January 14 2014

Experiencing Streets, Parks, and Plazas: A Review for “How to Study Public Life”

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 between daily life and the places between home and work? Jan Gehl and Birgette 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.

How to Study Public Life, book cover

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.

Buskers in Tempe, Arizona

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 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 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.

People on steps, Tempe, Arizona

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?

The Grid is giving away 2 FREE copies of How to Study Public Life. Follow the link to Rafflecopter Giveaway to enter for a chance to win and begin studying public life!

Credits: Images by Lynn Coppedge. Data linked to sources.

Lynn Coppedge

Lynn Coppedge graduated from Arizona State University's Master of Urban and Environmental Planning program Currently working as a Sustainability Planner for the City of Lakewood in Colorado, Lynn aspires to advance sustainability in the community of Lakewood through creative planning, programs, outreach, and events.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 14th, 2014 at 9:38 am and is filed under Book Review, Social/Demographics, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


7 Responses to “Experiencing Streets, Parks, and Plazas: A Review for “How to Study Public Life””

  1. Ryan Keeling Says:

    As a life long “people watcher” the text “How to Study Public Life” seems like the perfect fit in my library. Thanks for the introduction and great article!

  2. Constant Cap Says:

    Very interesting study of public life, caries and depends on which part of town here in Nairobi. Downtown is all rush and hurry, uptown its more relaxed.

  3. Miguel Says:

    AS a Civil Engineer, this study seems very interesting. I like help the people to generate urban life in public spaces, I want more human cities.

  4. Christine C. Says:

    Hi Lynn,

    I love Jan Gehl and am a huge fan of his work. If you like this book, you might find ‘Cities for People’ (by him), also interesting and informative.

    As I observe my city, I see a lot of cars. And a few people picking their way around sidewalks that have ended, then waiting at long traffic lights to cross. Concerns me and makes me nervous..

  5. Lynn Coppedge Says:

    “How to Study Public Life” was a great toolbox for making us more aware of our cities and understand how to leverage existing resources to improve public space. After reading it, I couldn’t wait to get out in Phoenix and notice how people behave depending on the seating, streetscape, shade, and presence of other people.

    Constant-The same is true for Phoenix. Different public spaces with the same amenities can be like a ghost town in one part of the city and bustling in another. Activating both of those spaces takes creativity!

    Miguel-I would highly recommend this book if you’re interested in crafting human cities! It uses empirical approaches to making public spaces function well.

    Christine-Jan Gehl made this an extremely practical and accessible book, I hope you get to read it soon! I will be sure to check out Cities for People!

  6. Pamela Caspani Says:

    A very useful tool for advocating public life surveys to inform city planning.

  7. HOW TO STUDY PUBLIC LIFE -Jan Gehl & Birgitte Svarre | Urban Choreography Says:

    […] Experiencing Streets, Parks, and Plazas: A Review for “How to Study Public Life” […]

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