Rute Nieto Ferreira: "Resistance is a normal process of change in cities"

Rute Nieto Ferreira is an urban planner who works with the Danish studio Gehl to plan and design cities for people. In this interview, she talks about the value of the street as a space for socializing, as well as the importance of carrying out pilot projects and collecting data to support transformations in the city.

Rute Nieto Ferreira (LPP photo)

It was at the end of September, in Costa da CaparicaIn Almada, urban planner Daniel Casas Valle presented the future of street designThe aim of this book is to bring more technical knowledge - which often doesn't make it out of the urban planning circle - to the people who decide and work on the territory in the town halls, but not only. It's also aimed at ordinary people who use the city, whose businesses open onto the public space, and who move through streets full of cars on a daily basis.

Daniel wasn't alone at the presentation of his book on the Costa, which was followed by a workshop in which municipal technicians and the public reimagined the surroundings of the municipal market. From Porto, he gave a lift to Rute Nieto Ferreira. She is an architect and urban planner, and therefore a professional colleague. Rute has almost two decades of experience in various studios and currently works from the city of Invicta at the renowned Gehl Architects - Danish studio founded in 2000 by Jan Gehl and also by urban designer Helle Søholt, with the aim of continuing Gehl's work in terms of thinking about cities from a more human perspective. Thinking about cities beyond buildings, in life between buildings. Designing streets, squares, public spaces that bring people together, including children, and where there are social dynamics. Talking about quality of life, walking and cycling.

Gehl has done projects in more than 300 cities. Rute Nieto Ferreira is responsible for some of these projects, based in Porto. A hustle and bustle of activities in Costa da Caparica didn't allow us to take the time to sit down and talk calmly, so we made an appointment for a zoom for days later. In this interview, we talk about the value of the street as a space for socializing, as well as the importance of carrying out pilot projects and collecting data to support changes in the city with decision-makers and the population; we also talk about the role of education, the lack of transparency regarding urban planning projects, and the creation of consensus in polarized cities.

I'll start with a provocation: how do you define the future of street design? And are we here in Portugal so far from that future?

Streets are one of the main building blocks of city-making, so thinking about the future of streets and spaces is fundamental. It seems to me that there have been some positive changes in Portugal, but that everything is happening very slowly. I think it's clear that there needs to be a recalibration, a rebalancing of the space allocated to private cars and other ways of getting around.

But it's not happening in a very systematic and connected way, and not quickly enough either. It seems that the theory is understood, but the practice is taking a long time to happen.

"There has to be a recalibration of the space that is allocated to private cars and to other ways of getting around. But this is not happening in a very systematic and connected way."

Why should we? If we have so many references and success stories from so many cities that we could simply apply.

I'm not sure how to answer the question of why. I can make some assumptions that may be wrong. It seems to me that there is little political will. It seems to me that there is little political will. In Portugal, we think very much in the short term, in other words, in the next three or four years; there is no long-term political will, in which we think about generations. There are good little projects here and there, but they aren't thought through systematically. And sometimes there isn't the political courage to do certain things.

At Gehl, we have examples of projects we've done in cities like Copenhagen or New York that were relatively quick transformations. But it's not just about speed. It's about doing it quickly and consistently. In other words, in those cities there was no stop-start. When they started they began in earnest and then every year there were small improvements. When you look at photographs of Copenhagen in the 1950s, up until the 1960s, you see that it was very similar to many parts of Portugal: squares full of parking, the car was very visible in the city center. And it gradually began to make pedestrian streets. It started with one street, then that street was widened, then it made two, three, four more. Every year there were streets and squares from which parking was removed so that people could gain these spaces, which used to belong to cars and now belong to them. It was done bit by bit, but never without separation.

In other words, there was this initial courage and then the people themselves also realized that it was a positive thing. And so it continued.

The example of New York is more recent, it's from the 2000s; there, in three years, more bike lanes were built than there were in Copenhagen at the time, in terms of kilometers. There was a huge desire on the part of the mayor and his cabinet to turn New York into a city where people used bicycles, a city where squares and streets were thought of as places to be, where people also counted - not just cars.

"There was this initial courage and then people themselves also realized that it was a positive thing. And so it continued."

How do we provoke this initial political will? How do we convince the decision-makers?

I think that sometimes it's not even a question of convincing, it's more a question of demonstrating. There are cases where you can do pilot projects, showing things rather than just talking about them. We can start on a small scale and do small demonstration projects. And we can collect data from before, during and after, also to calm people down, such as shopkeepers who think they're going to lose business but then realize that they're not and that, after all, people who arrive on foot or by bicycle even buy more often, even come to the stores more often.

In other words, sometimes you have to come up with something concrete. Not just explaining that it worked well in city X or Y, but in the city itself and doing these demonstration projects.

There may also be some fear of testing, no?

But these projects are low risk, because they are temporary and you can always go back to the way things were before and there are no major infrastructure costs. Because we're talking about putting up removable barriers, painting the sidewalk, closing a street temporarily. You can even start by doing it only at weekends or every X amount of time.

"Sometimes you have to come up with concrete things. It's not just explaining that it worked well in city X or Y, but in the city itself and doing these demonstration projects."

These things are relatively simple and then, if they work, with the data and observations of how it went, we can change them from temporary to definitive. And that's almost the people's achievement. It was a test that was carried out, that it was found to be worthwhile, and that it was something that everyone was involved in, rather than something that came from above, from a town hall or some department that comes along and says it's going to implement it and then starts smashing things up in the street.

I also think there's a problem with involving the population. I say this more as a citizen - because unfortunately I work on very few projects in Portugal - but I think there's a huge lack of communication about projects, both architecture and public space. It's very difficult to understand what is or is not going to happen in a block or a street. There are those signs that are always damaged by the wind or the rain, but there's no digital platform where I can see what's going to happen in my parish, what projects are coming up. Things are a bit secret. There's no debate about urban planning. It seems to me that this is a very closed thing, it's not done in a clear way, with everyone.

Do you notice a difference with other cities?

Yes. Of course, my experience is limited. I worked for many years in England, a few years in San Francisco and a short time in Stockholm. So I only have experience of those cities. But, for example, in the UK, as soon as an urban planning project exists - it doesn't need to be approved - it becomes part of the public domain. In other words, I can go and investigate my street, my neighborhood or a specific area I'm working in and see what projects are active. They don't have to be licensed yet. All it takes is for someone to have requested a modification for it to be online and for me to be able to consult the drawings, the description, etc. Both public and private projects.

This would be unthinkable in Portugal. This communication of what's going on in the streets, in the squares, in the buildings, isn't done. It's not something that's easily accessible, it seems that it's only something for a few, only for those who understand. And as there is no debate open to the general public, mistrust is generated. People think there are no good intentions because things aren't talked about. And I don't think this mistrust is wrong on people's part. It exists because of this lack of openness.

"There is a huge lack of communication about projects, both architectural and public space. It's very difficult to understand what is or is not happening in a block or a street. Things are a bit of a secret. There isn't this debate about urbanism."

And these misgivings aren't just about what project is going to be done, but why it's going to be done.

Exactly. I think that Portugal, from what little I know, as a citizen, I think that there is a huge gap between the issue of the PDM [Municipal Master Plan] and the issue of execution projects. There is nothing between these two scales. The PDM is a rather cold, rigid, static tool. And then there are the projects to break stone, to make cycle paths, squares, streets.

And in between, where is the strategic project? Where is this vision of the future that explains why this work is being done because a green corridor was defined 10 or 20 years ago? Where is the why of things? The PDM often doesn't do this. And then it's not clear where these one-off projects come from.

That's why there's sometimes a lack of this in-between, these strategic projects, to make connections between things, to create meaning, and perhaps they should be thought of more on the scale of the neighborhood, not the whole city. Obviously, it's not making plans for the sake of making plans; it's making plans with this perspective of moving forward.

How can we bring urban planning knowledge, which is often held only by specialists, to the people? And how can we activate it with them? Is it through debates, for example?

I think school is fundamental. We all go to school. And I think there's very little talk about urbanism, about cities, about quality of life, about transportation. And it's not just talk, I think there's also little engagement between children and their own city. There are few field trips and few teachers take the kids on the subway. I don't know of many projects to teach children to cycle or to get them to walk from home to school. And the projects that do exist are exceptions.

So I think this relationship between the school and the city could be much stronger. Starting at a young age has advantages, we know that these are things that bear fruit later on. If you start walking or cycling more as a child, it's something that lasts for the rest of your life, with added value in terms of public health, the environment and even mental health.

But yes, debates and lectures are also important for these transfers. The pilot projects we've already talked about. And even the airtime that these things get on radio, television and in newspapers, which is very small in Portugal. The more airtime there is, the more it reflects a society that is interested in these things, that talks about them, that debates them. I think it has to come from several sources. There isn't just one approach that's going to solve this issue. But if I had to choose one to focus on, I would focus on the issue of children and schools.

"The relationship between the school and the city could be much better."

There is also a lack of greater training for the technical staff of the chambers and entities that decide on the territory.

Yes, of course. I think so. I think that if there's a change in mentality, it's much easier for things to happen. In fact, Jan Gehl, who founded and named the company where I work, always says that the most important thing he did wasn't projects: it was writing books, because books reach more people. And with them you can get a mayor, a department, half a dozen influential people to change their mentality, to understand a few things about quality of life, access to streets for walking, squares for hanging out and socializing, access on foot to shops and services, leisure spaces, etc. Let them understand little things about the city and how it can work. That's a long way off, because if people understand things, if they feel these issues, projects are easier to make and to implement.

The arguments and resistance are often the same. There are several patterns. If the problems raised by traders, for example, are always the same and if, in most cases, taking space away from cars doesn't harm their business, why are we always hitting the same keys?

I think it's normal, because we're all human and we're all resistant to change. So I don't think we should blame the traders or the people who oppose things for having this negative reaction. Because changing something that works more or less always causes resistance; it's a normal process of changing cities. It's easier to make this change if there are concrete examples of other streets, with which you can show the before and after, show it with data and studies.

I don't think we can be naive and think that things always work. That's why we do pilot projects. Sometimes you have to step back, re-analyze and change your initial plan. In a street full of traders, where they are all different, there will probably be one or two who lose out because they have a very specific clientele who stop coming because they always arrive by car or for a very specific reason. We can't be too optimistic and think that a particular change will work for everyone.

"I don't think we can be naive and think that things always work. That's why we do pilot projects. Sometimes you have to step back, re-analyze and change the initial plan."

Each case is different and I think we also have to think about people who don't have all their faculties, who will need to be taken by transport to certain places. So I think there should always be exceptions. And besides, we're not talking about a radicalization of removing cars from everywhere. I think cars are going to be necessary and we're going to have to coexist with them for several decades. Now, it's very different to have a car every now and then that goes at five or ten kilometers an hour, in other words, at the speed of a pedestrian, or to have it going at 50 or even 30 kilometers an hour. Or when you have a huge flow where people have to walk around in the middle doing gymkhanas instead of cars doing gymkhanas. There needs to be a rebalancing, thinking first of the most vulnerable populations, which are children and the elderly. And when you think of the most vulnerable, you almost always make a better city for everyone, don't you?

Rute Nieto Ferreira (LPP photo)

We've seen cities divided and polarized between motorists and cyclists, and these roles are not absolute. How can we create consensus?

I don't believe there is just one answer. I think it has to be several things at the same time. I don't think there's one way to convince or to say that some are wrong and others are right. One thing is true: motorists and cyclists are all people and almost all of them, almost certainly, walk. So let's get back to the basics: we are all people who, more or less, move at the same time, at the same speed: we have, more or less, the same senses, the same height, some in baby carriages, others in wheelchairs. But we're all human, there are certain things we all want. But I think people are too focused on the individual and the thought that they need their car to get to work. And of course they do.

"I don't think there's any way of convincing or saying that some are wrong and others are right. One thing is true: motorists and cyclists are all people and almost all of them, almost certainly, walk."

We can't blame the individual because they made that choice because it's the best choice. It's the choice they can make at the moment. In other words, if there's no transport for that person to get to work on time and then pick up their children from school and then go to the supermarket and then whatnot, you can't blame them for needing work and needing a car to get to work. As humans, we're going to choose what's easiest and most convenient for our day-to-day lives.

But we also need the infrastructure of the cities to be there for us, because otherwise the choices we make will be the ones we can make and not the ones that are right for the planet or for public health. We're in cities every day with a lot of traffic and a lack of quality of life, a lot of it because of cars. The undoing won't be as quick as we might like, but I think that the undoing doesn't involve blaming the individual, but rather the existence of infrastructures, which have to be built little by little - but consistently - allowing people to naturally adopt other lifestyles, with added value for their health and their quality of life.

"We can't blame the individual because they made that choice because it's the best choice. (...) But we also need the infrastructure of the cities to be there for us, because otherwise the choices will be the ones we can make and not the ones that are right for the planet or for public health."

Nobody wants car-free cities. Just cities with fewer cars.

Yes, but this issue also involves some moments of political courage, of taking on some ideas that may seem more radical, but that sometimes have to happen, like, for example, the case of city centers. Nowadays you can't say that - because there are so many examples - it's radical to remove cars from city centers. We have cities like London where pollution in the city center has been reduced immensely since car restrictions were put in place. They started with a small area and expanded it several times. There are other cases and studies in various European cities where cars have been removed from the center with very positive results. People continued to have cars, but there were more rules about where to use the car and why. And the winners are the city centers, the people who are there, who get there differently, who move around more, socialize more.

Streets are not just for their residents. Often, you only hear from people who live in a certain place and who block transformations that will serve others. How can we create balance here?

We're back to the beginning of the conversation, about streets and squares. They are fundamental to urban life and we need to get this basics right, to make urban planning more humanistic. Walking and cycling are for everyone in society, not just for a few. And streets and public spaces should also be thought of as places for people to meet and socialize. If we take that away, we take away what it is to be a city. We're not talking about a shopping mall or a place where you're there because you're consuming, or because you're having coffee, or spending money in the stores, or whatever. We're talking about the principle of the city, which is to walk, to stop, to live.

"Nowadays you can't say that - because there are so many examples - it's radical to remove cars from city centers."

Our streets and squares can't just be commercial...

Yes, but that's part of it. When we think of public space, we also think of these commercial spaces, but public spaces can't just be those associated with commercial areas, in other words, if there's a square that has café tables and chairs - which I think is good because, in most cases, they bring life - there also have to be spaces, benches and different ways of being where you don't have to spend money, where you can bring a coffee or a snack from home or sit down to talk to a friend. That's also fundamental.

We talk about the streets between the facades, but we also need to look at what happens behind the facades.

Yes, absolutely. I think it's all related. And going back to the question of us all being human beings, these invitations that cities give us to walk also have a lot to do with urban form, with the way cities and their streets look. This doesn't just have to do with the width of the road or the sidewalk, it also has to do with the facades that meet the sidewalk, whether they are lively and active, or whether they are passive, for example, because there is a large wall or railing. Maybe, in this case, you feel unsafe walking there and you think "man, what a drag, now I'm walking 800 meters next to a wall that has nothing to look at". It's different if you have houses, stores, if you have doors and windows, if you have street art. It's different to have stores open or closed, the colors, the textures... These invitations to walk are super important and have to do with how streets are made, how cities are made.

They have to do with thinking about the space between buildings.

That's right. This issue of designing and planning streets is not just a question of having X meters for pedestrians and X meters for cars. It's not just that, it's also about the facades. An important thing that we work on a lot, which also comes from Jan Gehl, is the question of first always thinking about what life you want in a space, then thinking about the space between the buildings and only then thinking about the buildings. This is something we use in almost every project, whether it's a public space or a building. master planning.

Okay, we'll take a subway ride. But a meter and a half for what? What purpose do I want this sidewalk to serve? Do I want, for example, a father and son to walk comfortably and for someone else to be able to pass them without a problem? That's a way of walking, of living. You need a sidewalk with a certain distance to be able to have that kind of socialization on the street. And then there's a bus stop, signs or other elements of street furniture. In other words, you have to think about the life you want to have on that sidewalk, the life you want to have in that square or in that neighborhood; then design the spaces between the buildings and then, yes, go on to the buildings, the façades.

"This issue of designing and planning streets is not a question of having X meters for pedestrians and X meters for cars."

And to plan this life we also have to see how people already use the spaces, don't we?

Yes, investigating how people use space. This is an important working tool for us. We don't come in as experts and say "oh, we already have a lot of experience, we've been to a lot of cities". No, in almost every place you have to do some research on the spot. We use some tools that we've been using for many years, like surveying urban life and space. It's not just a physical survey - in the sense of where the sidewalk is, where the building is, what the dimensions are - but also how people are using that space, how many people walk, what gender, what age, what mode of transportation, is it walking, cycling, scootering, skateboarding. We usually have data on cars in cities, but not much on people. We don't observe very much how people are using spaces, and this observation, this counting, both of people moving and people standing still, is fundamental in planning. What are they doing? Are they sitting down? Are they on their cell phones? Are they eating? Are they sitting or lying down? Or are they just leaning back because there's nowhere to sit?

All these kinds of observations are very important for us when we start a project for a municipality. And you learn a lot from each place, because each place is different. You have to understand life so that you can then give recommendations based on real data and not on invented things. Often we can look back because it was a place where counts and observations have already been made, other times we can compare a square in Lisbon with a square in another city that has the same dimensions or similar services. As we already have an extensive database, we can compare and learn from concrete examples of different geographical sites.

And studies can't be used to stall?

It's more expensive to do it badly than to do a study. And the study, if it's done well, is something that lasts for many years, you get a work plan, a kind of vision, something to guide you. Maybe you don't get the details, but you get the essence of what you're trying to do. For example, there's an improvement to this square, but why did you invest those funds there? Is that exactly where people were most asking for this kind of investment or would it be better to do a study to prioritize other areas? It's about thinking rationally about why you should invest in certain places.

Sometimes you don't quite understand why certain things have been improved and others not. It seems that it was because those people spoke louder, because they had access to the funds first or because it's a more privileged area. There are always counter-arguments, but what we try to do with these studies is to think about people. That's why I say it's more humanistic urban planning. We think about what people need.

"In cities we usually have data on cars, but not much on people. We don't observe very much how people are using spaces, and that observation, that count, of both people moving and people standing still, is fundamental in planning."

Even when it's not part of what a client has asked us to do, we still try to do a mini-study of the context, because otherwise we can't come up with concrete and justified proposals. We can't say why we should do it without some data, without spending time in the field analyzing and gathering quantitative and qualitative data.

To close: what did you think of that day in Costa da Caparica? What did you take away from the workshop?

It was an excellent idea to do that on the street and in the public space. It was excellent that they held Mobility Week in such an open forum, generating a public debate that was completely unplanned. That was super interesting for me. I didn't know much about the place beforehand, but I was happy to see that pedestrian street so full of life, with stores open, with people walking, with that stretch between the beach and the center, which I thought was very well done. Of course, it's impossible as designers to walk there and not see that "oh, but here there could have been a continuous sidewalk or this could have been done like this".

At the workshop, we had a very involved conversation, with relatively knowledgeable people who knew the context well - most of them were municipal technicians or worked with the council. There was a lot of interest in talking about increasing the size of that square to include the market and then thinking about a road hierarchy, making zoom out to think not only on the scale of the square, but how traffic would change on the outlying streets and throughout the neighborhood. It was thought through in a relatively strategic way and with people who had been thinking about it for a long time, so it was a good conversation.