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How to Study Public Life

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How do we accommodate a growing urban population in a way that is sustainable, equitable, and inviting? This question is becoming increasingly urgent to answer as we face diminishing fossil-fuel resources and the effects of a changing climate while global cities continue to compete to be the most vibrant centers of culture, knowledge, and finance.

Jan Gehl has been examining this question since the 1960s, when few urban designers or planners were thinking about designing cities for people. But given the unpredictable, complex and ephemeral nature of life in cities, how can we best design public infrastructure—vital to cities for getting from place to place, or staying in place—for human use? Studying city life and understanding the factors that encourage or discourage use is the key to designing inviting public space.

In How to Study Public Life Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre draw from their combined experience of over 50 years to provide a history of public-life study as well as methods and tools necessary to recapture city life as an important planning dimension.

This type of systematic study began in earnest in the 1960s, when several researchers and journalists on different continents criticized urban planning for having forgotten life in the city. City life studies provide knowledge about human behavior in the built environment in an attempt to put it on an equal footing with knowledge about urban elements such as buildings and transport systems. Studies can be used as input in the decision-making process,  as part of overall planning, or in designing individual projects such as streets, squares or parks. The original goal is still the goal to recapture city life as an important planning dimension. Anyone interested in improving city life will find inspiration, tools, and examples in this invaluable guide.

200 pages, Hardcover

First published October 1, 2013

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About the author

Jan Gehl

17 books207 followers
Jan Gehl is a Danish architect and urban design consultant based in Copenhagen and whose career has focused on improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design towards the pedestrian and cyclist.

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Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews
Profile Image for Erhardt Graeff.
122 reviews13 followers
March 18, 2014
I thought this was going to be a methods book on Public Life studies. And it is, but that is only a small part of the book. There is description of the goals and process of public life study, and a set of case examples of how certain methods were used in actual public spaces around the world. I wish there was more detail here and more description of how many people were involved in various aspects and what some of the common pitfalls of this research tend to be. That would have made this a better methods book.

The rest of the book is occupied with celebrating and recounting the career of co-author Jan Gehl. There is an unexpected though interesting literature review of public life studies starting with Jane Jacobs up until about 2012. Each scholar and many of their books get individual treatment here with regard to their contribution to the field and where they expand on past scholars' work. If you are interested in diving into this field, this is a go to resource.

All in all, it's an odd book bringing together a lot of loose ends that it seems like Jan Gehl and his co-author Birgitte Svarre had been meaning to publish. The book is beautifully designed and an accessible read; I just wish it spent more time on the "how" in the title.
Profile Image for Ietrio.
6,614 reviews25 followers
August 21, 2020
A small time pair of Stalins hoping they, together, will amount to half a Stalin, and than everything will be just Heaven.
Profile Image for Andrea.
Author 6 books177 followers
June 4, 2015
This book 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:


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

Mapping (of activities, people and places) IMG_2155
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 diaryIMG_2159
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 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...
Profile Image for Iván Ramírez Osorio.
269 reviews29 followers
October 24, 2022
Este libro es un manual de diseño urbano, una celebración a la escuela de urbanismo de Jan Gehl. Tiene algunas cuestiones metodológicas interesantes y hace un recuento bastante completo y útil de las diferentes posiciones ideológicas que ha seguido y sigue el urbanismo. Está bien.

Profile Image for Andreea.
7 reviews5 followers
July 31, 2016
I was expecting something else from this book and it failed to deliver to my personal expectations. However, it is a good book and a great starting point for those who want to approach the subject of what makes cities livable and how we can improve them.

Basically, throughout the book the authors outline the main existing literature on the subject (which is a great resource for further studies on the matter) and feature a few examples of how they approached the process of solving certain cities' problems and making them more pleasant for the inhabitants. This was where the book actually failed to meet my expectations, because I was expecting more examples likes these, more details regarding their approach and process, more proven facts about what makes a city better. In this respect, I would rather recommend another book by Gehl,"Cities for people", which is much better in my opinion.
Profile Image for Margaret Sankey.
Author 9 books203 followers
August 4, 2017
Since the first time I read Seeing Like a State, I've been interested in how people can stymie design meant to control their movements, and conversely, how good design can enhance the use of public space. Here, the authors offer a survey of how, using tools as simple as graph paper and a stopwatch, or as sophisticated as full GIS software, public space and the people in it can be studied to look for patterns and potentials for better design--with examples from New York, Copenhagen and Melbourne to illustrate the principals. This is a really useful guide, which would work well with student projects in the social sciences.
Profile Image for Lara.
1,596 reviews
January 1, 2017
The author of this book is a Danish architect who helped to develop the field of urban planning such that it moved from ideals of buildings and transportation systems to recognizing that cities are places where we live. And as places where we humans live, there are aspects of urban design that encourage or discourage certain types of activities. This book provides an overview of what planning cities and places for people to use them means. It discusses general techniques, provides an historical timeline with reference to seminal works across the decades, and then provides examples of techniques and studies that have been used throughout the world.

The book is well illustrated and easy to engage in. It provides real world examples of each concept discussed and refers to many works that one may refer to for more detail, or place one may visit to experience the concept in person. It also talks some about the issues one has to consider in order to study how people use places, and identify behavior changes that may occur when changes are made. Overall, it is an excellent overview of the field, and an attractive and accessible reference that can be used to explain a concept or jog one's memory.

I received a digital copy through NetGalley for review. The comments are my own.
Profile Image for Julie.
108 reviews
November 18, 2017
Good read to understand the historical trajectory of the art/science of studying the intersection between public life and public spaces. The work of Jan Gehl is seminal in the field. Great contribution by the authors to this area of design.
29 reviews
January 9, 2021
Excellent livre d'initiation à la discipline. Personnellement, j'y ai trouvé quelques longueurs, mais les derniers chapitres présentant des résultats sommaires d'études sur l'espace public sont révélateurs et excellents.
Profile Image for Tara Brabazon.
Author 23 books324 followers
February 8, 2016
Public Life Studies offers theories and methods to interpret urbanity in a way that summons interpretations of space, place and the built environment. The use of public spaces requires an array of unobtrusive research methods and this fine book provides research strategies and ways to understand movements and how they become significant patterns.

This book also offers a way into the emerging field of Physical Culture Studies, providing depth and consideration for movement, walking, standing and stillness.
21 reviews
September 8, 2016
Everything was very brief in its explanations and it was difficult to take away key concepts from this book. It is a good survey of a lot of topics. I think a more apt title of the book would be "How Public Life has Been Studied."
Profile Image for Jason.
14 reviews6 followers
November 24, 2015
Four stars for its amusement. Great introduction for anyone wanting to learn the basics. Makes for a great coffee table book.
Displaying 1 - 17 of 17 reviews

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