It's all about the people, designer says

Design expert: Gehl Architects director David Sim explains his approach to urban design during the Share An Idea community expo at the weekend.
Design expert: Gehl Architects director David Sim explains his approach to urban design during the Share An Idea community expo at the weekend.

The director of a Danish architecture firm that will help to prepare the central city redevelopment plan says successful cities are "all about people".

Two experts from Gehl Architects, the firm of Danish urban designer Jan Gehl, arrived in Christchurch last week to help the Christchurch City Council's urban-design team prepare the plan.

Gehl sparked controversy last year with a report to the council that advocated a more pedestrian and cycle-friendly central city.

Gehl Architects director David Sim was one of the most popular speakers at the Share An Idea expo at the CBS Arena at the weekend.

He promised residents that the firm would not "dictate anything" as the plan was prepared.

"My job is to listen, to find out what you want to do, and to do everything I can to help you to do that."

The firm, which had worked on many projects around the world, had found that cities needed to be planned around people, Sim said.

"Some people do the buildings first, then the traffic, then the parking spaces, then they hope the people come along at the end. That's not right – it's all about people.

"You have to imagine: 'What will this place look like when you walk about it? What will it look like at eye level?"'

Planners also needed to consider what the city centre would look like throughout the year, rather than in ideal conditions.

"The artist's impression is always on a wonderful sunny day in December, but what does it look like on a miserable day in June?"

Lanes, enclosed courtyards and low-rise buildings could help add intimacy to a city centre, while big buildings had the opposite effect, Sim said.

"We're often tempted to add 10 metres just to be sure, make things a bit bigger just to be sure, but if you do that you lose the intimate spaces," he said.

Other important factors were better accessibility, high density, and ensuring that the city centre had "something for everyone".

"When you go out in the street, you want to see young people, old people, teenagers, businesspeople, everybody using the street."

Speaking after his presentation, Sim said the firm was "really not anti-car", but wanted to see more transport options in the central city.

"Everybody at some time is pedestrian, whether you're getting off your bike and out of your car, and we have to respect that."

While some businesses had expressed concerns about Gehl's earlier report, Sim said the firm's ideas were focused on bringing customers into the city.

"Why do we have towns; why do we have cities? Because they're economic platforms ... [and] the more quality time people spend in the city, the more money they will spend."

Christchurch's strengths were its flat landscape, which made it suitable for walking and cycling, and its "sublime" landscape.

"Coming as an outsider, I was really flabbergasted at how beautiful Christchurch is. There's this grid with this wiggly river that runs through it, and this huge park right next to it, and then there are these views of the mountains, and it's really quite incredible."

Sim said he had received positive feedback from residents who attended his presentation, with many sharing "really intelligent, sensible, forward-looking ideas" with him.

The Press