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.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Nun's Island Gas Station (1969), converted to a Community Center and reopened in 2012.

Once upon a time, a city’s affluence could be measured by its transportation infrastructure: a constant flow of traffic pulsing along asphalt veins, reaching outwards from the heart of the city was an indubitable symbol of progress and prosperity. Today, this attitude is increasingly challenged. In Montréal, I have come across one of the clearest examples of contemporary skepticism towards the automobile-enthusiasm of previous decades that I have ever encountered, in the form of a Mies van der Rohe gas-station-turned-community-centre.  The gas station was transformed to its new vocation by the architects “Les Architectes FABG”, who have succeeded in turning the glass and steel-framed modern building into warm and welcoming place for the local community. While the former gas station fuelled the lives of people in four-wheeled metal confinements, the community centre bursts the bubble of individualization with a message of togetherness and shared responsibility. Though the architectural alterations to the building are subtle, they herald a significant societal change.

In 1966, world-famous architect Mies van der Rohe was commissioned to build the gas station in a relatively unknown Montreal suburb, and for forty years the station faithfully served automotive commuters. The building was both architecturally and substantively a luxurious expression of modernism – a temple dedicated to the two gods of modernity: technology and consumerism.  The era came to an end in 2008 when commercial operation ceased, and the station was closed. In 2009, the building was recognized as an icon of urbanization and given heritage status by the city of Montréal. The conversion was then carried out by FABG, and in 2012 the gas station reopened as a community centre running on collectivity and green energy.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Nun's Island Gas Station (1969), converted to a Community Center and reopened in 2012.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Nun’s Island Gas Station (1969), converted to a Community Center and reopened in 2012.

Today, cars galore are still passing the former gas station, but their rhythm is interrupted; the station fuels a different style of life. Situated on the corner of a busy intersection, the transparency of the glass facades mocks the passing drivers with clear views of the people gathering in the station. Inside the glass volumes, the banter of seniors engaged in an animated round of pool, mix with the voices of teenagers standing around a foosball table. The former sales station is now the “youth lounge” and on the opposite side of the pumping island the car-service has turned into a seniors-lounge.  The project’s success in honoring both the original building and the demands of its new vocation lies in the sensitivity of the discrete transformation. It is the silence of the change that leaves room for the community’s voice. The warmth radiating from the people inside the glass and steel station inspires visions of a world, where all the worn car-pledged marvels from our parents’ generation have become green community centres; a fresh response to our hectic and individualized society.



HarborPoint in Baltimore. (Graphic: ASG, Baltimore)


By Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, Baltimore USA.
President ArchPlan, Architect, urban designer, writer.
Blog: Community Architect with weekly articles about urban issues and architecture.

Although the linkage between land use and transportation is well understood, the debate about what is cause and effect causes consternation in the land use and transportation agencies.
Therefore, a few thoughts on urban transit and what it takes to do Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

Even in cities one can find plenty of areas that are not transit supportive.Often brand-new transit stations preside over a hole in the doughnut, when sitting in an old railroad, streetcar, or highway right-of-way.  Neighborhoods grow and shrink, shopping areas shift, attractions get added or abandoned, many reasons why transit supportive urban fabric is not necessarily located where transit is or is planned to be.

Development typically follows “the market”. No market and nothing will happen regardless how much somebody would like to fill a hole in the doughnut.

Baltimore has lost much of its industry and a third of its population. It has tried every transit technology: A subway line, a cheaper light rail line, commuter trains and a spaghetti bowl of bus lines. Now a new $2.6 billion cross-town Red Line light rail is planned, downtown in a tunnel, on the surface beyond. In short, transit stations galore, many of them in doughnut holes.

Seen from the development angle stations fall into two groups, those with a market and those in disinvested areas with no or little demand for new development. Given those fundamental differences it may feel illogical to call both areas “TOD challenged”. But neither absent development nor development without consideration for transit are TOD.

Nothing will change if transit agencies declare “we do transit and not land use” and city departments hide behind the walls of their core responsibilities like housing, parks, traffic, planning and economic development. To make TOD happen, it takes all these parties to interact with each other and bust out of their own comfort zones.

In Los Angeles then Mayor Villaraigosa realized this and directed an interdepartmental TOD Subcabinet (Report)


LA TOD, Meridian Village, South Pasadena
(Photo ArchPlan)

In Atlanta the Atlanta Beltline Inc. and the Beltline Partnership, both non profits, worked with a somewhat reversed priority: Trails and parks, have been created prior to transit creating value which spurred new development.

Beltline Map

Atlanta Beltline

In Minneapolis/St. Paul the Central Corridor and the Green Line light rail projects received a HUD Sustainable Communities grant to leverage community benefits (article) resulting in the Corridors of Opportunity. (Video)

In the Washington suburbs a Purple Line Corridor Coalition pursues similar goals for the planned circumferential light rail line connecting various metro terminals.

One of the granddaddies of successful TOD is Arlington County, VA which has used Washington’s Metro for decades to concentrate growth around the county’s subway stations. (slide show). Which brought smart growth to the county and more riders to transit than surface parking ever could.


Clarendon, Arlington County VA, TOD with retail, offices and housing

In Baltimore the state transit agency (MTA) and the city recognized the TOD challenge in a Red Line “Community Compact” for better communities. Land use improvements are required by the Federal Transit Administration for federal funding. In the spirit of these considerations the MTA conducted community based station area planning and the city created new TOD zoning. Yet, while bad regulations may prevent development, even the best regulations and visions will not make development happen. How to get from plans to actual TOD?

The Baltimore Community Compact names a few: Land banking, land disposition, public private partnerships and creative funding. Other steps would be development “freezes” (to prevent new non transit-supportive investments next to a station), facilitation with developers, and land owners to find out how they could be enticed to invest in high risk zones. This could mean scaling development so that several investors come out of the gate together instead of one early pioneer taking all the risk. It also means carefully leveraging public infrastructure investments. A mayoral TOD working group would not simply review developers submissions, but remove obstacles for investment.

Transit supportive land use is not only good transit, it  also grows the tax base and creates equity within communities, many starved for services and access to jobs. An obvious catalytic element in “market challenged” station areas would be good affordable housing.

To make catalytic projects reality, suitable development lots need to be assembled, master developers found, public private partnerships created and public assets leveraged. Assets can be land, entitlements, tax increment financing or bonds.

A proactive interagency group that goes beyond policy and regulation and focuses on implementation is needed to coordinate these steps.

Uneven markets, fear, false perceptions about transit, sentiments against density and years of auto oriented policies must be overcome, investment in the wrong places be made less attractive. In short: Each city needs the “entire village” before TOD visions can become reality.

Read the full-lenght article on the subject at Klaus Philipsen’s blog Community Architect


By Julia Suh
Architect ǀ Urban Strategist, Australia

Julia_SuhIn a suburb called Ilam, only 5 minutes’ drive away from the “red zone” in the earthquake-struck city of Christchurch, lives and works Richard Gardiner, a retired high school design teacher. His one-and-a-half-storey bungalow, built in 1927, was relatively unaffected by the earthquake. “We are very fortunate,” he said and took a moment to reflect before continuing. “We had no major structural damage to the house apart from the chimney. The day after the earthquake I climbed onto the roof to take down the remaining bits of chimney. A silly idea I realised afterwards, with all the relentless aftershocks!” he said. Gardiner set up his architectural model making business Scaled Down not long before the earthquake shattered the city on 22 February 2011. The disastrous event unexpectedly turned what began as a personal hobby into a full-time career. “I would say 75% of the commissions are from ordinary people wanting to keep something to remind themselves of their destroyed houses, and more importantly, the memories they built in them,” Gardiner said. With the opportunity for renewal also comes the tension of how much of our past we should hold onto.

Almost 3 years after the catastrophic day, standing in the midst of vast gravel fields of the Central Business District (CBD) where office buildings, hotels and restaurants once stood, I certainly have difficulty picturing what the city, my hometown since 1994, used to look like. As a high schooler in the mid-nineties, my usual hangouts were limited to friends’ houses, suburban malls and numerous neighbourhood parks, while taking the bus to “the city”, “the (Cathedral) Square” or “Hoyts on Moorehouse Ave” was a special and almost rebellious action. Not that there was anything particularly exciting in the CBD, but at least it was a good place to watch tourists with large cameras hanging from their necks, see who is winning the Giant Chess game and, sometimes, hear the Wizard speak nonsense – or the truth – from the top of a wooden ladder. At the end of the day, after what seemed like the longest 20 minutes of wait, I would be glad to be on the bus back to the comfort and safety of my suburban home.

When I turned 16, I had a weekend job in a souvenir store on Colombo Street. A short segment of Colombo Street to the south of the Cathedral Square was lined with restaurants and shops then, mainly serving foreign tourists, and in turn activating the otherwise quiet CBD. In the following decade, I would frequently visit my hometown from Auckland, New York or Sydney, and enjoy its slow-paced suburban life as well as urban renewal projects in the CBD: the Christchurch Tram reappeared after 41 years of absence, as a tourist attraction; the City Mall underwent significant facade and landscape upgrades to become more pedestrianised; public buses became better organised at a central bus interchange; and a new NZ$47.5M art gallery became a welcome addition to the arts precinct. All of them are now partly or completely closed due to post-earthquake repair works.

Skeletons of the Christchurch Cathedral remain for now.

Skeleton of the Christchurch Cathedral remains for now.

The site of former City Mall is cleared for new developments.

The site of former City Mall is cleared for new developments.

Some vacant lots have been turned into parking lots. They largely remain empty.

Some vacant lots have been turned into parking lots. They largely remain empty.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament awaits future demolition or restoration. In the meantime shipping containers support its edges.

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament awaits future demolition or restoration. In the meantime shipping containers support its edges.

Now constant road works and the lack of amenities in the CBD are driving businesses to relocate to or start new in the suburbs, begging a question that needs to be asked: what characteristics do we intend our suburbs to have? While suburban malls like the Westfield in Riccarton have been busy around the clock with the loss of CBD, earthquake-displaced boutique stores were left with no place to go for a while. A recent redevelopment of a former tannery site in Woolston, rightfully called The Tannery, is already proving to be a success. The 1.8-hectare site is to house 70 tenants when completed, including a pilates studio, an art gallery, bars and shops. “No corporates. We only accept boutique retailers. Keep things nice and local,” Bruce, a project manager of The Tannery, said.

Julie, a manager at a home store called Cosi Fan Tutte, likes being able to stay close to her neighbourhood. “The earthquake changed everything from the way we shop and work, to the way we socialise. To be honest, I hardly used to spend much time in the CBD before the earthquake, apart from picking up a few things from Ballantynes (department store). And now, I never go there. The roads are bad, and there are more stores popping up in my neighbourhood. I shop here, work here, live here and socialise in friends’ homes. There is a stronger sense of community than before but I do miss live music – there aren’t that many places to go for entertainment,” Julie said.

Hornby, one of the damage-free suburbs, is also booming. Mitre 10, a giant hardware store, set up a mega store there following the earthquake. Next door, other big boxes selling things like curtains, paint and bikes followed suit. (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority has wonderful mapping of rebuilding efforts including the current status of demolition/building works, population change, and “anchor projects” in the CBD.)

However, this unique opportunity to recast a vision for Christchurch must not look at the suburbs and CBD in isolation. Evan Smith, a community organiser of CanCERN (Canterbury Communities’ Earthquake Recovery Network), argues the city must be built upon “village values”. In the first instance the phrase scares me (and also reminds me of Howard’s diagram of The Three Magnets, where he advocates values of Town-Country). A city is not a collection of suburbs, it is not a village or a town. A city must aspire to innovation, culture, education, creative arts: it must be a hub that fosters congregation of people in an organised and accidental manner. I appreciate “Village values” interpreted as self-organising communities that help each other at times of needs or as a set of more independent infrastructure systems. I also don’t see the suburb as the devil in urban development – some folks like my parents enjoy living in their suburban house of 20 years with a large vegetable patch, two cars, and kind neighbours. However, the City of Christchurch must not go back to its past that had two separate entities: the CBD for working and suburbs for living.

While the city presents an ambitious vision for a new CBD with various specialties from Retail Precinct to Health Precinct, it is not clear, without residential or mixed use mapping, how these precincts will accommodate and foster vibrant city living. Cafes, restaurants and bars alone do not make public spaces vibrant; people do. The city centre needs to be a place for living, not just for working or socialising. In contrast to suburbs that can take on distinct, excluding characteristics over time, Christchurch Central Development is an opportunity for more diverse, walkable, mixed communities in the city centre. One that I hope, will encourage my parents to try out city-living as they reach their 70′s.

World Buskers' Festival takes place on the site of Re:START, CBD's transitional pedestrian mall.

World Buskers’ Festival takes place on the site of Re:START, CBD’s transitional pedestrian mall.

RAD Bikes is one of many community-led initiatives to activate the city centre. Everyone is welcome to use the workshop or seek help from a volunteer on duty to repair bikes.

RAD Bikes is one of many community-led initiatives to activate the city centre. Everyone is welcome to use the workshop or seek help from a volunteer on duty to repair bikes.

New bike lanes are encouraging residents to cycle more. The network is still far from complete, but it is a start. Check out the network map on Transport for Christchurch.

Read more on Julia Suh’s observations on city-living at her urban research blog Urbia.

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)


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