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.