Jan Gehl – the Study of Public Life

Jan Gehl's How to Study Public LifeJan Gehl’s How to Study Public Life had many strengths and a few weaknesses, but for delving into the nitty gritty of how to study public space and the way people use and shape it, both in outlines of practice and a bibliography of others who have done so, this is a great place to start.

I also love that they connect public life with public space, it is not a study of one separate from the other.

A common theme in many of these studies — we really screwed up when we started large-scale planning:

Public life and public space were historically treated as a cohesive unit. Medieval cities grew little by little in accordance with changing needs, in contrast to the rapid tempo of modernism’s large-scale planning (3).

So how do we study what is working and what is not to improve our cities and public space?

You start with the basic questions of how many, who,  where, what, and how long?

There is a great chart of the continuum of ways that we move through space for pleasure and for need — which you may not be able to read here, but the book is full of these beautifully designed charts and graphics that help you think through how you might design a space:

Jan Gehl's How to Study Public Life

A list of different kinds of studies you can adapt to your city, and the primary tools you can use:

  • Counting
  • Mapping (of activities, people and places) Jan Gehl's How to Study Public Life
  • Tracing (how people move across a delimited space)
  • Tracking (shadowing to see how people move through space)
  • Looking for Traces (trails, paths worn through grass)
  • Photographing (time lapse photos are so so cool)
  • Keeping a diaryJan Gehl's How to Study Public Life
  • Test walks

There is a great chapter on all of the different people who have looked at these issues over time, and the source for most of what it is on my list for future reading…it is quite inspiring to see the faces and read some of the words of those who have fought for more liveable cities, ones built around the needs and actual lives of people and that are allowed to emerge from the bottom up rather than being built for motives of profit or static and powerful ideals of how we should live, what cities should be like.

This list is very male, and entirely white so it needs some broadening. It is unable to capture the impact of race for example, shown so clearly in all of its terrible effect in Elijah Anderson’s The Cosmopolitan Canopy for example. It also doesn’t engage at all with theorists like David Harvey or Henri Lefebvre, so important to understanding how capital works to shape cities from above. Funnily he does bring up Sorkin’s book Variations on a Theme Park and mentions Mike Davis as well, but never engages with their key arguments around capitalism and privatisation.

This perhaps explains why Gehl can gaily talk about his work as a consultant for cities like Sydney and London, and particularly the work he did on NY’s Times Square and Cape Town in preparation for the World Cup without also mentioning the huge struggles happening in these places over the question of the right to the city, and the ways in which regeneration of public space that he contributes to has dovetailed with its securitisation, privatisation and mass displacement of the poor and people of colour. So damn frustrating because to do this work well we have to deal with those larger issues, if only to minimise their impacts. At least, in all of those countries listed about where class and race are still huge issues (and perhaps they are not in Copenhagen, I am no judge). If we don’t, we contribute to the social and racial cleansing of our cities, if only by driving up land values and forcing more and more people out of these areas. Ideally we need a fundamental transformation putting social and racial equality along with the right to the city of all residents above the demands of capital and real estate profit.

With that larger critique said, the actual pages and pages of case studies were great (though the whole of this is a little Gehl heavy establishing him within the canon and sometimes repetitive with it, but fair enough), not only as ways to think about and study public space, but as pointers to what makes public spaces work or not — and how planners so often get it completely wrong. These were a few of my favourites.

Good Places to Stand – ‘These studies clearly show what was later described as the edge effect: the fact that people were more likely to stay at the edge of spaces.’ (84)

This naturally means that when a space is too big and open people still hug the edges and the places that are at a more human scale. If only the planners of the Olympic Park had read this.

Who Walks, How Fast, When? – This showed the importance of people taking their time in a space in terms of the feel of it, dawdling made possible by warmer weather in our countries (the opposite in Tucson where heat drives people off the streets): ‘…streets are experienced as more lively in summer than in winter — even when an equal number of people are on the street’ (87)

Many Good Reasons (Studying activities and excuses for being in public spaces)

It was clear early on in the process that people do not always have an obviously practical reason for being in public space. If you ask them directly, they might tell you that they are in town to shop or run errands. The many good reasons and sensible arguments made for being in public space often prove to be rational explanations for activity patterns that weave together errands and pleasure. in this context, rationally explained behaviour can cover stays in public space for the purpose of looking at people and public life in general. (90)

Action Research (from empty stretch of gravel to active playground in one day) — this was a marvelous project to inject life and space for women and children into high-rise social housing (one of the places in this book gender is specifically addressed), where 50 residents and 50 students built an enormous and wonderful adventure playground in an empty stretch of gravel between the high rise and some lame sand boxes.

Diary Method — two students spent 24 hours on a street writing down absolutely everything that happened! I am impressed and have some strange wish to do this myself. But I know a number of places, entire cities really, where writing down everyone’s actions would have immediate (and dangerous) consequences. This points to the privileges of working in Denmark I think.

Measuring Fear and Apprehension — sadly not about class or race issues — these don’t exist in these studies as I say — but an interesting way to study the impact of traffic on public life

Active or Passive Facades

‘most of what we take in visually is at eye-level, and in relation to buildings, it is primarily the ground-floor level that catches our eye. Numerous studies have pointed to edges, the transition between building and public space, as significant for how many and which activities take place.’ (104)

Going from 43 to 12 Criteria — a checklist for assessing public space qualities! I love checklists…

(Gehl, Jan & Birgitte Svarre (2013) How to Study Public Life. London: Island Press)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…

 

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