risom—thank you so much for being with us today, and have a wonderful rest of your visit at SXSW.

Thank you.

Rails to Trails magazine attended the Cities Summit at SXSW on March 12 and 13, 2018, to explore the role of trails in the cities of the future. The Cities Summit at SXSW is an opportunity for civic leaders and creative urbanists of all disciplines to join together to learn, strategize and form coalitions to transform the cities of tomorrow. The convening explored the role of culture, design and innovation in shaping the equitable, resilient and livable cities of the future. Check out our complete coverage on the TrailBlog.
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