In early February, Jan Gehl and I went to Washington DC and New York City to present How to Study Public Life and engage in a conversation and debate about how to create cities for people. It was evident from our varying types of public engagements that there is a sense of urgency to create cities for people in the US. There is also the need to acquire simple tools that enable politicians, planners and others engaged in making livable cities a reality – not only a reality for the few or those living downtown – but for all in the city centers as well as in the boroughs and suburbs.

In How to Study Public Life, we outline the field of ‘public life studies’– with many representatives from the US, such as Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte, Peter Bosselmann. This story has not been written before, and we have often been puzzled by how few people work within this field. The weeklong visit underlined many engaging conversations,  the need to address climate issues, questions of equity, health issues, livability, an aging population and many other challenges where the urban – the cities – are key to finding solutions.

It is not only ‘cities’ which see that they have to work with the issues, foundations, developers, NGO’s and many others are also engaged in solving these complex issues which are in  desperate need of intelligent solutions. A part of the answers could be found by asking more qualified questions and learning more about what it is that actually works and doesn’t work in cities – not only in terms of function and intention, but on a daily basis, to bring quality into people’s lives and address the big challenges in society.

From complex to simple

In the 1960’s, Jane Jacobs raised fundamental questions about what kind of cities we want, there seems to be an urge to go from the complex to the simpler. The field of public life studies started with epicenters in Berkeley, California, New York City and Copenhagen, to systematize knowledge on the interaction between form and life and ask basic questions about who, when, where, etc. The tools are more complex today, with more possibilities/techniques, but there is at the same time a demand for the simpler tool to gather what can be really complex: life in cities.

How to Study Public Life is a book that presents tools and stories which are meant to inspire people to look at and experience the city themselves, not only in quantitative ways, but to really understand the essence of the living city. What works, what does not? What kind of city do we want? If the answer is a livable city for everybody, we should go out and document if ‘everybody’ is already there, or who is missing? Children? The elderly? How about activities on a Tuesday morning, a Sunday afternoon, a dark night? And then use the knowledge we already have as well as new knowledge on these topics so it does not just become a series of hollow visions, words on paper, ideal plans with renderings of a varied life in new neighborhoods and then a deserted reality when realized.

We need to pose the right questions

Today, we are gathering more and more data and will only get even more in the future. But then the big question becomes: And then what? What do we do with the data? And in order to pose the right questions to know what data to look for and to know what answers to look for, we need an understanding of how life works.

Cities strive to be attractive, competitive, to do-good for the climate, to be safer, more sustainable, accommodate an aging population and many more challenges, but it is quite rare that we actually learn from what we build and what has already been built. It is not a matter of doing it perfectly, but to make cities better for people based on knowledge in the cross disciplinary field of public life studies which  deals with people’s behavior, the built environment and how we can make cities better for people to supplement other more technical evaluations and input.

In recent weeks, we have found two fantastic books which we thought you might enjoy perusing…


For the danish speaking audience, “Københavnerne” is a great read from Pernille Stensgaard on the city of Copenhagen developing and people living in it; humorous, sharp, and human.

“Jan Gehl kom for sent til Ørestad, som han finder umenneskelig, men umiddelbart efter foretog supertankeren København lige så langsomt ‘den Gehlske vending’ og blev en pionérby i arbejdet med at generobre byen fra biler, kedsomhed og indendørs isolation. Gehl siger, han ikke havde noget med det at gøre. Byen gjorde det af sig selv.”  Københavnerne

Happy_City_CoverAnother one for your book pile is “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery, where the subjects of hapiness and evolution of urban life are linked together.

“Sadik-Khan addressed it by employing the Copenhagen method: conduct a temporary experiment to see what spatial redistribution might accomplish. On Memorial Day weekend in 2009, Sadik-Khan joined city street crews as the rolled traffic barrels into place like so many orange beer kegs, blocking the flow of cars along five blogs of Broadway and around Times Square. ‘I will never forget it’ she told me later. ‘People just appeared! They just poured into the space we created’” Happy City


Six years ago, Gehl Architects traveled to Tokyo on a study trip. Throughout the many planned site visits, meetings and collaborative sessions, we managed to meet Darko Radovic, who recently joined our ‘team of specialists’ – our external collaborators who bring ‘specialist’ knowledge to our projects. Darko is founder of Co+Labo at KEIO University, where David Sim, Partner at Gehl Architects, has been a guest lecturer for the last 3 years.

Students mapping 'life' in Tokyo

Students mapping ‘life’ in Tokyo

In the spring of 2013 David collaborated with students from Co+Labo to observe and map ‘life’ in the streets of Tokyo. As a result of this collaboration, a new publication from Co+Labo at KEIO University is in the pipeline, the fifth book in the series called “Measuring the Non-Measurable”. The “Measuring the Non-Measurable” topic encompasses seminars and publications which highlight the methods of putting numbers to, and understanding what livable (and loveable) cities contain, while determining key qualities of best practice human centered urban environments. In book number 3, “Intensities in Ten Cities” David also contributed an essay entitled “Notes on Nyhavn – 34 Observations”.

Measuring the Non-Measurable

Yesterday I had the chance to sit down with David to talk about the collaboration with Co+Labo. We talked about the Tokyo experience and what we can learn from this fascinating city and how we can further inspire each other to continue developing better cities for people. Here are some of the essentials from the conversation, which highlighted the importance of focusing on details and the necessity for the human scale in mega cities.

Capturing City Life

Gehl Architects has a tradition and methodology for capturing city life, and these methods have been transformed and developed since they were first introduced by Jan Gehl in the 1960’s. Different contexts and cities influence the evolution of the methodology and how it is applied. For example, the city of Tokyo provides, through its careful attention to detail, culture, and small-scale experiences, inspiration for how we capture and measure the broader picture of city life. This awareness to details and small-scale situations fits perfectly  with the Gehl methodology of listening and looking to evolve an understanding of city ‘life’, and therefore serves as an inspiration, and points to a possible evolution of our methods.

Small-scale situations in a big city

When you visit Tokyo you are immediately struck by the scale, size and intimacy of the things and environments around you. You come to understand that a big place can actually have a human scale, a combination, which we can learn from as our cities urbanize at a quicker and quicker pace.

City 'life' in Tokyo

City ‘life’ in Tokyo

The human scale can be introduced when you connect the physical environment to the people and businesses using them, for example in Tokyo where small design shops and creative businesses are reusing basements, former apartments, etc. over the expanse of neighbourhoods. This is a tendency which is the opposite from the symptom of gathering a cluster of shops in one place, as we see in large scale malls. Acknowledging that this can be part of the urban fabric, an urban environment with an emotional appeal as well as a functional and physical one, offers an interesting way to introduce the human scale into a highly urbanized environment.

There are many ‘life’ situations that you can never recreated in malls or high-streets. The experience of personal encounters between people is a value for city life that has been overlooked in the functional and effective evolution of western cities. Thereby, Tokyo’s small scale offers us some insight and inspiration on how to introduce the small scale in big cities.

Scale in Tokyo

Tokyo is a mega city and there is a paradox in its attention to the small. Although the growth in Asia is increasingly rapid, Asia has an incredible tradition for detail and small scale interactions which offers many opportunities for creating new developments that apply best practice knowledge of planning and designing for the human scale.

Human-scale in Tokyo

Human-scale in Tokyo

The Japanese tradition for sophisticated and detail oriented design and behavior resonates with an attention to the human scale in city development. Japan has  an interesting focus on quality, highly developed and sophisticated design, combined with a tradition of smallness and human scale, a focus that might help us as we develop mega cities around the world.

Inspired by the experience in Japan, our tools, for determining and developing city life, have potential to evolve for and in an Asian context, and could add to the global experience of inspiring for small-scale development in cities around the world.

Have a listen, to another thought about the  Tokyo, where children and families benefit from the human scale in their everyday life. From The Urbanist broadcast from Monocle (Tokyo Story starts 23 min into the program)

howtostudy3Planetizen has released its twelfth annual list of the ten best books in urban planning, design and development published in 2013, and we are happy that “How to Study Public Life” is represented among other interesting writings on the development of cities past, present, and future.

Have a look at the Planetizen list of ‘Top 10 Books for 2014

If you need more inspiration for readings in the new year, have a look at Planetizen’s list of ‘The 100 Best Books on City-Making Ever Written’

At the Eimus Conference about Mobility in Lima, Peru earlier in November, cycling was a hot discussion topic. The book “Cyclists & Cycling Around the World – Creating Livable & Bikeable Cities” was released at the launch of the conference.

"Cyclists & Cycling Around the World - Creating Livable & Bikeable Cities", a new book - edited by Juan Carlos Dextre, Michael Higes & Lotte Bech - was released at the opening of the 3rd Eimus Conference about Mobility in Lima. Peru Nov. 3rd, 2013.

“Cyclists & Cycling Around the World – Creating Livable & Bikeable Cities”, a new book – edited by Juan Carlos Dextre, Michael Higes & Lotte Bech – was released at the opening of the 3rd Eimus Conference about Mobility in Lima. Peru Nov. 3rd, 2013.

The book presents 25 different experts from around the world who have contributed with cases covering topics such as, Cycle Culture, Liveable and Bikeable Cities, Cycle infrastructure, Safety for Cyclists, Bicycles, Cycling Policy, Cycle Advocacy and Education. Professor Lars Gemzøe from Gehl Architects was a keynote speaker at the conference and has contributed to the book with a case about Copenhagen and the development of cycle and pedestrian life. The book can be bought here.


We are very pleased to announce that Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre from the Gehl team, have written a new book to follow on Jan’s successful books Cities for People and Life Between Buildings!

At the heart of the best urban design projects, is a deep understanding of how people live—on that block, in that neighborhood, in that city, in that region. But life is unpredictable, complex, and ephemeral, so how do we learn to understand it?

How to Study Public Life offers an engaging and helpful history and guide to this still-developing field. The book details the ideas and techniques that have defined the field, ranging in topics from how to time walking speeds, to why Jane Jacobs is so such an important figure. The book also addresses the opportunities and challenges offered by technology, bringing the field from its historical origins to its developing future.

If you’d like to purchase a copy from Island Press, you can use code 4GEHL, which is good for a 20% discount on all three books. You can also order How to Study Public Life  from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, or other retailers. In Europe, you can email or visit your favorite store to get your copy.

Happy reading!


We are happy to announce that Cities For People by Jan Gehl is now out in portuguese.

August 22 the book was officially launched at Livraria Bookstore at the Architectural Institute in Sao Paulo and it was a joy to experience the many people that came to the talk by Helle Søholt and participated in the following debate.

‘Cidades Para Pessoas’ is published by Editora Perspectiva






Urban Voices - Celebrating Urban Design in Australia is now available from Urban Design Forum. Urban Voices reflects on urban design in Australia over the past 25 years as we confront the challenges of the next 25 years. It is a compendium of contributions from a wide range of people interested in how our cities and towns function and the quality of life they deliver.Jan Gehl has contributed an essay about Gehl Architects' history working with Australian cities and Gehl Senior Consultant Rob Adams of the city of Melbourne also has a piece. Essential reading for Australian urbanists.


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