Training Human-Centered Designers


(2015) Renewing Places for People:
Training Human-Centered Designers and Planners to Foster Inclusive Cities


Conference Paper for the Future of Places, sponsored by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, United Nations Human Settlements Program, and Project for Public Spaces (September 2015)


Abstract— Over four decades ago, Jan Gehl pioneered a theory of public space observation, yet a human-centered approach to urban design and planning is still not the norm today. Given unprecedented challenges in the 21st century due to rapid urbanization and demographic shifts, designers need new strategies for cities that support cultural pluralism, incorporate a multitude of voices and histories, and promote inclusiveness and participation, particularly among youth and aging populations.

Other fields have addressed complex problems with an approach called “design thinking,” which facilitates creative problem solving and collaboration. Inspired by the legacy of Jan Gehl, William Whyte, Clare Marcus-Cooper and others who advanced public life research and practice, we created new public space curricula guided by contemporary principles for human-centered design and innovation. A notable output includes an Observation Toolkit for both practitioners and non-practitioners seeking insights on inclusive public spaces using observation and synthesis activities.

Simple tools can lead to new insights and highlight pathways for training practitioners who are versed in empathy, human- centered design, and cultural competency. Our experience developing and teaching this new curriculum suggests that design thinking practice and pedagogy can be important levers for maintaining the relevance of Gehl’s legacy for future urban challenges. We suggest ways to leverage this toolkit to create a more inclusive process of evaluation, in which practitioners work alongside community members to assess public spaces, thereby enhancing the diversity of voices and making design accessible to all.

Keywords— Urban design; placemaking; design thinking, human-centered design; public space; quality; access; urban spaces; planning education; youth; aging populations


Read full paper here.