Lived Experience in Urban Planning

Rasmus Duong-Grunnet, Liselott Stenfeldt, Kristian Skovbakke Villadsen

Lived Experience in Urban Planning

  • Text: Rasmus Duong-Grunnet, Liselott Stenfeldt, Kristian Skovbakke Villadsen
  • Graphics Gehl

The urban planning consultancy Gehl studies public life in cities. Their mission is to make cities sustainable, healthy, and equitable for all. In this text, they present their approach to working with qualitative data and introduce various design tools and projects that make use of it.

Favourite places in summer: Gehl’s density study in Munich highlighted the fact that while some people experience density stress in crowded areas, others perceive the same space in positive terms, experiencing density joy.

Urbanization is ongoing globally, and the UN estimates that in a few decades, nearly 70% of the world's inhabitants will live in cities. In recent decades, Gehl’s focus has been on developing methodologies and approaches for the study of public life in cities, with theoretical and practical work complementing one another. Fundamental to the design of urban life, in all its complexity, is an understanding of the lived experience of all urban population groups. We strive to get as close as possible to users and to understand their divergent needs – to interpret their lived experience at eye level.

Lived experience is often assessed through registrations, onsite surveys, workshops, focus groups, and interviews.Gehl has pioneered methodologies and developed new tools for studying public life. Increasingly, in our urban planning work, we have been able to amass far larger datasets with growing numbers of data points. Even with big data sets and new tools, Gehl always focuses on working directly with people, with a focus on their lived experience.

Making sense of qualitative data

It can be challenging to derive principles or guidelines from large quantities of qualitative data. To structure and interpret them, we are spearheading the use of “design thinking” approaches in urban planning. We have long applied an iterative ‘measure-test-refine’ approach in our work. Now, to avoid losing sight of the people we are designing for, or losing our bearings when dealing with large datasets, we also make use of newer analytic methods within the field of urban studies such as user profiles, personas, and user journeys.

“User profiles” help identify the high-level requirements and expectations of the people behind the data. The tool allows us to better structure larger quantities of information associated with selected user groups as defined by age, job role, location, or area of residence. “Personas” allows greater specificity and helps us to understand user needs, experiences, and behavior, giving the project team a better basis to test design solutions. Personas do not describe real people, but are derived from actual data collected from multiple individuals. When working in a human-centered design field, constructing personas can help us to ask the right questions and receive answers consistent with the user needs. For example, “How will Nina experience, react, and behave in relation to feature X or change Y within a given context?” Or “What underlying needs are we trying to fulfill?” “User journey,” another design tool, allows us to map a person’s flow through a city, including emotions, pain points, and related motivations. A “journey map” reflects the individual’s experience when transiting a space and is useful for visualizing processes.

Mapping user patterns

We gained valuable experience in the use of these design tools, for example, when studying the use and user patterns of publicly accessible open spaces in Munich. For our comprehensive socio-spatial study of that city, we developed ten user profiles, which we used as an analytical tool to assess data from various perspectives. Who uses Munich's public parks, squares, streets and recreational landscapes, and how? What are the expectations and requirements of users of these spaces? How are users to be categorized by group? Also addressed were divergent perceptions of density, whether positive or negative. A “people first” perspective helps us to identify the right solutions for a densely inhabited city like Munich, enhancing our understanding of the diverse experiences of the people on whose behalf the design is carried out.

Another example is the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, designed to tackle sustainability and climate change by working across silos. The school’s founders envisioned a new kind of institution that would use the physical space of the school to catalyze collaborations through unlikely adjacencies. To inform this vision, Gehl conducted interviews, walkarounds, and focus groups with faculty, students, and staff to explore where and how interdisciplinary collaborations originate and develop over time. We used these analyses, in particular user profiles and user journeys, to understand what works (and what doesn’t) in order to reverse engineer a new collaborative environment. The result was a set of insights and design principles that guided the new school’s retrofitting and accommodation of the new programs.

In our view, it is necessary to encourage these approaches in urban planning. Our growing access to technology and data offers new possibilities. But we should never lose sight of the people for whom cities are planned in the first place. At Gehl, people will always be the center of our planning activities.

Favourite places in winter: Patterns of use of publicly accessible open spaces in Munich. Resident survey distinguishing between study area (symbol) and neighborhood type (color).


Gehl is a networked urban design and research consultancy based in Copenhagen, Denmark, with offices in San Francisco and New York, as well as a global network of partners. It was founded in 2000 by professor Jan Gehl and architect Helle Søholt as a continuation of Gehl’s research over the previous four decades. The Gehl team consists of 150 people with expertise as urban change-makers, data and social scientists, strategists, and designers working in the fields of architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, and city planning, and addressing global trends using empirical analysis to design for social behavior that drives meaningful change.

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