Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Jan Gehl, “Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space”, 1996

Last March I had the fortune of attending a talk by Jan Gehl for at The Center for Liveable Cities in Singapore. Gehl's work stretches back to the 1970's and the first editio "Life Betnween Buildings" pretty much foreshadowed his achievements since then. It was a lively lecture he gave, and it prompt me to reread his book 91996 edition:

How can we design the outdoor environment to encourage its use so that cities and residential areas become more vibrant and lively? For more than 40 years, Jan Gehl has worked to answer that question through a cycle of observing public spaces, making gradual changes and observing the results. He has been credited with being a large influence in transforming Copenhagen into the pedestrian and bicycle friendly city that it is famous for today. In fact, “Life between Buildings” so long after its first publication1971 is still in print.

It starts in Section 1 with an analysis of what outdoor activity consists of, how it can be categorized and measured, followed by observations on why outdoor activity is important for people. With measurement, various sorts of physical environment can be compared to each other with respect to how they meet human needs. He cites the work of Appleyard in Boston which demonstrated how highly-trafficked streets had less outdoor activities compared to streets which had less traffic.

The author suggests that in Europe, medieval towns are better than towns that were planned in the Renaissance period (according to mainly aesthetic principles) and that were planned in the Modern period (according to functionalist principles). The reason is that medieval towns evolved through time in a way that allowed continual adjustment and adaptation of the physical environment to city functions. His recommendation is that urban planners move away from functionalist car-dominated principles towards creating desirable conditions for the various sorts of outdoor activities and that these changes should be done incrementally.

Section 2 looks at the interplay between social activity and the physical environment, and identifies diffuse physical structures like sprawling suburbs that hinder social contact as opposed to hierarchical structures that try to correspond to social structures. He refers to the work of Oscar Newman which suggested that residential layouts create a hierarchy of private, semi-private, semi-public and public spaces. Such a structure would strengthen natural surveillance, help the residents know ‘who belong’ and improve the possibility of making group decisions that concern shared problems.

The next chapter, drawing mainly on the work of Edward T. Hall, deals with the issue of scale, distance and speed as how people perceive them in the social context. Whilst walls, long distances, high speeds, multiple levels and orientation away from others, tend to isolate people from each other, the absence of walls, short distances, low speeds, single levels and orientation towards others, encourage contact with other people. Designing external spaces with the desirable features have been shown to be extremely effective - increasing the number and duration of people outdoors has the effect of attracting even more people to come out. People are attracted to crowds.

In Section 3, the author looks at design factors that encourage or discourage outdoor activities under four dichotomous headings: Assemble or to disperse? Here examples are shown of small intimate spaces and of streets that offer varied narrow shop-fronts that encourage people to assemble in stark contrast to streets that are too wide, and with facades that are too bare and monotonous which encourage people to disperse.

Segregate or integrate? Should residential, commercial and industrial buildings be segregated from each other as they are in modern cities, or should these different functions be interwoven as they were in medieval cities? The author makes the case that the university in a city works much better than a campus university. Should cars and pedestrian traffic be segregated? The author argues that slowed down traffic integrated with pedestrians works much better than traffic dominated streets and situations where cars and pedestrians are segregated from each other.

Repel or attract? It is argued that houses should have front yards that create semi-private buffer between the public streets and private homes. These soft edges bring residents outdoors where they are more likely to engage with neighbours and passers-by. Small shops and playgrounds too have the same effect by attracting residents outdoors. Open up or close in? Gehl here recommends that public buildings open up views into the interiors as a way of creating interest from the streets.

In Section 4 Gehl reiterates his arguments in even more detail as he discusses design features that encourage walking, standing, sitting, seeing, hearing and talking. He ends the book by giving advice on designing the public side of buildings by looking at a 1977 comparative study of outdoor activity along 12 residential street sections in cities in Ontario, Canada: buildings with “soft edges” where there is easy access in and out, good staying areas in front of the houses with something to do and work with. Jan Gehl loves watching people and this books is generously illustrated with photos of people in public spaces.

“Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space” by Jan Gehl, translated by Jo Koch and published by Arkitektens Forlag in 1996.

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