Urban Design Library

Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space

Urban Design Library #21
Jan Gehl

Jan Gehl is an 80 year old Danish architect and urban designer. Livet Mellom Husene (The life between the houses) was published in Danish in 1971 but, remarkably, was not published in an English translation until 1987. So my generation of urban designers missed out on an important source of influence during its education.

I would classify Gehl as belonging to a school of urban design which we might call behavioural: one which derives its values, codes and methods from a study of how human beings live and behave. In that same ideological school we can place books by Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, William Whyte, Gordon Cullen, and the Responsive Environments gang. It is sometimes called people-centred urban design, although that term invites the rhetorical riposte of asking what other kind could there be?

Actually there are other kinds, and if we wanted to define the behavioural attitude by its antithesis, we might for example identify the work of Ricardo Bofill, whose formalistic architecture is illustrated by Gehl. He comments ‘Life between buildings is both more relevant and more interesting to look at in the long run than are any combination of coloured concrete and staggered building forms’.

Gehl mirrors Jane Jacobs’ emphasis on the significance of ordinary quotidian activity, and also her critique of orthodox modernism: not because of what it looks like, but because of its failure to provide spaces that people can inhabit in sociable ways. It is ironic that orthodox modernism was often called functionalism, when in fact its failure was that it didn’t work. Gehl illustrates several modern developments where, as a result of the way space is shaped, people are unlikely to meet: and if they do, their surroundings are unlikely to make them want to engage socially.

Enabling people to meet in a sociable way is seen as the essential purpose of public urban space. Gehl begins with a classification of outdoor human activity that provides the rationale for the rest of the book, and which has become one of the benchmarks of urban design theory, like Lynch’s legibility. He defines ‘necessary activities, optional activities’, and ‘social or resultant activities’. Necessary activities are those over which we have no choice. We go to work, we take the children to school, we visit the GP, and the quality of the environment has little influence over these actions.

On the other hand, optional activities are much more dependent upon having a conducive environment. We will sit outside the corner shop drinking coffee, or sit in the park reading the newspaper, only if these are pleasant places to be in. So a well-designed area will generate more activity in its public spaces. Social activities can also be called resultant because they are the consequence of people being outdoors. They can be the result of necessary activities, but they are more likely to be the result of optional activities. At its most basic, social activity can be just watching other people: a passive act, but fundamental to urban life. Further up the scale, it can be exchanging news with a neighbour or the postman by the front gate, children playing in the street, or drinkers smoking and talking outside the pub.

Most of the remainder of the book is taken up with defining parameters for design which can encourage social activities to take place. Some models are found in unplanned or vernacular settlements, but Gehl cites many modern examples such as housing by Ralph Erskine, Siedlung Halen and Dutch woonerfs. One theme which recurs is the importance of the elaborated threshold between public and private space: the front yard, the porch, the veranda, the stoop.

Gehl employs elements of physiological and psychological science to support his thesis. He examines the mechanics of standing and walking, and the ways in which the human senses of sight, smell and hearing operate to shape our perceptions. For example, at between 70 and 100m one can recognise another person’s age and gender, but a shorter distance is necessary in order to recognise an individual. These factors should inform the design of spaces.

Generally, Gehl embodies a very openminded and liberal attitude. The book occupies similar territory to A Pattern Language, but unlike Alexander, Gehl does not explicitly specify solutions; he analyses, and makes suggestions. Occasionally, and perhaps inevitably, he lapses into spatial determinism, as when he reproduces diagrams of dubious merit from Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space. But overall, the book is a statement of faith in human nature, and in our ability to shape an urban environment around it.

URBAN DESIGN 142 Spring 2017 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 142 Spring 2017

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Read On

Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre, 2013 | How to Study Public Life | Island Press
William Whyte, 1980 | The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces | Project for Public Spaces
Christopher Alexander, 1978 | A Pattern Language | OUP USA
Oscar Newman, 1972 | Defensible Space | Macmillan
Bentley I et al, 1985 | Responsive Environments | Routledge

Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space Publication Urban Design Group
Island Press
Reviewed By
Joe Holyoak, architect and urban designer