Nearly three years ago, I wrote this, about Jan Gehl speaking at the National Building Museum. Gehl and his associate at Gehl Architects, Birgitte Svarre, have a new book out—How to Study Public Life—so he was back at the Building Museum, with Svarre, to talk about designing cities for people.
Nothing Gehl and Svarre presented is new. Everything they tout—studying human behavior and designing around it, which necessitates easing dependence on cars—has been used and proven as the best way to design and manage public space since Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But there were a few interesting takeaways:
Copehagen has a department of public life, apparently: Gehl quipped that Copenhagen’s department of transportation keeps cars happy, but the department of public life is designed to keep people happy. The department of public life grew out of a long legacy of academic research, at the University of Copenhagen, on public life; the city ultimately took over the role of studying how people interact with the built environment and makes design decisions and recommendations based on that research. We often lament the lack of good data on how people use bikes (seriously, if you ever read a statistic on bike use in the U.S., it’s likely American Community Survey data, which is not bad, but not good, either—more on that later), and something like a department of public life, that’s research-heavy with the intent of making design recommendations, just sounds…really wonderful. I need to look into this further.
Studying public life is not weird: Svarre’s presentation had an image of an Italian news article from the ’60s about Jan Gehl, this oddball posted up with a notebook and sketchbook in Italian public plazas, watching how people moved around. We still think that observing human behavior is weird, evidently, because we don’t do enough of it in planning. But it’s not weird! Holly Whyte and Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander—all Americans; how weird is it that the U.S. blows at public spaces in comparison to Europe (see this recent Atlantic Cities piece by local guy Ralph Buehler on reasons the U.S. is more car-dependent than Europe), but so many great public-space thinkers are American?—provide plenty of reasons why good design stems from understanding how people use whatever it is that you’re designing.
Children are an indicator species: If kids can safely walk to school, everything is A-OK. Children can be mobile, safely and healthily, if we plan for them to be mobile. There’s nothing wrong with a 4 or 5-year-old riding a bike for transportation if there’s safe infrastructure in which they can ride.
The things we say we want in cities—livability, safety, accessibility—are not possible if everyone is driving: They aren’t. They just aren’t. You can’t have a healthy, safe population if all its members are behind the wheels of cars. Gehl insisted that cities designed to keep people from moving (by designing for cars, not people) are worse than smoking. Bold statement, that, but I don’t disagree. Even the most windowshielded car defender will admit that they like the charm of walkability. But you don’t get it both ways. You can’t have walkability, authenticity, and a healthy city and parking spaces for an entire populace of drivers.
I bought a copy of How to Study Public Life. What convinced me to buy it in this year of not buying stuff is that it’s a collection of studies on public life, so it’s part guidebook, part nicely designed annotated bibliography. I’m looking forward to getting into it and seeing what I have and haven’t read. I also think it will be useful to explore the connections between urban planning, human behavior, and UX design, a nexus that I am particularly interested in lately (more on that later, I think!).
Many thanks to Allie for the invite. This was not on my radar, though it should’ve been—the National Building Museum’s programming is consistently excellent.
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