Speakers interview TEDxMaastrichtSalon: Riccardo Marini

Riccardo Marini is director of Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, Denmark. Riccardo is an Architect and Chartered Town Planner with a deep knowledge of developing people-centred solutions. He is challenged by how the bureaucratic systems we have created, in the name of efficiency, destroy the kind of places that bring joy to our hearts. He is certain that the path to health, happiness, wealth and wellbeing is one that puts people, their culture and art central to our planning process. Riccardo has come to a simple conclusion that places are a refection of the culture of the people who created them.

Tell us more about your current projects, how are you making a difference in the world?

A few years ago a simple question was asked of all who worked for Gehl Architects, ‘why do you work for Gehl Architects?’ The fantastic and worrying answer came back very loudly ‘to make the world a better place!’ Although we are a commercial company this is the ethos that attracted my colleagues and I to work together. The difficult thing is that we have to pay the ‘mortgage’ and consequently we need to charge fees for the work we do although we do pro-bono work that is so good for the soul.

One of my roles with Gehl Architects is to promulgate our way of looking at the world, this is a direct consequence of Jan Gehl’s thoughts, research and writings since the 1960’s. This takes me all over the globe from Australia to Argentina to Mexico and to many European cities. As a director I also have projects that I am responsible for. Currently I am dealing with projects in Almaty Kazakhstan, Glasgow and London in the United Kingdom and Venice in Italy.

Almaty is one of our classic Public Space Public Life surveys (PSPL). Jan developed this technique and it’s one of the basic tools we use to develop our understanding of what the issues are in any one place. “You count what you care about”- well all cities measure and count vehicular movements. Therefore cars are well catered for, as Jan would say “We make cars very happy”. Our PSPL surveys measure and count people their movements and activities. This coupled with our Urban Quality Criteria, allows us to really get to understand a place and work out if there are any issues that may need dealt with.

In Almaty a city of 1.5 million people we find a situation that is common thoroughout the world, the pursuit of the ‘American dream’ and the consequent total car domination. Our PSPL will allow us to make recommendations on what and how to make this fascinating city better for its inhabitants and visitors. One of the most well-known example of this kind of project is the work we carried out for the Bloomberg administration in Manhattan, New York, where we enabled the temporary pedestrian priority of sections of Broadway. These temporary or pilot projects where a device to enable change in a context which does not easily welcome change. The success of this project was down to the strong political leadership given by Michael Bloomberg and his commissioner for transport Janette Sadik-Khan.

In Glasgow we are developing a regeneration framework for the city council. What we pitched was that we would not do the usual regeneration framework, as I describe them ‘regeneration by numbers’, but we would co-create a real framework that understood the real issues of the place and enabled the co-creation of place specific solutions for Glasgow. Again this is not about cutting and pasting from a successful portfolio of work but allowing the people of the place, including the politicians and city officials, to come up with the right solutions for their city.

In London I am advising on a large scale masterplan, on how to make this extremely valuable development project into the kind of place ‘normal’ people might want to go to for a coffee or a stroll, the kind of place I would like to live in. Not the usual bland soulless environments which I find all over the world. Environments which have made buckets of money for someone, but that someone would never dream of spending time in that place let alone live there. It is also a fantastic opportunity to develop appropriate and equitable solutions for high density living in a 21 Century city. A challenge that faces many global cities.

In Venice we have been assisting the municipality in looking at how to reinvent one of the most historic quarters of the city. Ensuring that it does not become Disney Land but primarily a place for Venetians and then for visitors. I hope that these and all the many other projects we are working on make a difference by making sure that people are once again central to the reasons for cities being.

What is the current state of the field you work in? What direction do you think it’s going in?

Well how long do you have?! Architecture, Urbanism, Planning, Place Making and Active Movement are areas we are involved in and we see that in certain parts of the world there is a change in attitude that is making it easier to make cities better for people, happy healthy and wealthy places. But sadly we see many areas where unbridled development that is purely focused on the notions of how to efficiently solve city ‘problems’ and make the most money possible is creating nightmare cities that are unsustainable but critically very sad, unhealthy and scary palaces. These places are the future problems for us all, unless we develop a more equitable way of creating and growing our cities a way which puts people first. Otherwise there will be incredible suffering and tension which can only lead to future conflict.

I am appalled by the standard of work that many of my fellow ‘professionals’ seem to deliver when they work away from their home. Working in a far away place does not mean that the standard should be lower. We have a duty to try and make the world a better place not only to collect a fee and then go home.

This attitude is one that is creating appalling environments, which will only have to be torn down at a later date, when the people of the place are able to demand better for themselves and their children. This approach corrodes local identities, creating ‘every where nowhere’ kind of places which are carbon copies of the ‘every where nowhere’ places which have been created in the cities that these illustrious ‘professionals’ come from. It makes me very angry and sad it’s ‘cultural imperialism’ without a meaningful culture! We ‘designers’ are supposed to be problem solvers. What seems to be happening is that we solve one problem by creating a myriad of other ones, we have moved on or I should say we should have moved on from wanting to dump our recycled grand statement anywhere we can.

I hope and believe that things are getting better. Possibly too slowly, but we all have to work to ensure that cities are the best possible environments possible for Homo Sapiens.

What does a city mean to you?

I love cities; to me cities are a refection of the culture of the people that created them. Since the advent of ‘Taylorism’ there has been a shift in the cultural drives that make cities. The notion of efficiency dominates everything we do; this has distorted the value system we use to gauge success. A successful city is not one that is economically powerful. I rather be poor and happy than sad and rich and critically we now know that happy and healthy go together as do sad and sick.

So what does a city mean to me? A city is a place where memories are created, it’s a place where positive human exchange happens, it’s the place where you will find your sole mate, it’s the place where you can dance all night in the street, it’s the place where you will find the way to make your creative ideas a reality, it’s the place where you will find help if you need it.

We are generally a gregarious species, I love the feeling of having climbed a mountain, the solitude, the silence and the immersion in nature. But what I love more is sitting down sharing food and drink and talking about that experience with family, friends or a perfect stranger. A good city is our natural habitat and we need to understand more about this to make sure we enhance and protect our habitats.

Looking back on your career, what advice would you give to the young generation who wants to make a difference in the world?

The planet is a small small place; we used to have the luxury of being able to through things ‘away’! ‘Away’ does not exist anymore, so you cannot be sellfish. Look and learn from the places that make you feel good, and demand more from the systems, that we have collectively created to make our cities work. Remember that someone like you wrote the ‘rule book’. Usually that someone was trying to make things better. Consequently it should change when its not making things better or sense. The best places in the world work for all, young and old, wealthy and poor alike. We all have to walk the streets so we have to develop an attitude of mutual respect and make sure that our cities are inclusive people centered happy places.

What is a great book/article you read lately? Who are your top influencers?

A Hug a Day Keeps the Doctor Away http://www.scientificamerican.com/author/kasley-killam Invisible cities by italo calvino Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Life Between Buildings by Jan Gehl

My top influencers, what I call ‘indigenous experts’ everyday people I meet, usually the happy ones.

Where can we learn more about you (Twitter, Blog, etc.)?

Twitter: @riccardomar
Instagram: riccardogehlarchitectsdk
Blog: http://gehlarchitects.com/

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