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Design is a process that can be made more accessible when it is made visible.

This is the view of Runa Sabroe, Programme Director at the Danish Design Centre (DDC), interviewed by the Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo. City planning, she argues, can often be guilty of overlooking the views and needs of local businesses.

“We are all very good at talking, having discussions about everything. But the way I see it, if you want to effect change, really good, valuable change, you first of all need to draw up a model of it,” Runa Sabroe says.

Sabroe, Programme Director at the Danish Design Centre, gave a presentation at the Better Cities Together seminar in Finland in September.

“When planners start to draw up their plans, they tend to organise a public consultation event. But seeing things, experiencing things, first hand is much more powerful. I would like to see us in the Nordics move away from discussion and more towards prototypes,” Sabroe explains.

What matters to Sabroe is that planning doesn’t involve just talk. She would like to see it broadened to include drawings and scale models, even if they are hastily sketched. The 3D modelling tools now available make the task that little bit easier.

“When you present a scale model, it turns your idea into something tangible and concrete."

In addition to scale models, Sabroe is passionate about collaboration, data visualisation and making sure that people remain at the core of what planning is about. She points out that, while city planning often shapes a city’s skyline, it also impacts on the residents’ experience of their home environment, at ground level.

“It is important that planners develop a thorough understanding of what people’s needs are.”

Data is at everyone’s fingertips these days. It is now possible to generate comprehensive information on, for example, air quality or footfall levels. Sabroe has participated in projects, where people’s movements were tracked using wireless sniffer software. Rendering this sort of data in a visual format provides decision-makers, designers and planners with a useful understanding of what people’s everyday requirements are.

“We used sniffer software at Roskilde festival to find out when to empty the portaloos and when the dry, dusty ground needed wetting. We monitored air quality, people’s movement patterns and tried to make the festival an even better experience for everyone,” Sabroe explains. “A festival is like a miniature city and the lessons we learned can be put to good use in an urban environment too.”

With planning and design, all the parties involved must have a clear, shared vision of what they are setting out to achieve. Visuals can be crucial to making this happen.

“Effecting change in a big city is a long and cumbersome process. The questions you need to ask yourself are, on the one hand, how do I make this a better, livelier place for the people and, on the other hand, how do you make it work for businesses, too.”

Sabroe argues that, when it comes to planning, businesses and business owners are often the forgotten element.

“If you are wanting to make change happen it is vitally important to make sure that you get them on board.”

Planners rarely, if ever, work off a ’clean slate’.

“City planning involves a number of entities, including the state, the country and the people. Design can offer a sense of balance within the process. I like to think that design can make the future into a reality.”

Sabroe uses an example from Copenhagen to illustrate her point. CPH Containers, a business start-up, wanted to address the shortage of housing in the Danish capital, a problem that rears its head capital every autumn. They contacted Maersk, a local company and global shipping conglomerate and asked if they could convert disused Maersk containers into housing – a series of easily transportable, interlinking properties that could also be used to tackle other social and economic problems, not just the need for more housing. The containers were set up in the port of Copenhagen on land that is not officially designated for residential use.

In Helsinki, the hugely popular Restaurant Day event was in part prompted by popular dismay at seemingly silly regulatory constraints on the restaurant and catering industry. In view of this similar Danish example, is Sabroe encouraging people to pursue civil disobedience?

“I think civil disobedience is taking it a little bit far but Copenhagen certainly wants to be seen as a city where experimentation is encouraged. I personally am all for people rolling their sleeves up and just getting on with it,” Sabroe explains.

CPH Containers organised an event for local politicians and decision-makers to explore the possibilities offered by the container properties in detail. It took place at a venue made of shipping containers, where else.

By demonstrating how the containers would work in practice, Sabroe argues, the organisers were able to achieve better results than just by talking about what they were hoping to do.

The Better Cities Together seminar was organised by the Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo, City of Helsinki, Grafia − Association of Visual Communication Designers in Finland, Association of Finnish Architects' Offices (ATL), Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA) and Aalto University’s Design for Government module offered as part of the Creative Sustainability Masters programme. The seminar focused on city planning, collaboration and public engagement.

The Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo is an expert organisation for designers. Ornamo advances the profession of designers and promotes the role of design in society. Ornamo members include educated design professionals, as well as students in the various fields of design.

Text Hannele Huhtala, Photo Ornamo / Anni Koponen

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