As cities compete to attract new residents and businesses, the importance of vibrant public spaces is undeniable. Organizations like Project for Public Spaces and The Better Block have demonstrated that when communities invest in their streets, parks, and plazas, the rewards are tremendous. But what makes a good public space? How does one understand the dynamics of daily life and the places between home and work? Jan Gehl and Birgitte Bundesen Svarre answer these questions efficaciously in their recently published book, "How to Study Public Life." The book describes the historical, social, and academic study of public life and public spaces, emphasizing the legitimacy of public life studies for successful cities.
Despite its comprehensive scope of public life studies over the past century, the book is incredibly accessible. Gehl and Svarre guide readers through the basic tenets, tools, history, and application of public life studies through well-illustrated pages, filled with historical and contemporary examples. Readers glimpse into Gehl’s life work through past studies as a student and a professional, in which he uncovered the trove of information in civic plazas, neighborhood streets, and other public spaces.
But really, how does one study public life? Readers have only to reach the preface of the book to find an answer. "Public life studies are straightforward. The basic idea is for observers to walk around while taking a good look."
At the root of the entire book is observation. The authors continuously stress the importance of the first-hand experience, motivating readers to get up, go to the nearest public bench, and observe how people interact with the space around them. From William H. Whyte’s Street Life Project to Jane Jacob’s Sidewalk Ballet, it is evident that manual observation is the best way to comprehend the complexities of the city. “Unpredictability is what makes cities places where we can spend hours looking at other people, and unpredictability is what makes it so difficult to quite capture the city’s wonderfully variable daily rhythm.”
"How to Study Public Life" also acts as a toolbox for those ready to observe. The authors begin with the basic questions: How many? Who? Where? What? How long? From there, they provide readers with a number of tools and advice for capturing public life on paper, such as counting, tracing, photographing, and test walks. Through the collection of real data, observers can translate what they see into useful information for decision-makers. This step is critical to the creation of safe, healthy, and interesting spaces that support desirable cities.
Although the authors do provide findings from existing research in the field of public life studies, the heart of the book is to inspire readers to enter their cities and study public life. Too many public spaces have been neglected due to industrialization and automobile-centric societies. Now is the time for urban planners, architects, engineers, and other creative city professionals to give their attention to public life and public spaces.
What did you discover when you observed life between buildings in your city? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
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