In 2000, Helle Søholt and her (professional) partner, Professor Jan Gehl (a Danish architect and urban designer) launched Gehl Architects (later Gehl), which grew into a notable urban research and design consulting firm based in Copenhagen. The firm, now over two decades old, focuses on improving the quality of urban life, in part by prioritizing the pedestrian and the cyclist in urban design. Jan Gehl was Helle’s professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and after completing her master’s degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, she started working with him on urban design projects in Copenhagen. Shortly after this (she was 28) they co-founded Gehl. Today, as CEO, Helle’s role at Gehl focuses more on the overall strategy of the firm.
Gehl has grown significantly, with projects in over 50 countries and 250 cities globally. This includes the New York City DOT, the Melbourne City Council, the Energy Foundation in Beijing, the Brighton & Hove City Council in the UK, the Institute of Genplan in Moscow, to name a few. Today, they have offices in Copenhagen, San Francisco and New York. Helle describes their approach to be “people first,” which comes down to exploring the needs of the people living in said cities or communities, with a focus on walkability and access to greenery and public space.
Today Helle is a prominent leader in her field. She has acted as an advisor to the City of Copenhagen and other great cities in Scandinavia like Oslo, Stockholm and Gothenburg, advocating for a new alternative to traditional planning. Internationally, Helle has worked in cities such as Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Seattle, New York, Vancouver, London, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne adding to her global experience in the field of urban design and development. She has extensive international urban design experience at various levels of intervention and at a multitude of scales – from urban research and analysis, visioning and strategy to design development and implementation. In 2010, Helle was awarded membership of the Danish Arts Society, as well as the Danish Dreyer’s Prize of Honor for Architects in Denmark. She also serves as a member on several boards of foundations, organizations and committees, such as the Realdania Foundation in Denmark and the Danish Federal Realestate Development Agency.
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Eve Picker: [00:00:09] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. For Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo, in order to build better for everyone.
Eve: [00:00:46] Helle Soholt was just 28 years old in 2000 when she co-founded Gehl Architects with Jan Gehl, her professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Together, they built a commanding firm, now over two decades old. Gehl focuses on people first in urban design with a focus on walkability and access to greenery and public space. In 2016, Helle took over as CEO and the firm now has offices in Copenhagen, San Francisco and New York. People first has gone from its humble beginnings in Copenhagen, to work that spans over 50 countries and 250 cities globally. You’ll want to hear more.
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Eve: [00:02:05] So welcome to my show Helle. I’m so honored to talk to you.
Helle Søholt: [00:02:10] Thank you so much Eve.
Eve: [00:02:12] How did urban design come to take center stage in your professional life?
Helle: [00:02:18] Oh, I think very early on as an architect, I found out that I was really interested in not just the buildings themselves, but actually the neighborhood and the context around the building. And I was just very interested in sort of political processes and how society is created. And that made me sort of relatively quickly in my studies, way back then in the nineties, shift from building architecture and then moving into to urban design at a fairly early age.
Eve: [00:03:00] So, that led you to meet Jan Gehl and you launched Gehl with him. How did that happen? That was pretty early on, you were young.
Helle: [00:03:11] I was very young indeed. I was 28 at the time and I had, first I finished a master’s in Urban Design at the Architecture School and Royal Academy in Copenhagen. And I worked for Jan actually for about half a year. And then I went to the States, to Seattle, actually, Washington University, and got another master’s degree there. And when I came back, I started working in a different firm, actually coming back to Copenhagen. But, I kept doing some side projects with Jan. And after about half a year back in Copenhagen, he invited me to start the office together with him because until then it had primarily been him running sort of a sole consultancy. So, I accepted the challenge and we started Gehl together at my age, 28. And Jan was in his late career at the time, 64 years old.
Eve: [00:04:16] So, it looks like he made a wise move. What was the primary focus? What were you planning to do with this firm when you started?
Helle: [00:04:24] Well, we started out in the year 2000 and back then there was not a lot of focus in planning on people, on behavioral aspects of planning, sustainability or was something that mostly was thought of by extremists and it was not part of the sort of general planning processes. So, we really started out with this ambition to change the paradigm within planning. It was a rather big sort of move and bold ambition we had because we focused globally from the very beginning, and we were able to do so due to Jan’s vast international academic network.
Eve: [00:05:11] Interesting. So, you’ve also been heard to say mission is not to Copenhagenize the world, which wouldn’t really be so bad because Copenhagen’s lovely. So, what is the mission then? Just generally project by project maybe.
Helle: [00:05:28] Yeah. Well, I don’t like the term Copenhagen-izing because it really sounds as if we think that all the solutions in Copenhagen is fit for every place and we certainly don’t think so. So, our method is much more based on urban anthropological studies, ethnographic studies, where we go to places, and we use our public life methods to investigate what is the local life and how can we best understand the needs and the behavior of the local people there to then develop strategies and plans and so forth. And by that come up with customized, localized solutions that still brings the place towards a more people-oriented position. So, our ambition started out, as I said, to change the paradigm of planning, and I had that ambition for ten years together with the Jan. But when he retired and I sort of bought the company from Jan at the point, this was back in 2011, the ambition changed and became a bit more sort of action oriented because at the time we had already sort of changed somewhat the planning paradigm after talking about it and sort of advocating for it for ten years. And since then, I would say we’ve been more focused on making cities for people, making actual change and creating what we are now focusing on. Places for all.
Eve: [00:07:10] So then what type of projects do you work on right now?
Helle: [00:07:14] In Denmark at the moment we are part of a couple of large projects. One is actually working with the National Foundation for Social Housing, and we are advising this national entity on how to make sure that their investments, they are investing about 40 billion Danish kroner into real estate development for the social housing across the country. And we want to make sure that that money that is poured into mostly renovation projects, that they actually have a social and equitable outcome and is benefiting not just the buildings but the people and the wider community in those areas. So, that’s a big project that we are helping on and working on at the moment. We also in Denmark engaged in a new sort of masterplan for development where we are actually designing the lived experience for people who are going to live in this new neighborhood. So, going all the way down into master planning and landscape design of public spaces in the area.
Eve: [00:08:32] That’s in Denmark but I think you look all over the world, right?
Helle: [00:08:37] We do.
Eve: [00:08:38] What other cities and countries have you worked in or are you working in now?
Helle: [00:08:44] We have quite a large team actually at the moment in the US and we started out back in 2014 with an office in New York and San Francisco and we actually have three teams now up and running in the US, one focusing more on cities and foundations, a second team focusing on the real estate sector, really being engaged in introducing a new type of master planning approach to the US market. And then the last team focusing more on corporate clients, working more with placemaking and the impact on communities from larger corporations.
Eve: [00:09:30] So, how large have you grown from just the two of you? How many people now?
Helle: [00:09:38] Today we are 100 staff and seven partners.
Eve: [00:09:43] That’s quite large. So, I have to ask, do you have any favorite cities and why?
Helle: [00:09:51] Oh, I’m often being asked that question. I have to say Copenhagen, because this is where I live and the place that I call home. And as you alluded to as well, I think at a point in our conversation, Eve, Copenhagen has become one of the most livable cities in the world with time and having worked here myself in that transition for the past 20 years, it is a place that I really deeply love. But of course, there are so many other places in the world that I’ve come to love so much. You know, messy cities like the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, for example, where we have worked as well since 2017, Melbourne, that you know yourself so well where we have worked also for about 20 years. I like cities that have an ambition to do better and to strive for that quality-of-life aspect and sustainable ways of living. And if I feel that there is that ambition, I can become very attracted to the place.
Eve: [00:11:00] Yes.
Helle: [00:11:00] Regardless of how messy it is.
Eve: [00:11:03] Yeah, I think I like messy cities too. I think if they’re too cleaned up it worries me.
Eve: [00:11:09] Yeah. Yeah. And Copenhagen, of course, has become more clean or nice with time. But then I supplement, you could say, with going to more messy cities around the world, working there to further develop.
Eve: [00:11:24] Yes. Can you tell us about one of your favorite projects that you’ve done over the years and how it changed the place?
Helle: [00:11:32] Yeah, there’s quite a few important projects, I think having worked in Mexico City, for example, with their bicycle strategy. That was the first time I worked in a really large megacity, a real sort of hard one as well, where the traffic is intense and the processes are intense and hard and it’s, the engagement piece is difficult. But we managed to drive a process that ended up with some beautiful results in terms of implementation of bicycle ways and a public bike system and I believe a culture and positions that has remained within the city organization. So that work is being and has been continued over the years. A city like both New York and San Francisco where we are based, I’m also very proud of the transition projects we’ve been a part of, both in New York with the Public Plaza program, transforming Times Square, Madison Square, introducing bikeways in New York, as well as the transformation of Market Street in San Francisco. A big reference project, I think, from across the country, actually. So, these are just to mention a few.
Eve: [00:12:59] Right. Well, the one I’m very familiar with is New York, which I watched unfold. The Plaza Project and it was astounding to watch how it transformed the city. I studied there and every time I went back it was just a different, walkable, less congested place. Pretty fabulous use of, I suppose it was a reorganization, of streets to become friendlier to people. It was really fabulous to watch. So, congrats for that one. So, how has your you know, I suppose the big question is, is what are cities demanding now that they didn’t ask for ten or 20 years ago?
Helle: [00:13:41] That’s a great question, I think when we started out, it’s been a sort of a transition, I would say, because when we started out there was not a focus on delivering public spaces, having a focus on public life, neighborhood communities and so forth. But I would say that has certainly become something that the cities are now looking for, planning for, caring for, to a much larger extent. And now after COVID and the COVID crisis, we’ve seen further changes in this direction where there is now a strong, strong demand from people in cities to have access to green space, have access to places where you can meet people and socialize outside of your work and your living conditions and so forth. Much more focused on inclusion and equity. Diversity and inclusion, I would say, is something that most people, most cities, sorry, are struggling with. How to engage people locally, how to ensure proper processes, how to ensure processes and efficient decision making at the same time, and how to ensure how do we get more out of the investments that we are pouring into cities? Those are some of the challenges that I feel that are more urgent now after the COVID crisis.
Eve: [00:15:19] I think that’s right. So, I think the outdoors has taken front and center stage over the last few years, and that’s a good thing. So, in all of that, what do you think is the future of cities? Because, you know, certainly a year or two ago, there were a lot of grim forecasts about people fleeing cities forever, right?
Helle: [00:15:38] Yeah, I don’t think the concept of city is dying. We’ve had cities for thousands of years, so cities will definitely continue to exist and flourish. We come to cities not just because we are going to and from work, but because that’s where we can offer services. We can be closer to education and other health options and offerings and so forth. So, there are many, many reasons for coming to cities and living closer together. However, I do see an opportunity to have much more flexibility in our lives. And we see that also with a lot of companies offering more flexibility, people working from home, having much more of a fluent work-life situation where you don’t necessarily have to come into work every day. And that requires a change in cities where we don’t have these business districts and mono functional areas and cities, and we sort of transport ourselves from one end to the other. I think we need to move in a direction where neighborhoods are more diverse in terms of functions, allowing people to have that much more flexible lifestyle, live urban so that you can walk and bicycle on an everyday basis and have access to public transportation where the density of people is needed. So, I think we have a ways to go in terms of still being able to move in a direction where the neighborhood level in cities are developed to allow that type of lifestyle to happen rather than these mono functional urban areas as we are seeing it right now.
Eve: [00:17:36] So I think you’re talking about the tantalizing terms, 24-hour neighborhoods and 15 minute cities, meaning that you can walk anywhere in 15 minutes. Right? That’s a pretty big goal. Also, I noticed on your website something called Inclusive Healthy Places framework. What is that?
Helle: [00:17:58] Very happy you mention it. The inclusive, Healthy Places framework is toolkit that we developed actually with the foundation, Robert Wood Johnson, and the idea with this toolkit is for real estate developers or community developers or place makers to use this tool to help make sure that we think about equity and health as we develop places and public spaces. The tool came about in a process where we collaborated in Gehl with health practitioners from across the states and community developers. And for the past couple of years, we’ve worked together with various organizations, including the American Planning Association, to spread the word about this tool so that more organizations can approach planning in a more holistic way. So, it’s out there, and there is also a website now where you can go in and read some a bit about the cases.
Eve: [00:19:11] Oh, okay. When you move towards making places that work for everyone, everyone feels comfortable in, are there basic elements that you always think about? Basic elements for great spaces.
Helle: [00:19:25] Well, first of all, it’s important to, as I mentioned, not just to think about the place as a very closed entity but think about the context of the area. What’s the history of the place? What’s the culture of the neighborhood? Then there is both the physical and the program aspects, the, you could say the activities in the place as well as the design. And then lastly, the fourth element, which is the whole sort of, how are people actually engaged? How are they, also how is the institution around the place set up in a way that allows people to continuously feel ownership and engagement within the area? So, that’s more of a political, organizational, economic, you could say, structure around the place. Those are the four categories of topics you could say that we are looking into.
Eve: [00:20:29] Okay. So, you know, I have to ask how like, are cities focusing on making sure that good design is available to everyone no matter whether the place is rich or poor, that everyone has access to beautiful urban spaces. I know some cities have more money than other cities, but typically in the past certainly, great spaces have been in higher end neighborhoods, you know. Do you think that is shifting at all?
Helle: [00:21:00] It is perhaps shifting, but I don’t think quickly enough at all. And this varies a lot across the world, I would say. In the US, unfortunately, we still see many, many neighborhoods across cities that are disinvested in and has been for ages for decades.
Eve: [00:21:22] I live in Pittsburgh, so I know what that looks like.
Helle: [00:21:25] Yeah, yeah.
Eve: [00:21:26] It’s half its population, so, you know.
Helle: [00:21:29] Yeah, exactly. And in other parts of the world where sometimes the public sector might be a little bit stronger and have more means, we see a stronger effort to actually even out some of the differences and inequalities in terms of investments. So, I definitely feel that this is an area where we could, especially in the US cities, could do so much more because it’s a rich society and there should be possibilities to actually ensure high quality, proper public spaces for all and it doesn’t have to be expensive granite pavements and what have you. We saw that in New York. It is a matter of the geometry of the space and the prioritization of the people above cars, for example, and just plain access to open space and green space. So, it’s not so much design as it is the pure access and availability of space.
Eve: [00:22:41] I mean, New York’s a great example. It was really paint and some bollards and plants and some furniture from a supermarket originally, like a Target or Walmart, right?
Helle: [00:22:55] Exactly.
Eve: [00:22:55] Just to completely transform the city. Yeah. It isn’t about granite, as you said. I wish we could move along faster. Do you notice different sources of funding coming to the table? Foundations, or other than public sources? Is that shifting? Because there’s a lot of talk in the foundation world about sort of rectifying the inequality, but I wonder if it’s filtered through to urban places.
Helle: [00:23:24] I think that’s a great collaboration and this is also in the US and we are learning from that, I think in Europe with a strong collaboration between foundations and public sector NGOs, community organizations. And that’s admirable because sometimes in our part of the world the public sector is perceived to deliver all of it. So there is a collaboration. I think the collaboration could be more action oriented, more testing, more actually willing to actually get your hands dirty, so to speak. I mean, make some real changes. And I sometimes worry that too much effort is lost in planning processes and strategies. And one of the approaches that we really advocate for is to, yes, you need to have a strategy and a plan. Yes, you need to analyze your conditions properly, but you also need to engage through actions. And in that way, you actually really show the willingness to commit and to make change locally. And too often I think we we don’t get to that level of engagement.
Eve: [00:24:41] I used to work at the Planning Department years ago in Pittsburgh, and we used to call that analysis paralysis. There were many, many plans on the shelves that had never been enacted because of fear or inability to take the next step or I really don’t know what, but a lot of money wasted that way. I totally agree with you. That is actually one of the reasons why I loved what happened in New York, because it was very quick and dirty. They tested it out. They tested it out with not even very nice bollards just to see what would happen and then move forward. And that I, I love that. I think it’s great. I’m going to ask you another hard question. So, I want to know is Denmark more supportive of female leaders than the US? And if so, how are women encouraged to take leadership roles?
Helle: [00:25:39] I do know that the Danish Society is one of the most, sort of, equal society in terms of men and women having equal opportunities. So, there is definitely something in our societal model that allows women to have a career. And the fact that we have so good public childcare system and school system and so forth enables many women to have a career. So that’s for sure part of it. It’s also been a process here. I mean, when I started out in real estate, in planning 20 to 25 years ago, it was much more male dominated. So, I would often in my early career be the sole woman in in a room. And I can see over these last 20 years or so in Denmark how that has changed. And also, in architecture education. We now have 60% women, actually. That is not to say that, we don’t necessarily have 60% women when it comes to leadership positions. So, there is still a gap even in even in Denmark on that front.
Eve: [00:26:58] What about women who control money? I mean, I think the problem we have here is maybe not in architecture, been in real estate in general. There are very, very few women in positions of control in real estate in the US. It’s a very heavily male dominated industry. And when you control the money, you control the decisions, right?
Helle: [00:27:22] Yeah, and that’s definitely the same here. I think the problem with real estate in general is that it’s a very conservative business and it’s a market that is used to developing a model and then sort of really refining that model and copying so that you can sort of earn more and more money over time. And there is very relatively little experimentation actually, and that’s actually what is needed more possibility to experiment with different types of lifestyles and different types of ways of living. I think many of ours.
Eve: [00:28:04] Different solutions.
Eve: [00:28:05] Yeah. I always think about affordable housing in Pittsburgh where I’ve lived for many years. I mean, affordable housing is absolutely important and was heavily supported by the city and I am not criticizing it, but it became a cookie cutter thing. You could drive down a street and you could point to the subsidized house because it had a very certain look to it. And that’s a shame. I mean, again, that speaks to good design shouldn’t only be for people with means. There are people who need affordable housing who want to live differently. It’s a little depressing.
Helle: [00:28:44] Yeah. And Denmark, we have a special model for social housing that is more than 100 years old. And I’ve often tried to export this model even to the US. Generally, it’s called common housing, or it’s called general housing because it’s not social for the people who need support from the government. Actually, in Denmark everybody can apply for general housing or for common housing. And the way it works is that it’s actually run as a separate private company, and all the private companies that run these estates, they pay part of their rent, after having paid back relatively cheap loan to the government, after 30 years, then they can start paying rent into a national fund and the national fund then repays back in a circular system. You can apply for money from the foundation whenever you need to do renovation or social projects in your estate. So, this basically means that we don’t have any common housing estates in Denmark that are badly maintained. We have money to run social programs and job training programs and health programs and renovate public spaces and stuff like that in the public housing estates across the country. And in our planning law, in new developments, you are required to have 30% common housing in your area.
Eve: [00:30:39] Interesting.
Helle: [00:30:40] So, it’s super interesting, sort of circular, sort of, at least in money terms, circular system that has existed in Denmark for 400 years. And I think there should be ways to set up similar types of mechanisms, maybe at more of, sort of, a regional level also in the US. It would be super interesting to think about.
Eve: [00:31:09] Oh, that’s really fascinating. I will look into it for sure. Yeah. So, what’s your ultimate goal?
Helle: [00:31:22] My ultimate goal is I think, currently my ultimate goal would be to try and create a sort of more of a community of thinkers and doers around our approach to development so that we can hopefully impact even more places to create even more sort of visionary projects that can be references and lead impact behind, so that it can inspire others. And do that through more strategic partnerships globally. So, I’m really still very focused on the sort of more global transformation, you could say, within our field.
Eve: [00:32:20] Well, I’d be really fascinated to see what you do, and I think I’m going to make up a list of places that you’ve worked on to go see next. As travel opens up a little bit, and certainly back to Copenhagen, which is an amazing, amazing city. Although I have to say I almost got run over by a bike there. It’s a little scary crossing the bike lanes. And then I actually brought a bike in Copenhagen back to Pittsburgh, so I have a little bit of it there.
Helle: [00:32:47] It’s fantastic.
Eve: [00:32:48] But the bikes certainly rule the road, don’t they, in Copenhagen?
Helle: [00:32:53] They certainly do. And I would say, Eve any time you’re welcome to visit. We have also done a bit of a collaboration with the city of Pittsburgh actually, but I don’t believe any of it has been implemented yet.
Eve: [00:33:08] Oh, I can’t wait to hear.
Helle: [00:33:11] If any of our team is there. I’ll connect you.
Eve: [00:33:14] Absolutely. That’d be fabulous. Thank you very much for joining me today. Bye.
Helle: [00:33:19] You’re welcome, Eve. Bye.
Eve: [00:33:31] I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive together. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. If you like what you heard, you can support this podcast by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media, or leaving a rating and review. To catch all the latest from me, you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing, head on over to smallchange.co, where I spend most of my time. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music. And a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon, but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Helle Søholt