First life, then spaces, then buildings. The other way around only works sometimes.
The 80-year-old Danish architect focuses on the idea of people-centric urban design in his book ‘Life Between Buildings.’ Design is centred around how we as human beings live and behave in preeminent spaces in the urban fabric of our cities. The question arises, is there any other kind? The book above seeks to examine how architects and urban planners can revitalise public spaces. Frequently seen in recent times, they are often designed as an afterthought.
Outdoor Activities | Life Between Buildings
Gehl classifies outdoor activities in public spaces into three categories: necessary, optional, and social. Each of the activities demands different aspects of the physical urban fabric. Necessary activities are habitual routines not significantly influenced by the design of the physical urban framework; they take place independently of the urban fabric configuration. Optional activities include taking a walk when external conditions are favourable. When outdoor areas could be better planned, only strictly essential activities occur. When the space is designed intentionally to invite more people, necessary and optional activities occur since people are encouraged to linger rather than just pass through.
Social activities rely on the presence of people in a public space. They are the culmination of necessary and optional activities due to more people being about in public. When necessary and optional activities are allowed to exist under better circumstances, communal recreation in public reaches its pinnacle.
Gehl quotes, “Life between buildings is not merely pedestrian traffic or recreational or social activities. Instead, life between buildings comprises the entire spectrum of activities, which combine to make communal spaces in cities and residential areas meaningful and attractive.”
People Attract People
An old Scandinavian proverb summarises, “people come where people are.” Children prefer to be around other children or adults instead of merely playing with their toys. Our inherent desire for a social life or our intrinsic feeling of safety in numbers subconsciously draws us to areas with more people. A study by John Lyle in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, shows that most used benches were around the garden’s main path with a view of the street rather than the quieter areas of the park. Sidewalk cafes are designed keeping this human behaviour in mind. Life on the sidewalk is in itself the primary attraction.
When it comes to people seeing other people, the distance between two observers is paramount. The purpose of seeing others is lost cause when spaces are too big or too wide. Favourable factors are the field of vision and clear, unobstructed sight lines. Medieval city squares have myriad examples of this. For instance, Italian city squares have a pedestrian area raised a few steps above the motor traffic roads.
Conversations | Life Between Buildings
Conversations in urban spaces are not easy when the decibel level is 60 or higher. Venice gives a distinctive first impression to new travellers, more striking than her canals or the houses, the audible sound of people. The annual Jazz festival takes place in the streets and squares of Copenhagen and is one of its most fantastic attractions. An undertaking of this magnitude was only possible by introducing traffic-free zones. The ability to hear music while meandering the streets makes the journey an enriching experience.
There are three categories of outdoor conversation as classified by Gehl, each producing different demands on the environment: conversations with people one accompanies, conversations with acquaintances one meets, and finally, possible conversations with strangers. Conversations with people one accompanies require no spatial requirements, which are notably different except for low decibel levels.
Those with acquaintances can happen when outdoor activities are prevalent greatly because this increases the chances of someone one knows being out in public. A conversation with a stranger is a rarity, often the consequence of people doing similar things simultaneously, such as standing or sitting side by side. William Whyte uses the term triangulation to describe when two spectators, A and B, exchange smiles or have a conversation while enjoying the performance of street entertainer C. A fascinating triangle starts to develop.
Phenomena such as these are what keep an urban space alive. It is imperative to understand that we need more active street life. Something that planners these days fail to achieve by leaps and bounds. The loss of public space is detrimental to any city. Good public space design is done keeping in mind all its citizens. We use public spaces to commute, unwind and interact. Planners need to manifest these concepts in their designs. Gehl believes that a city designed for its people is the greatest of its kind. Creating a design that keeps the citizens happy inculcates a love for the city. The city becomes an extension of a citizen’s home. People find other people’s presence comforting. It is up to planners to make that comfort a reality.
Gehl, J. (2011) Life between buildings: Using public space. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Heward, J. (2020) Life between buildings, danish architecture and design review. danish architecture and design review. Available at: http://danishdesignreview.com/book-reviews/2019/3/17/life-between-buildings-t8ssd (Accessed: February 6, 2023).
Life between buildings: Using public space: Urban design library (2021) Urban Design Group. Available at: https://www.udg.org.uk/publications/udlibrary/life-between-buildings-using-public-space (Accessed: February 6, 2023).