“First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.” Jan Gehl
How to study public life, by Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre, constitutes a great compendium if you are in the field of public spaces and public life in cities. You probably know the work Jan Gehl conducted in the last decades and aware of his impact in a new emergence of studies and programmes related to intensification of public spaces as the domain where cities start to make their promises real.
The book is now available an open door to the ideas that reshaped Copenhagen, Melbourne, New York, London, Sydney or Cape Town, all of them cities where Gehl Architects have been involved in the last years through different studies and strategies based on street level observations as a primary methodology to understand how cities work and how people use, enjoy and move around the streets they inhabit. As such, it serves also as a knowledge map for those interested in understanding the roots of the renaissance of public spaces as a field of attention in urban planning, looking back at authors that influenced the works not only Jan Gehl´s ones, but also of all those addressing a new understanding of the importance of public life in our cities nowadays. Today, studies of public life seem to be, even though still something exceptional, obvious if you are pursuing an urban vision in which people are the centre of it, but it is astonishing that public life studies are not so old and first step were only taken in developing first methods in the 1960s.
It was a mix of societal changes and a mindset change after modernism that lead to some pioneers to start exploring how to reinforce public spaces as the place where common life expands. That is how different research groups from California, New York and Copenhagen coincided at the same time studying the interaction between people and their built environment and the list of authors -Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte, Kevin Lynch, Christopher Alexander, Clare Cooper Marcus, Donald Appleyard, Allan Jacobs, Jan Gehl, Fred Kent,...- expanded. It wasn´t until 1980s that these studies leapfrogged from academic institutions-led research to city-driven projects with real impact in public realm strategies and urban design interventions.
At this stage, the catalogue of methods to study how public life occurs in public spaces had become a refined way to analyse and understand what happens and how it happens in open spaces. This field is a detailed part of the book and can serve as a first-glance overview of the kind of tools available: from GPS tracking and mathematical methods (newcomers thanks to new technologies) to behavioural mapping, manual tracking, photo documentation, action-research, observations, interviews, walks, etc. And all of this, what for? You can choose the most practical answer: just to know which paths people use when walking, where people seat in plazas, how fast people walk upon different circumstances, at what times the streets seem more crowded, in what places you can see children walking alone and in which ones you won’t, why casual encounters happen in some places,... all of this may seem quite anecdotal, too naive to deserve be part of the issues covered by master planning. But you can also choose the more definite answer to the question: all of this just because people matter and they are the final reason of urban design.
This approach has been used by City councils to explore the way to enhance public life as a core strategy and not as a part of traditional urban planning and urban design studies, gaining their own significance as a major strategy in cities such as Copenhagen, New York, Melbourne, -Sydney, Cape Town or London. All these projects serve as good examples to illustrate not only the methods, but particularly what is to be gained when design strategies focus on urban quality for people and, as we noted some years ago related to New York, show that high impact can be obtained with minor changes (minor in terms of scale and investment, but not in terms of subverting some assumptions and priorities that have shaped the city in the last decades). This kind of studies turn out to be an available public policy tool not just to enhance urban design quality, but as a tool that impacts and contributes to other urban policy goals (social issues, health, housing,…) making urban design something meaninful for people.
Public Space Public Life Studies from Gehl Architects on Vimeo.
Gehl Architects employ an observational analysis technique to investigate how people move through and spend time in public space. This type of analysis, known as public space public life studies, has been developed and refined over 40 years first by Jan Gehl is now used by Gehl Architects to form the basis of strategic and design advice. Gehl Architects work to evolve the analysis techniques with use of new technology such as mobile phone applications and time lapse photography. These new techniques don’t replace the old but add new layers of knowledge and understanding as well as new ways to visually communicate data. Here time lapse helps us to understand the ebbs and flows of people throughout the day at a key public space (Gammel Torv) along the pedestrian street (Strøget) in our urban laboratory – Copenhagen, Denmark.