November 27 2013

How Cities Come Alive: A Book Review of “Life Between Buildings”

People and buildings are connected – they have been and will continue to be so. Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space is a classic that applies substance and quantitative research to the field of urban planning. Jan Gehl, author of Cities for People, takes his analysis beyond urban design to talk about how public spaces are actually used, why, and what designers can do to improve cities.

Life Between Buildings Cover

“Take good care of the people and the precious life between the buildings,” Gehl’s original message has been little altered after being updated, revised, and translated into 15 languages. First published in 1971, Life Between Buildings discusses what planners and designers can do to activate public spaces. Filled with an array of statistics and case studies, Gehl recounts the unfortunate history of cities and how over five decades of building-focused planning have made public space an unfortunate afterthought.

The book is full of theories that, while generally common sense, most find difficult to articulate. There are many places like Venice, New York, or Buenos Aires that have active street life, while other less fortunate cities can look like ghost towns. Gehl explains why some of these places are inherently attractive to people and draws them to walk and linger in the space. Attracting people into the public realm with festivals, shopping, and dining is as important in an active street as keeping their interest to linger there. Gehl extensively documents each concept using words, diagrams, and images.

Author Jan Gehl

Author Jan Gehl at the Velo City Global 2010 conference in Copenhagen

Making the space “multi-use” will make the space “multi-user.” In other words, when planners define certain zones as exclusively residential, commercial, recreational, these spaces are only used by a certain segment of the population. In contrast, mixed-use zones can have a wider appeal and create more dynamic spaces. Gehl shows how mixing uses within a single space creates active, safe, and interesting public spaces.

What is your favorite public space in the world and why?

Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space is available from Island Press. The Grid is giving away 3 FREE copies of the book. Follow the link to Rafflecopter Giveawayto enter for a chance to win your free copy – the perfect read while sitting in your favorite public space. Best of luck and happy reading!

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Jennifer Garcia

Born and raised in the Midwest, Jennifer García now enjoys the energy and quality of life that Miami has to offer. Professionally, she uses traditional architecture and principles of the New Urbanism as a Town Planner at Dover, Kohl & Partners. Based on careful research, she designs each project within the context of the local architectural language, distinct culture, and regional settlement patterns. She proudly holds a Master of Architecture from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Traveling has taught her to immerse herself into each place’s history, culture, traditions, and how they contribute to the range of urbanism and local vernacular. She also enjoys blogging as a local transit advocate for Transit Miami. Her daily bicycle commutes reinforce her belief in nurturing a living urbanism with livable streets.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 27th, 2013 at 8:10 am and is filed under Book Review, 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.


10 Responses to “How Cities Come Alive: A Book Review of “Life Between Buildings””

  1. John Cruz Says:

    “The book is full of theories that, while generally common sense, most find difficult to articulate.” I think this is the biggest asset here. The reality is that even when explaining things like “place-making” to someone outside of the planning realm their thoughts are along the lines of “…well of course it makes sense for a public space to be somewhere that people want to spend time”. Being able to articulate the challenges, real world implications, action items, etc are where things get muddy.

  2. Christine C. Says:

    Hi, again, Jennifer :)

    Jan Gehl is one of my favorite urban advocates, and I love his work. His story of simply observing urban life on the walking street in Copenhagen is such a great basis for the rest of his prescriptions.

    My favorite public space is probably the ‘King’s Garden’ in Copenhagen. It’s absolutely beautiful-with interesting landscape and the castle and moat- large, and filled with nicely placed benches. I loved eating lunch and reading here during ‘down’ time.

  3. Jennifer Garcia Says:

    John, you’re absolutely right. We can all take pointers on how to talk about some of these challenges.

    Christine, glad you hear from you again! I (sadly) have yet to explore the magnificent city of Copenhagen – its definitely already in my top list! I will have to check out the King’s Garden – it sounds amazing!

  4. Belen Desmaison Says:

    I was able to attend a lecture by Lars Gemzoe, who works at Gehl Architects. He discussed theores and practices from their work in general and it was a great opportunity to see what examples could be repeated or implemented in Lima, a city that needs a lot of renovation of its public spaces.

    It is hard to chose a favourite public space. I am definitely biased, but one of my favourite public spaces is Lima’s malecon or broadwalk. It is the border between Lima and its coastline, which are separated by a cliff about 50 metres high. The broadwalk is over 5km long and offers uninterrupted parks and running routes, all with a wonderful view of Lima’s bay and the Pacific Ocean. It is a great place for running, biking and picnics.

  5. Christine C. Says:

    Belen: Where did you attend a Lars Gemzoe lecture?? That’s fantastic!

  6. Mike Crough Says:

    I have not read this book, but am currently reading “Cities for People”. It makes me think of the true lack of quality public spaces created in North America. Where I live, the City of Hamilton is going through an interesting time. It has some amazing public spaces, streetscapes and parks in it’s downtown area that are a legacy of better times. Few go down to really enjoy these places becuase of the current state of the downtown in general, and the typical fears of crime, lack of safety, homelessness.

  7. Pat Says:

    I am landscape architect and have had this on my to read list for a long time. I will make sure to go and pick it up asap.

    I think my favorite public space is post office square in boston because it is a green oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the financial district along with being a ground level green roof.

  8. Adrien Says:

    To be a bit original, I would say that my favorite public space is the new Place de la République in Paris, radically changed to make it more livable and walkable.

  9. Jennifer Garcia Says:

    Belen, I wonder if I have been to Lima’s malecon. I have been to El Parque del Amores, which is a lovely boardwalk and full of people. I thought it was wonderful!

    Pat, Boston’s Post Office Square is fantastic – a perfect place to read some Jan Gehl books.

    Adrien, I haven’t had the opportunity to see Place de la Republique since they reclaimed it for the people – the pictures look beautiful!

  10. Belen Desmaison Says:

    Christine: He came for a talk at a University in Lima. He explained briefly the history of his office and their work as well as showing us some examples like Times Square.
    Jennifer: El Parque del Amor is one of the parks that conform the malecon which extends further north and south. El parque del amor is right in the middle.

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