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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.

Welcome back to Gehl Institute’s partnership with Untapped Cities in New York, looking at the impact of data, both open and collected, in the design of cities.

On March 7, New York City became the first local government to pass legislation ensuring public access to data. The passing of the bill symbolizes a political embrace of the “open” culture already underway in New York City’s “Silicon Alley.”  City agencies and non-profit organizations in New York are making new correlations between urban conditions and social phenomenon, utilizing crowdsourcing and open data, to support traditional methods of data analysis.

Open Plans, a New York-based non-profit organization with a focus on transportation and urban planning, is an example of such a progressive group. The Open Plans team builds software which enables public agencies and non-profit organizations to crowdsource input from the community. You may recognize their work with New York City’s Department of Transportation’s interactive bike station suggestion map from this past year. In its decade of existence, Open Plans developed open source projects which include OpenGeo, Streetfilms, Streetsblog, GothamSchools, Civic Commons and OpenTripPlanner. According to the non-profit, all the tools serve to facilitate open source software, information transparency and progressive transportation planning.

Recently, Open Plans co-hosted a panel at the American Planning Association (APA) Conference in Los Angeles with Denver-based firm Place Matters, highlighting the challenges to come as we navigate amidst a constant and sometimes overwhelming flow of data. Important questions loom: How do we make sense of the data? With limited resources, should companies focus on making the quality of data better or the analysis tools better?

Publicly submitted requests for bike share stations in NYC

In partnership with Open Plans, the NYC Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) has also embraced this trend towards a more “open” culture by utilizing crowd-sourced information to plan station locations for the soon-to-be-launched Citibank bike share program. Bicycle commuting has increased in the city (35% from 2007 to 2008), but there are still significant challenges associated with bike ridership, including access. The collected crowd-sourced data, submitted via an interactive map on the NYCDOT website, allowed the public to suggest bike share stations for the rollout.

To read the full article visit Untapped Cities

By: Kristian Skaarup, Research Assistant at Gehl Architects

I attended the American Community Gardening Association conference in August 2011 part of which was a visit to the neighbourhoods of the South Bronx borough, one of the poorest districts in the state of New York. Initiatives here offer people living locally the opportunity to participate in gardening programmes. The schemes operate by asking for a  modest contribution of money for which in return they get the opportunity to garden, and take a share of the bountiful harvest. The lack of recreational areas and nutritional problems are endemic in parts of The Bronx borough and this initiative seems to offer a really efficient contribution to a future remedy. In addition the community gardens place a focus on farmers markets – growing crops in the community for the residents with a wider distribution than just those directly involved. During the growing season there is a farmers market every week which draws people into the garden, and whenever there is a participant around the garden is fully open giving other locals and in particular, children the opportunity to see how vegetables and fruits grow in the calm surrounds of these city oases.

Community garden in Bronx placed close beside the railroad

Kids playing in the community garden and watering small plant.

Farmers market in one of the many community gardens in the Bronx

You can read Kristian’s original article in Danish in the physical magazine – read more here

For more check out the documentary Grown in Detroit: 

By Birgitte Bundesen Svarre

When presented with the idea of a guided tour of food carts in downtown Manhattan, the Scandinavian skeptic in me thought: “hmmm standing up, eating hot dogs and pretzels for an hour, hmmm…”. Luckily, the Scandinavian skeptic was taken by surprise, and it wasn’t just because of the great food. It was also the tales told by the food cart owners and the Urban Oyster guides. And not the least what I am going to present in images here: the people at the food carts. We visited four food carts on the tour and it was as if we went from one small world to another – all on the sidewalks of New York.

Note: my comments on ethnic origin are not based on precise information; I did not ask people their origin. My guess are only meant to describe the worlds on the sidewalks as I experienced them.

Stop 1. Veronica’s, Caribbean, female customers who seem to be from the Caribbean region and surroundings. Food: Hot, spizy, like your Caribbean mother would make it, with lots of love…

Stop 2. Adel, King of Falafel, men standing in line to taste Adel’s No1 falafel, a mix of Indian, Pakistan, Arab origins

Stop 3. Vegetarian, a white middle aged woman, vegetables, ginger, notice the food vender certificate next to the woman, which can take up to 30 years to obtain, or rather that was before New York City decided to close the waiting list due to the popularity

Stop 3. Vegetarian, a white middle aged woman, vegetables, ginger, notice the food vender certificate next to the woman, which can take up to 30 years to obtain, or rather that was before New York City decided to close the waiting list due to the popularity

Stop 4. Souvlaki. The greek food stall, primarily men that could look as if they have Greek origins, voted best food cart by the public in 2010



When I visited New York in January I was worried.  Central Park had just recorded another record snow and the life in the city seemed to resemble that of pre-2007 – the only cyclists were delivery men, and the hordes of pedestrians on the City’s lively streets were only moving from A to B rather than spending time in the dozens of new city plazas created over the past 4 years . Few people were taking the time to soak up the atmosphere of the city and few women and office workers were seen on their bikes. Despite widespread support for the Department of Transportation’s Green Light for Midtown and ReNEWable Times Square projects, the pressure was on city leaders to defend the changing face of New York’s public realm.  The issues of bicycle lanes had become especially contentious – being widely discussed and debated.

Yet when I visited NYC again in May – spring had truly made an impact.  The streets were filled with diverse cyclists –

young, old, women, men, tapered jeans and dockers, as well as locals and tourists were meeting and socializing in the new public spaces of the city. Tattooed hipsters were sharing the same spaces as top-sider wearing yuppies, mid-western tourists and lifelong New Yorkers were both glued to their ipads sitting in the free tables and chairs.

Quick business meetings and office tasks have moved out into the public realm

Alone together, hordes of New Yorkers were enjoying time in the City.  City life had transformed from a lifestyle of ‘A to B as quickly as possible’ to a more relaxed ‘enjoy the journey’ . The outdoor café life of Gansevoort had spread to the rest of the Meat Packing district – and beyond.  The streets of New York have begun to rival the City’s fantastic park’s as places to spend time in the city.

City life is unfolding from inside shops and cafes and out into streets and spaces

All forms of non-motorized transport are utilizing the new bicycle lanes

All forms of non-motorized transport are utilizing the new bicycle lanes

Why check e-mail inside when comfortable free seating is available along Broadway?

Rather your grabbing lunch, or just relaxing Mad. Sq. Eats Mark't is a great way to enjoy city life

From highly visible and meticulously designed projects like the High Line, to newly created temporary Madison Square Park Eats, the economic benefits of investing in the public realm and prioritizing the needs of people in the city are beginning to be understood.  In fact, the High Line is heralded as an Economic Dynamo – creating thousands of jobs, boosting real estate values and spurring private investment.

The newly created food market at Worth Square showcases independent food artisans. With fantastic views, great subway access and close proximity to Madison Square Park, it is surprising that Worth Square was never utilized before.

As I noticed that the number of baby carriages had begun to compete with the number of leashed dogs, I realized that the city was again re-inventing itself.  This time not only as a place to get rich, inspire the next Jay-Z, and visit as a tourist -  but also a place to spend free time, feel healthy, and raise a family.   The culture of New York City is changing.

New York City has always been a great place to raise a family, but it seems that even more young families are spending time in the city's streets as well as parks.

After years of smaller west coast cities leading the charge toward high quality  urban living, the Big Apple is back.  NYC is again leading the charge of American cities into the second decade of the 21st century.  It’s about quality of life, mobility, and happiness. It’s about a sustainable future, but also a livable today.   New Yorkers get it and now they have the platform to again lead the charge.

Old and young, male and female, the profile of the New York Cyclist is expanding.

Old and young, male and female, the profile of the New York Cyclist is expanding.

Part of the reason more and different types of people are biking has to do with new amenities that improve the comfort and convenience of cycling in NYC

…. Now if that bikes on the subway issue can just be simplified
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