How to study public life
One of the difficulties of urban design is that some of its most fundamental aspects are so intangible. In How to study public life, Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre have firmly grasped the nettle that is public life, drawing on Gehl’s work across 50 years, to give us a practical guide for understanding the ‘interaction between public life and public space’, to help us improve how people live from day to day. It highlights the ‘influence of physical conditions on the extent and character of life in individual streets’; ‘much more than aesthetic qualities determine whether a public space is valued and used’. This gives direction to better integrate the disparate elements involved.
The book is essentially a summary of public life studies. Chapter topics are: scope and methods of observation; review of historical studies; series of themed studies; array of public space-public life studies; a focus on Copenhagen across 50 years of public life policies. All of these are presented with extensive notes and bibliography, and diagrams and photos throughout.
Reflecting the practical nature of these types of studies, the book is very readable, though the text could have been snappier, each chapter with a short overview and broken down into clear parts, with extended descriptions of photos and diagrams. Specific examples are used throughout, although at times, incisive comments and wider relevance are lacking.
Breaking down individual aspects that constitute behaviour in public space achieves a way to understand the qualitative quantifiably. This renders individual aspects of public life comparable and therefore useful as part of a design process. The authors stress the importance of manual observation rather than relying solely on for example, video and vehicle counters, although these can be useful too.
Public life studies are not detail-design focused, but it is stressed that ‘their focus is public life in interaction with design rather than design itself’. This offers general principles rather than design guidelines: assemble rather than disperse, integrate rather than separate, invite rather than repel, and open up rather than close in.
From the tail end of the 20th century, the acknowledgement of the effects of car dominance and a rise in inter-city competition, have resulted in an increased profile for public life. This highlights shifts in political agendas that require cities to be more attractive as places where people want to live, work and visit, and in social agendas that demand healthier, safer and more sustainable cities. This book is very relevant to this ongoing work.