Inspired by urbanist William H. Whyte’s work in New York, a group of young Icelandic architects (plus one music composer and one graphic designer) decided to research city life in Reykjavík. With grants from the Icelandic Student Innovation Fund RANNÍS and the EU’s “Youth in Action” programme, the group—which calls itself Borghildur (the combination of “city” and the female name “Hildur”)—has spent nearly two years looking into how and why people use public spaces. Two of the group members, Auður Hreiðarsdóttir and Gunnhildur Melsteð, tell us what they’ve learned.
One of your projects involved monitoring changes on Iceland’s main shopping street, Laugavegur, when it was closed to traffic last summer. What did you observe?
Auður Hreiðarsdóttir: When there’s traffic, people typically walk along the buildings. During the summer, however, they started wandering around and were thus much more relaxed. The street became a space rather than just a place to walk through. Our mapping revealed that there was a 90% increase in stops on the street. And after talking to people on Laugavegur, it became obvious there was a desire for better urban life.
How do you conduct your research?
Auður Hreiðarsdóttir: When we make a map of a certain space, we go there and mark spots where people stop for ten to fifteen minutes. We do that four times a day and get an average of where people stop. To compare the findings, it is important that the conditions, such as the weather, are the same.
Gunnhildur Melsteð: We also film and make time lapses to observe what people tend to do in a certain spot and catch interesting behaviour. Usually, people are very predictable, but sometimes someone does something unexpected.
AH: When people do something unexpected, it’s typically due to something in the environment. If you see something unusual, you can almost be sure that another person is going to do the same thing.
GM: For example, last summer a person walked across Lækjartorg and sat down on a bench in the square. She took her shoes off, rubbed her feet, put them back on and walked along. Ten minutes later, a boy came and did the exact same thing. We don’t know what in the environment made them do it, but it was very interesting to see.
You set out to find out how people use public spaces and why they use them that way. Do you have an answer?
AH: I think when it comes to urban research there’s no conclusion or single answer. There are definitely many clues, but the city is always developing. What we discovered are patterns. I’m sure our research will continue indefinitely, be it as a group or individually. Researching how people use public spaces is a never-ending story, and it probably should be, as people’s behaviour is bound to change with time and new surroundings. It probably repeats itself though, like fashion, where some things are always classic.
Generally speaking, how does design influence people’s everyday life?
AH: Design has a lot of influence on people, but it is never only the design. Combinations of design, the function of a place and even weather influence city life. If something is well designed, it doesn’t necessarily attract people if there are no services around.
And horribly designed things, such as hot dog stands, still attract many people because they attend to a specific need. So good design can lead to something happening, but it doesn’t guarantee it.
GM: Good design means taking everything into consideration, and it is best when it doesn’t strike you as being too designed. But ultimately, some street vendors can set up shop in front of a grey wall and bring street life to the dullest part of Austurstræti.
So will your work have an impact on the city?
GM: It will be a good reference for the future when people look back at how the city has changed over the years. A lot of the places we have observed have the potential to become better city spaces simply by adding services and making the space more inviting.
AH: We are trying to contribute to the discussion and perhaps influence the future design of our city. Perhaps architects and urban designers who work in Reykjavík will use our research. We also hope our project makes people more interested in thinking about our city spaces in this way.
The illustration shows Laugavegur in June (above – with cars) and July (below – car-free).
Explanation: We mapped where people stopped on Laugavegur on a weekday in June and July. We marked where people stopped four times during the day and why they were stopping. This mapping analysis revealed that there was a 90% increase in stops on the street. Furthermore the pattern of movement was different and the stops where distributed more evenly in the street space. This comparison was reasonable in terms of w eather because conditions were the same. (Previous date was Tuesday June 21st, average temperature from 9:00 to 18:00, 12.1°C, partly cloudy. Later date was Wednesday July 20th, average temperature from 9:00 to 18:00, 12.3°C, partly cloudy.)