People-Centered Design: The Future of Cities

People-Centered Design: The Future of Cities

By Emily Barone

Emily is a Marketing & Events Intern at Verdical Group. She is currently a student at the University of Vermont Grossman School of Business, where she is working to earn her Bachelor of Business Administration. 

What is People-Centered Design?

Architect Jan Gehl once said, “First we shape the cities – then they shape us.” Applying his theory, redefining our society’s standards and expectations of urban living is critical to developing functional, sustainable, and conscious cities that will in turn generate altruistic individuals. Unfortunately, these fundamentals are lacking globally, hence the need for the development of people-centered design in architecture.

People-centered design is the development of pedestrian-friendly, human-scaled cities that accommodate every community’s needs to create a more liveable, inclusive, and engaging society. Urban health, social inequity, and the climate crisis are too frequently approached as separate issues, when in reality, they are interconnected through the built environment.

For example, introducing infrastructure change would positively and directly impact urban health. Clean living resources and benefits are inequitably distributed and lack accessibility in cities today, but electrifying public and private transport, the mass planting of trees and gardens, building housing with low carbon emissions and non-toxic building materials, and supplying the energy grid with 100% renewable energy sources are all partial solutions. 

People-centered design also addresses social inequity by ensuring equal and inclusive access to healthcare, housing, food, and education. This includes the removal of spatial barriers that increase the difficulty of accessing these services and creating inclusive places for all socio-economic classes and identities. 

People-centered design inherently decreases the focus on and the value of greenhouse gas-emitting habits. Allowing more space for humans and nature while reducing auto-centric design will cut carbon emissions considerably, minimize the effects of urban heat islands, and induce the positive effects of biophilia.


Urban planner Robert Moses proposed to build a highway through Washington Square Park in 1935. This was the beginning of his downfall.

As this plan went public, widespread pushback ignited. The residents in this area were outraged by the idea of their community space being filled with polluting asphalt and loud, carbon-emitting vehicles splitting their neighborhood in half. Moses’ proposal was rejected after ongoing protests fought against his plans.

Today, Washington Square Park continues to serve as an outdoor space for people to come together and relax on a bench under a tree, enjoy performance art or give voice to protests that shape lives for the better. Value is found in public space, giving cities meaning and purpose. This would have been stripped from the community if Moses’ proposal had moved forward.

Let’s fast forward some time. Architect Jen Gehl founded Gehl Architects in 2000. His mission for the company was to demolish the current framework cities uphold and rebuild them to fit the needs of a more sustainable, liveable city. He believed in integrating individuals into the creation process, allowing and encouraging them to shape their space. Gehl spearheaded the integration of people-centered design into architecture and transformed cities for human behavior.

Take his work in Copenhagen, for example. Before Gehl intervened in Copenhagen, the city consisted of car-centric roads and infrastructure prioritized design. Copenhagen today holds many inspiring and innovative examples of urban planning, such as Strøget, the world’s longest pedestrian-friendly street. The street capitalizes on community engagement and a functional, human-scaled space.

Concluding Thoughts

The architecture that has shaped our cities denies us access to the natural world and a sense of tribal belonging that, as humans, we need for physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Many cities, as they are designed today, isolate and alienate humans from one another, and weaken our deep-rooted connection to the natural environment. Instead they are filled with skyscrapers, auto-centric streets, and infrastructure that represent power and control, disregarding the human dimension.

In contrast, people-centered design allows for a city framework that promotes community connection, impactful sustainable practices, access to all needed resources, and inclusive and green infrastructure. As our society adapts to the changing climate, our cities must be restructured accordingly to satisfy human needs and be suitable and healthy for all.

However, prior to implementing new strategies and forward-thinking designs into urban life, we must consider the reality of what it means to rebuild cities.

For example, gentrification is of high concern for disadvantaged urban communities. We must move forward with the understanding that displacement must not be the societal cost of the revival of depressed neighborhoods. Both upper and lower classes must benefit together.

The purpose of people-centered design is to protect and offer opportunities to all while resisting and minimizing the tragedies of urban health, social inequity, and climate change. Shaping our cities for all will in turn shape us into the functional, sustainable, and conscious individuals our planet and all of humanity deserves.