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Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space

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“. . .thoughtful, beautiful, and enlightening...”
—Jane Jacobs
“This book will have a lasting infl uence on the future quality of public open spaces. By helping us better understand the larger public life of cities, Life between Buildings can only move us toward more lively and healthy public places. Buy this book, fi nd a comfortable place to sit in a public park or plaza, begin reading, look around. You will be surprised at how you will start to see (and design) the world differently.”
—Landscape Architecture

200 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1971

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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 - 30 of 50 reviews
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,293 reviews21.7k followers
June 15, 2021
About a week ago, someone liked one of my reviews and after I clicked onto their profile I noticed they had reviewed this book. I’ve been fascinated by the whole idea of place and space for a very long time. Well, that and Goffman’s symbolic interactionism – the idea that many of our interactions can be understood as little dramas. So, this seemed right up my alley, so to speak.

Well, if Goffman liked dramas, the thing to notice is that dramas happen on stages with props, and, as Chekov liked to say, if there is a gun on a wall at the start of the play, it had better have gone off by the third act. Items on a stage are meant to be essential, you could imagine them as being inanimate actors in the play – which is more or less the central idea of New Materialism. All the same, this book is easier to read than most New Materialism.

So, what about all of the things that appear in a city street? You could shrug this off by saying, well, a city street isn’t really a stage. But the thing is that both are artifacts – they are made by humans so as to serve human purposes. All the same, when we think of cities we are much more likely to think about buildings than we are the spaces between them. And the author is at pains to say that the spaces between buildings are often much more interesting (and important) to the life of the city, than buildings. He even says at one point that you can have buildings of fascinating shapes and any or multiple colours of concrete and that hardly matters at all if the spaces between the buildings are poorly designed.

Three things happen in the spaces between buildings – necessary activities, optional activities and social activities. These are, or can be, overlapping categories, but they are still useful to think with all the same. No matter how bad the space between buildings is, you are still going to have to go out into them for necessary activities – to buy food, or go to work, say. Some social activities are going to fit into the necessary group too category too, but obviously, optional activities are going to be strongly impacted by the quality of the space, with you being much more likely to spend time in that space if it is welcoming.

So, what does welcoming mean? Most of this book is about answering that question. And some of the things said – oh, and shown, as there are lots of photos of street scenes – seemed surprisingly counter-intuitive to me. For example, he says at one point that most streetscapes would be improved if there was less space in them – I really would have expected the opposite.

He spends quite a lot of this book discussing human physical characteristics, and how these impact on whether the spaces between buildings are appropriate to human interactions. How far away can someone be for us to be able to hear them? How far away they can be before even if we can hear them, we can’t really sustain a conversation? And bizarrely, how close do they have to be before we feel forced to stop having a conversation with them? I’m not sure if you’ve ever noticed this, but you can be chatting away furiously with someone walking up to a lift, but then stop speaking immediately while you are in the lift. Space matters – and it certainly isn’t due to it being hard to hear what is being said in a lift – quite the opposite, in fact.

And then there is the fact we never see stuff that is above a certain height in streetscapes, not least since we generally walk with our heads tilted slightly to the ground, as Ani DiFranco says, ‘when I look down, I just miss all the good stuff, when I look up, I just trip over things’. Or the fact that we have a preference for the shortest route between two points, even if it isn’t the easiest way to get there.

Our senses have evolved to be useful to us at particular scales, and walking pace matches most of those scales for us. Walking pace means we can see all of the details in an urban space that certainly can’t be seen while driving through them in a motor car at 70km/h. In the car, signs need to be huge, barriers (of one form or another) need to exist between the driver and pedestrians, and noise from the cars means talking becomes next to impossible for people on the streets. Parents hold onto children’s hands in such spaces and so children are less engaged in these places too.

I had never really thought about how people interact with large open spaces before. Generally, we start off by sticking to the edges of space – so, increasing the number of edges is often a good way to increase the amount of human interaction with that space.

Inevitably, I kept thinking about my own city while reading this. Melbourne has often been voted the world’s most liveable city – this isn’t nearly as impressive as it sounds. Really, it is something the Economist magazine does for its readers, it being a kind of competition to decide how much you should be compensated if you have to live somewhere else. You know, if your company sent you to live in Yemen or Gaza, you would probably want some sort of danger money to make it worthwhile. Whereas, Melbourne is relatively politically stable, has quite nice drinking water, lots private schools and legalised prostitution, all of which are the things a business man away from home needs to tick off their list.

When Melbourne’s streets were planned, the governor at the time demanded that the Little Streets – between the main ones – should be made narrower than the planner had intended. The planner wanted them wider, because they believed at the time that disease was spread by bad smells. There was a fight, and the governor won. The governor wanted more housing blocks and less public road, since there was money pouring in from one and money disappearing due to the other. But this meant Melbourne inadvertently is an example of both the too much and too little space discussed here – and what he says basically works – the main streets are far too wide for you to get a sense of what is going on on the other side of the street – but this is certainly not true of the little streets. Some of the little streets have had traffic taken out from them and have then become virtual outdoor restaurants. There is a liveliness to these streets that you don’t find so much in the main streets, even when these too have been turned into malls. And it isn’t a shortage of people on the main streets – there is often more than enough people there.

The author makes the point that we are endlessly fascinated by our fellow humans. So, the seats in a square or at a park that are most likely to be used as the ones that let those sitting on them see the flow of people around them – rather than, say, a very attractive flower bed. People will stand for ages watching other people work on a building site, but might not look at all when no one is working there – when, if you think about it, there is probably almost as much to see both times. This is also true of those people you sometimes see drawing artworks in chalk on the pavement. As the author says, we will stop and watch them drawing, but might walk over their artwork once the artist has gone for the day.

Human interaction both draws us towards it, but also can require courage to get us to make that first step. And here the author talks about the benefits of private, public and semi-public spaces – for example, having a front-garden in your property where you can ‘tend to the garden’ – that is, have a reason for being there – while also allowing chances to occur where you can speak with neighbours and with people passing by. The book says that Venice is a particularly human city, since it has so many features that make incidental human interactions much likely. He says at one point that just about every object in the city of Venice can be used as a seat.

This is a remarkably short book, but it is packed with things I’d never thought about before that made me think about what makes the spaces between buildings either work or not. It’s the sort of book that will come to annoy you while you are out and about walking about your local neighbourhood – and, honestly, how could that not be a good thing?
Profile Image for foteini_dl.
431 reviews119 followers
December 5, 2021
Το βιβλίο, αν και γράφτηκε πριν 40 και κάτι χρόνια, και αφορά κυρίως τη Δανία, παραμένει επίκαιρο -και αναγκαίο για την Ελλάδα-, αν σκεφτείς τους δημόσιους χώρους των ελληνικών πόλεων (και κυρίως των μεγάλων). Ο Gehl ξεκινάει από μια βασική αρχή: η *πραγματική* ζωή σε μια πόλη βρίσκεται ανάμεσα στα κτίρια, εκεί όπου οι άνθρωποι έρχονται σε -μικρότερη ή μεγαλύτερη- επαφή μεταξύ τους και λαμβάνουν χώρα οι υπαίθριες αναγκαίες, προαιρετικές και κοινωνικές δραστηριότητες.

Χρησιμοποιώντας *πολλές* φωτογραφίες και όχι περίπλοκη γλώσσα, μεταφέρει με πολύ απλά τρόπο τις γνώσεις και τις παρατηρήσεις του όχι μόνο γύρω από το urban planning αλλά και την ανθρώπινη ψυχολογία. Έτσι, ο αναγνώστης δεν χρειάζεται να έχει ντοκτορά ή να φτιάχνει τον έναν καφέ μετά τον άλλο για να κρατήσει ανοιχτά τα μάτια.

Η ζωή ανάμεσα στα κτήρια είναι γραμμένη και σε μικρές παραγράφους, με σημειώσεις σαν μεσότιτλους στο πλάι τους, κάτι που ιδανικό για όσους έχουν attention span. Ίσως όχι και για όσους περίεργους θέλουν να κρατάνε οι ίδιοι σημειώσεις όπου οι ίδιοι κρίνουν απαραίτητο, και όχι σχεδόν παντού, όπως η γραφ...γκουχ γκουχ). Με λίγα λόγια, χρήσιμο βιβλίο για όλους όσους τους απασχολεί ο δημόσιος χώρος και η θέση τους σε αυτόν.
Profile Image for Evie.
96 reviews
September 1, 2011
i read this to the end, without skipping even a paragraph and its not a fiction book so i guess this means life between buildings was a very interesting book! its packed with useful information about public spaces and people's behaviours, surveys, facts and suggestions. the book is well written, with no excess information, lots of pictures to accompany the examples and is separated in smaller parts that consist of 2-4 paragraphs (very useful for people with small attention span myself included). i highly recommend it if you are looking for a book about the connections between people and architecture!
December 14, 2015
One of the true masters of down-to-earth city planning. You will never be able to walk through a modernist concrete wasteland again without thinking: "Why? Why so devoid of details, logical paths, places to meet, sit, walk" etc. And no, the answer is not always lack of funds. Some planners and builders just love building fortresses...
Profile Image for Jamie Loh.
7 reviews5 followers
June 7, 2021
Public spaces are transient and owned by none. Populated in the day, some lingering figures at night... but what exactly makes them so desirable? Or with an associated fondness? Think streets, public furniture, plazas, lawns, squares — abroad and local.

What I love about this read was Ghel’s notations and dissections to the obvious (built space) and his cross-examinations to how we go about in public spaces (activity). I guess there is this focus on the beauty of the ordinary. The simplicity of space powered by people, that ‘even the modest form of contact of merely seeing and hearing or being near to others is apparently more rewarding and more demanding than the majority of all other attractions offered in the public spaces of cities.’ That designing for these interactions, especially cities historically driven by modernist urban planning principles, can make the in-between of city density and ambiguity desirable. The book makes you dwell in the human condition and the power of activity when two or more are simply gathered. Life between buildings demonstrates our need for contact and how we relate to each other in transient spaces. Apt when you think about it in the pandemic.

Also, short and concisely written, accessible to all and a good contemporary read (there are echos of Jane Jacob and William H. Whyte.).
Profile Image for Jökull Auðunsson.
12 reviews2 followers
January 4, 2019
Að lesa þessa bók er eins og að fá „borgargleraugu“. Maður horfir í kringum sig og skilur umhverfið sitt mun betur. Það er allt sett í stærra og skýrara samhengi og það er ekki laust við að maður verðir tilfinningalegur gagnvart bersýnilega heimskulegum ákvörðunum sem bitna á öllum þeim sem þurfa að nota bílaborgina Reykjavík. Mæli með.
Profile Image for Freyr Snorrason.
8 reviews3 followers
April 4, 2021
Var lengi að lesa hana en þetta er biblía urbanista. Ekki flóknara en svo. Mjög þörf umræða Gehl um borgina sem heimili okkar.
66 reviews4 followers
June 22, 2015
This short book, amply illustrated with photographs, makes a strong case that design of public space can enhance or limit people's use of that space. Many of the observations seem obvious once made, but certainly I had never thought of them that way before - that people will do the things they have to do, no matter how bad the weather or the design - like go to work and go home from work - but the things they don't have to do are very subject to influence by environmental conditions (is the street pleasant, is it raining). There are echos of Jane Jacobs and William H. White. What makes a public place interesting and appealing is the people in it, and almost any place outside that is full of people - sitting, walking, eating, talking, listening to a musician on the corner - will be a lively and fun place to be. So Gehl argues that areas should be designed to get people outside and out of their cars as frequently as possible. If you drink your coffee on your front steps, and your house is close enough to the sidewalk or the street, you might end up talking to a neighbor, and after a few conversations you might feel that you know that person well enough to invite them for dinner or ask them to pick up your mail when you are gone next time. An insightful and very interesting book - highly recommended.
Profile Image for Ziyad Hasanin.
122 reviews57 followers
June 2, 2020
منذ بداية دراستي للعمارة ومع مطالعاتي في علم النفس والاجتماع نشأ لدي تصور أن الأماكن التي نحيا فيها لا بد وأن لها بصمة وأثر في تكوين شخصياتنا وعلاقاتنا الاجتماعية بل وربما تصوراتنا عن العالم والوجود حتى.. وكشخص عاش شخصيًا فشل التخطيط المدني والعمراني الحداثي وفشل نظام الإسكان والبيوت الذي لا يقيم للبشر والسكان والعلاقات الاجتماعية وزنًا فكتب يان غيل بالنسبة لي كنزٌ عظيم!

الكاتب يحلل الطبيعة البشرية وكيف نتعامل ونتحرك ونتفاعل مع بيئتنا وكيف أن على مدار التاريخ كانت المدن والقرى والمساحات تصمم تلقائيًا لتكون مناسبة للعلاقات البشرية حتى جائت الحقبة الحداثية الصناعية الاستهلاكية اللعينة وأصبح التركيز على المباني دون البشر والمدن دون السكان وصار المهم هو المباني الضخمة والضفادع الفخمة (على رأي طحالب).. جدير بالذكر أن بالنسبة لدول مستحدثة كالخليج فأنا عشت كثيرًا مما في هذا الكتاب وكتابات غيل عامةً وهذا أحد أسباب إعجابي الشديد به، وهو أنه لامس حياتي شخصيًا!

Profile Image for Monika.
589 reviews42 followers
November 24, 2016
Świetna książka, która pokazuje jak mądrym planowaniem przestrzeni miejskiej można zachęcić ludzi do spacerowania, spędzania czasu na zewnątrz, a nie przemykania między budynkami. Dużo ilustracji i zdjęć, które stanowią świetne przykłady
3 reviews2 followers
December 31, 2019
upplýsandi bók sem minnir mann á að mannlegt borgarskipulag sé krafa og réttur fólks sem býr í einhverskonar þéttbýli. einstaklega fróðleg um alls kyns smáatriði sem maður hefur ekki komið auga á fyrir lestur bókarinnar. mæli með fyrir öll þau sem hafa áhuga á borgarskipulagi og lífvænlegum borgum.
2 reviews
December 16, 2022
An articulate and usefully specific book which analyses public space and what makes some designs more appealing to occupy than others.
Profile Image for Siddhartha Golu.
97 reviews50 followers
April 21, 2022
One of the principal joys of reading is to discover the magic hidden in the seemingly banal things in life. I would've never cared to think twice about the intricacies of designing buildings and urban spaces, had it not been for this book. This serves as a gentle introduction to the fascinating study of how subtle differences in design of public spaces affect interactions on a much more broader scale.
Profile Image for Alex.
14 reviews
January 8, 2023
This mf spent way too much time just going into cities and staring at people. But honestly groundbreaking how he takes human physiology, proportions and psychology and puts it right smack in the center, acting as the basis for successful urban design. Ending was a bit shit.
Profile Image for Carmen.
77 reviews
September 26, 2022
This book was so awesome! Extremely easy to read, short with lots of instructive pictures, with simple but important points, that you probably know intuitively from how you use public space but wouldn’t know how to articulate. Also sometimes very sassy towards architects and planners :P
Profile Image for Jill.
746 reviews31 followers
November 4, 2011
Another urban design classic. First published in 1971, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, as its name suggests, talks about the issues planners and designers should think about in creative active public spaces. That to promote active public life, we have to move away from planning approaches that focus on the building structure, its design, layout and functions, but views the space outside the building as an afterthought.

Gehl discusses the need to create invitations for people to enter the public realm and as important, to linger there. If we want multi-user spaces, spaces must first be multi-use. Gehl argues that planning approaches that try to separate different functions - residential, commercial, recreational, etc - into difference spaces breeds monotony and results in the desertification of public space. He also argues for taking a human-centred design approach that is in sync with how people perceive and interact with the world - for instance, streetscapes that that nestle comfortably within, rather than extend far beyond, our field of vision; routes and paths that we can comfortably navigate on foot; spaces that allow people to transition gradually from private to public spaces, etc.

What I loved about the book was its ability break down and explain what most of us might instinctively sense, but find difficult to articulate. Why some places like Copenhagen and Venice (even outside peak tourist season) have active street life but others look like ghost towns. Why some places are inherently attractive to people, drawing people to walk and linger in the space whereas others do not. The clean writing was a bonus.
Profile Image for Erhardt Graeff.
122 reviews13 followers
March 18, 2014
Quick read full of insights into how people approach public spaces. This is understandably a classic of urban planning, and is incredibly accessible. I loved how every spread had at least one photo, and often several supporting the text with observable evidence. The book seems like a nice complement to Jane Jacobs classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, focusing more on the details of design that support the type of livable, walkable cities they both dream of.
Profile Image for Miguel.
32 reviews4 followers
September 20, 2021
Almost a step-by-step instructions manual for the livable city that still makes very important theoretical points. A must read for any student or practitioner for architecture and urbanism and, to be honest, for any politician as well. It goes straight to the point and the structure of the text is categorized to a fault. The images that accompany it are clear and enrich considerably the examples given throughout Jan Gehls’s different arguments.
1 review
January 30, 2019
A fundamental essay on how human activity is shaped by the urban form, and a thorough compendium of design advice to foster said activity. Very clearly presented, with all the epigraph titles on the side for easier navigation, and written in easy prose, it's a quick read. Still, its claims are solidly supported by copious observational evidence, resulting in a very insightful piece of work. If anything, I would say it lacks locality awareness: the book aims to be universal, but the evidence is gathered almost exclusively in the West, particularly in cold climates, and a few design solutions it suggests, implemented in the wrong places, would be as acculturating as Modernist architecture was. This applies especially to Gehl's repeated attacks towards flatted buildings (in favour of rowhouses and single-family homes), somewhat incoherent with his praise of the mediterranean (Italian) city and the intense street life it generates. Overall, though, an indispensable book for anyone involved in the design of the urban environment, and an easy read for professionals and amateurs alike.
Profile Image for JelmervdH.
5 reviews
April 17, 2023
Gehl manages to make the complex relations between people and urban space seem so obvious that you, the reader, immediately want to go into action and change things for the better. It is presented in such an obvious way that makes me clueless as to why cities are still built in ways that disregard life between buildings, i.e., massive buildings with empty facades, lack of public space, hard borders between the buildings and the street (mostly designed for motorised vehicular transport rather than people). Still, Life Between Buildings is engaging and empowering in understanding planning for co-location and social interaction: a practice that is, even after 50 years when this book was written, still underutilised.
January 24, 2018
An engaging book with a simple and easy to read style of writing, that from point-blank introduces us readers to a detailed vision of its main goal: a street full of life and activity. From that point forward until the end, Jan Gehl maintains that vision and guides us through a series of social and urban design lessons with a great understanding of how these two areas interact with each other. Quite adictive, highly recommended.
Profile Image for Yasmine Sobh Salama.
9 reviews1 follower
October 7, 2020
It enhances my thinking in system when looking at overall mobility of a whole city in which citizens and their social behaviors towards traffic, physical environements (buildings, sidewalk, decoration) and other factors (ie. climate,etc.) dynamic inteconnect with each other.
The book aims to be universal, but the evidence is gathered almost exclusively in the West, particularly in cold climates, and a few design solutions it suggests, implemented in the wrong places.
Yasmine Sobh
Profile Image for Carolina Helena.
119 reviews22 followers
March 30, 2018
Li este livro na recém versão portuguesa.
Um livro repleto de observações pertinentes em relação ao espaço público e à forma como as pessoas se usam dele, fazendo-nos repensar as incompatibilidades entre um desenho urbano que "fica bem no papel" e um que realmente tenha o melhor interesse das pessoas em vista. É leve, composto por capítulos curtos e pode interessar mesmo aos não arquitectos.
2 reviews
March 17, 2020
A short book, written with simple english, with ample photographs for anyone to understand. Provides insights on how the public perceive public spaces. It also acts like a guide for urban planners and designers on what to do, and what not to do while designing spaces between buildings. It is a must read.
Profile Image for Pablo Lopes.
37 reviews1 follower
May 26, 2020
Um livro da linhagem do Camillo Sitte, Gordon Cullen e Jane Jacobs. Que alguns dos projetos apresentados lembram os condomínios fechados que se espalham nas cidades brasileiras incomoda. Tirando esta má impressão, há efetivamente alguns estudos sobre o uso do espaço público que suplantam o estilo particular apresentado pelo autor. Uma leitura importante.
Profile Image for HOA NGUYEN.
1 review1 follower
May 12, 2017
The book enhances my thinking in system when looking at overall mobility of a whole city in which citizens and their social behaviors towards traffic, physical environements (buildings, sidewalk, decoration) and other factors (ie. climate,etc.) dynamic inteconnect with each other.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 50 reviews

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