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  • Secret lives of our public places - life between buildings Print

    Imagine it’s a balmy Friday evening in Auckland and you have one whole hour to yourself. Where do you go? 

    Do you head to one of the city’s public squares, your local park, or the waterfront? Maybe take a walk along one of our shared streets?

    If you do end up in one of those public spaces, how do you feel? Does the space make you feel welcome and at ease, like you can just sit back and watch the world go by?

    Or do you feel unsafe, bored and lonely?

    What are the notable differences in how you feel in each of the public spaces? More importantly, how do we improve our public spaces for Aucklanders?

    To find out the answer, we turn to Jan Gehl, the doyen of good public spaces, for some guidance.

    The answer lies in the people

    “Does the way we build cities invite for human interaction, inclusion and intimacy? Where is the scale for measuring happiness in a city?”

    These two questions were posed by Professor Jan Gehl in the opening minutes of Andreas M. Dalsgaard’s excellent city planning documentary, The Human Scale. The premise of the documentary is simple: The scale of the city has been distorted to give priority to cars rather than people. What would happen if people were put back in the centre of our equation?

    We know more about good habitats for gorillas than good habitats for humans

    In a sense, putting people back in the centre of the city planning equation has been the lifework of Danish architect and urbanist, Jan Gehl, for the last 40 years. His starting point was what he called the “life between buildings”. By studying how we use public space, down to the minute detail of where and how we stand, sit, play, and move, Gehl methodically documented the environments that humans intuitively gravitate towards.

    In an interview for his book Cities for People, Gehl once proclaimed that “we definitely know more about good habitats for mountain gorillas, Siberian tigers, or panda bears than we do know about a good urban habitat for Homo sapiens.”

    Although most cities collect precise data about vehicular traffic flows and parking patterns, the same statistical rigour is rarely extended to how people move and stay in the city. This empirical black hole leads to, at best, a series of grandiose public spaces utterly devoid of life, or at worst, no public spaces at all.

    To fill this black hole, Gehl and his colleagues at Gehl Architects have conducted public space/public life surveys in major cities around the world, including London, Stockholm, Seattle, Sydney, New York, Copenhagen, Cape Town, as well as Auckland.

    In New York, Gehl’s ideas saw New York transforming the car-focused gridlock of Times Square into a pedestrian plaza, replete with lawn chairs, potted plants, and bike lanes.  Strøget, a car-free shopping area in downtown Copenhagen and one of the longest pedestrian shopping streets in Europe, is largely the result of Gehl’s work. These interventions have led to improved traffic flows and safety, while creating new spaces for pedestrians and cyclists.

    Public Life Survey - Stroget 1960
    Strøget, 1960, Source: Jan Gehl and Lars Gemzøe, New City Spaces, 2000

    Public Life Survey - Stroget 2000
    Strøget, 2000, Source: Jan Gehl and Lars Gemzøe, New City Spaces, 2000

    Public Life Survey - Times Square
    Times Square before pedestrianisation and Times Square after pedestrianisation. Source:, 2011

    What has people-watching taught us?

    Two basic approaches for people-watching are used in Gehl’s analysis of public spaces: pedestrian counts and stationary activity surveys. The use of people-watching harks back to the advice of Jane Jacobs, the grand dame of human-centred urbanism, who exhorted city planners and lovers to “look out of your windows, spend time in the streets and squares and see how people actually use spaces, learn from that and use it.”

    While pedestrian traffic counts show how street usage is prioritised between vehicular traffic and pedestrians, as well as how pedestrian usage varies throughout the day and evening, stationary activities act as a good indicator of the quality of urban spaces. Large numbers of pedestrians walking in the city do not necessarily indicate a high level of quality. However,  high numbers    choosing to spend time in the city indicate a lively city of strong urban quality.

    Gehl’s people-watching methods were largely drawn from his experiences at Siena, Italy, in the 1960s. Together with his wife, Ingrid, a psychologist, they observed how Italians lounged and lingered in the perfectly designed 700 year old Piazza del Campo. There, they discovered that people will stop and stay in a square for the greatest attraction of public space: other people.  And so the next question becomes: what makes a nice place for people to stay and watch others?  This question has fuelled a lifetime of work for Gehl and those who have come after him.

    Public Life Survey - Sienna
    Piazza del Campo, Sienna, Italy, Source: Gehl Architects

    How is Auckland doing?

    With a people-watching approach in mind, how would you rate Auckland’s public spaces?

    Below are some of Auckland’s public squares, parks and streets. How are they functioning? Is there too much emphasis on cars, and too little on people? What would you change?

    We’d like to know what you think.

    albert park
    Albert Park

    aotea sq
    Aotea Square

    Henderson (2)

    MIT Campus
    Manukau Station and Manukau Institute of Technology

    q street (2)
    Queen Street intersection

    quay street
    Quay Street

    elliot st
    Elliot Street

    Article by Szening Ooi.

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