Published on: 27th May 2013
Publication: Island Press
“How to Study Public Life” by Jan Gehl is one of the most cited works by academicians, researchers and practitioners in the fields of social studies, urban planning and human-responsive designs. As the title suggests, the aim of the book is to introduce tools and guidelines to planners, developers and city makers that will help them to understand how people use public spaces. Gehl is famed for his public space studies and proposing interventions for the same. The book narrated specific examples of public space studies which inspire and tirelessly promote the health of public spaces. Some of the methods outlined in this book have stood the test of time, that is, have been practiced over the past forty years. The book is organized into seven chapters, each chapter uncovering tools and methods that will help make better decisions in designing public spaces.
Summary and background
The book starts with the energy that inspired Gehl to study public spaces. In the 1960s, cities and their development became puppets in the hands of fast-growing automobiles occupying every road and street. Gehl observed the struggle and changing fortune of the mass to fit in a public space. The works of William Whyte and the philosophies of Jane Jacobs further stimulated his interest to look “closely at real cities”. The second part of the book demonstrates the basic method of answering the five questions to collect primary data for a public space. “How many use it?”, “Who uses it?”, “Which public space do they use?”, “What do they use it for?” and “For how long?” are the five questions that help assess the effectiveness of public space and lay the foundation of recommendations.
The third part describes the methods of collecting the primary data, that is, photographs and videos with time-lapse videos that can give evocative documentation about how the public space under study is used. Another method to document is maintaining a journal about who uses the space, how they use it and for how long. The final method that Jan Gehl dispenses is observation through walks. The surveyor talks a walk along the pedestrians to record the time of walking and observe the activities around it. These test walks aim to analyze various parameters such as safety, comfortableness and if there are interesting activities going around to look at. The fourth chapter presents historic perspectives on studies of public spaces. Page 40 presents a graphical timeline of texts related to public spaces that are most influential to date. The list of publications includes authors such as Allan Jacobs, Kevin Lynch and Gordon Cullen.
The fifth part proffers twenty case studies that employed the above-mentioned tools and methods. Each case study is associated with its surveyor’s name, research methods employed, and the date and time of the survey. The graphical presentation of each case study included photographs, maps, charts, and illustrations. The sixth part presents more projects undertaken by Gehl in Copenhagen, Stockholm, London, and New York. The proportion of the site understudy is in correspondence with the size of the city. For example, the projects in Copenhagen and Stockholm included historic centres while the projects in London and New York included parks, streets, city centres and other public spaces. One of the most interesting ideas of these projects is that the surveys are repeated after a period of two years and then after ten years. This is quite insightful as it assesses the interventions implemented by Gehl and the team in the first place and imparts understanding for recommending future interventions. The final part transcribes the learnings and understandings of the case studies into public policies. Though this part mainly cites changes in Copenhagen from 1960 to today, the interpretations are useful in other cities and situations as well.
Gehl has limited his tools and methods to Euro-American cities. This approach might not be suitable for Asian cities or, in general, for the global South. The challenges that the Global South faces have not been mentioned in the text. The social issues of poverty, safety, diversity in culture and equal access to basic amenities are excluded. The architectural factors such as shading devices in public spaces and the design of the street furniture that affect its use are modestly kept out of the scope of discussion in the book. Many researchers and urban planners might disagree that the same tools and methods can be used in cities other than Copenhagen.
Gehl and his team have delivered numerous projects across the globe in the past fifty years to develop equitable, healthy, sustainable communities for all. He established his office twenty years ago with Helle Soholt when he was 64 years old. Today, Gehl company has surveyed public spaces in cities globally. The unique approach of getting back to the implemented intervention after ten years to assess the space is what makes Gehl’s project famous and reliable. Gehl has been honoured with awards and distinctions since 1992 when his works started getting recognition. Gehl’s company focuses on six of the seventeen sustainability goals of the United Nations. Gehl has dedicated his life to the study of people’s well-being, laying a strong foundation for the future of urban planning and design.
- Gehl, Y., Svarre, B. (2013). How to Study Public Life. Island Press.