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The Journal of Space Syntax

ISSN: 2044-7507 Year: 2012 volume: 3 issue: 1 Online Publicaton Date: 13 August 2012
htp://www.journalofspacesyntax.org/
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Jan Gehl (1987/2011), Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space
Washington - Covelo - London: Island Press, ISBN: 978-1597268271
Jan Gehl (2010), Cities for People
Washington - Covelo - London: Island Press, ISBN: 978-1597265737
Reviewed by:
Beatriz Campos
Space Syntax So Paulo
So Paulo, Brazil
Pages: 125-128
book review book re
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Book Review:
Jan Gehl (1987, 2011 revisited ed.), Life Between Buildings:
Using Public Space
Washington - Covelo - London: Island Press, ISBN: 978-1597268271
Jan Gehl (2010), Cities for People
Washington - Covelo - London: Island Press, ISBN: 978-1597265737
Reviewed by
Beatriz Campos
Space Syntax So Paulo
So Paulo, Brazil
Life Between Buildings,
2011 revisited edition
Photo source:
< http://islandpress.org/ip/
books/book/islandpress/L/
bo8036913.html >
Jan Gehl is a Danish architect who, in parallel to
his academic career, has worked through his ar-
chitectural practice on the design of public spaces
and urban regeneration projects all over the word,
including Brighton, Newcastle and London.
1
His
interest in the quality and performance of public
spaces started with a research grant from Royal
Danish Academy of Fine Arts for studies on the
form and use of public spaces. Since then Gehl
has published extensively; his success in injecting
outdoor life into northern European cities has led
to worldwide impact of his design guidance (Gehl,
1987; Gehl & Gemze, 2004, 2000; Gehl et al.,
2006; and Gehl, 2010). This review focuses on two
of his books: Life Between Buildings (2011, revised
edition) and Cities for People (2010).
The highly infuential Life Between Buildings
was frst published in 1971 with the frst English
translation in 1987, whilst this review considers the
reissue of the book in its sixth edition last year. The
book examines the relationship between patterns of
space use, specifcally outdoor activities, and the
spatial properties of the physical environment. Gehl
promotes a straightforward approach to improving
urban form, which is derived from systematically
documenting the performance of urban spaces and
analysing what factors infuence their use. Gehl uses
the human dimension as the starting point for his
analysis
2
and measures the success of the urban
environment by quantifying the levels of pedestrian
fows, levels and length of stationary activity - includ-
ing human contact and social interaction.
The book is divided into four main chapters,
which range from general to specifc models. In
Chapter 1 Life Between Buildings Gehl intro-
duces the concepts of necessary, optimal and
social activities (Gehl, 1987, p.9), which sets the
background for his analysis on the urban environ-
ment physical properties. To support his ideas, Gehl
also examines the spatial properties of traditional
Notes:
1
E-source, available at: <
http://www.gehlarchitects.
com/?#/165291/ > [Ac-
cessed 8 June 2012]
2
For Gehl, the urban land-
scape must be considered
through the fve human sens-
es and experienced at the
speed of walking rather than
at the speed of a car.
3
Gehl makes a timely obser-
vation when referring to Tra-
falgar Square: The pedes-
trian landscape of the square
in the 1970s consisted of
48 islands that pedestrians
could walk between, in con-
trast to the situation seen
on old photographs, where
pedestriansmove across
the square in a natural and
leisurely fashion in all direc-
tions (Gehl, 1987, p.139).
Refer also to: Space Syntax
(2003 and 2005) Trafalgar
Square consultancy reports
for Foster and Partners and
Hillier (1998).
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The Journal of
Space Syntax
Volume 3 Issue 1
spatial components which will enhance or reduce
pedestrian fows across and around the public
space: building heights, orientation of entrances,
multifunction areas and active frontages, density,
modes of transport (pedestrians and cyclists), ac-
cessibility and visibility from immediate surrounding
areas (Whyte, 1980; Hettiarachchie, 1987). It is
here that Gehl acknowledges that well-functioning
pedestrian systems facilitate the shortest distances
between natural destinations and makes a rather
compelling argument about the failure of Trafalgar
Square before its redevelopment.
3
Lastly, Gehl is aware that for public spaces to
be lively and successful they need to have a com-
bination of both moving and stationary activities. In
Chapter 4 - Spaces for Walking, Places for Staying
- Gehl focuses on static activities and the physical
elements that will make people not only stop but
also spend time with the space. According to Gehl,
the design of individual spaces and of the details,
down to the smallest component, are determining
factors to quality of public spaces (Gehl, 1987,
p.129). Gehl also discusses preferable areas for
sitting and standing as well as the edge effect
4
and
the correlation between static occupancy and levels
of pedestrian movement
5
. Interestingly, although
Gehl does refer to Sittes work (Gehl, 1987, p.43),
one of the few typologies which is not explored is
the concept of enclosure and irregularity principles.
6
Cities for People was published in 2010 and it
is, to a degree, a revised version of Life Between
Buildings. In addition to the elements previously
discussed, Gehl examines issues such as sustain-
ability, shared spaces, mixed use, sense of security,
usability and levels of pedestrian comfort. Like in his
previous book - Gehl uses systematic and empirical
observations of patterns of space use, often making
gradual incremental improvements, then document-
ing them again to demonstrate what makes public
spaces alive. Throughout the book, Gehl explains
medieval public spaces (such as dimensions and
detailed design) and relates the identifed common
denominators to the success or failure of contempo-
rary examples. He then discusses the introduction
of contemporary urban city planning principles and
the reasons why the 20
th
century design ideas, such
as functionalism (Gehl, 1987, p.43), were central to
the lack of vitality in street life.
In Chapter 2 - Prerequisites for Planning - Gehl
analyses the physical properties of human senses
(such as smell, hearing, seeing) and social dis-
tances. Like many other authors (Sitte 1889, 1945;
Alexander et al., 1977; Lynch, 1971), Gehl believes
there must be a correspondence between the di-
mension of a public square and a sense of place
(Cullen, 1961). If squares are too big for the number
of users, they will feel empty. This leads to a further
idea: the self-reinforcing process where individual
events stimulate others:
If activities and people are assembled, individual
events will stimulate one another (Gehl, 1987,
p.107).
In line with Gehls argument on the importance
of the self- reinforcing process, in Chapter 3 To
Assemble or Disperse Gehl examines a series of
Notes:
4
The edge effect (Gehl,
1987, p.159) is widely ac-
knowledged by a number of
different researchers. In fact,
Gehl adopts this terminology
from De Jonge (1967). De
Jonge, after observations on
static occupation in a series
of recreation areas (such as
parks and roadside resting
places) claims that other
things being equal, the parts
of the areas near the main
entrances are parking areas
and used more intensively
than the distance parts
This phenomenon can been
called the edge effect. Ac-
cording to Gehl, the edge
is the preferred location for
standing or sitting when
people frst occupy the bor-
ders and edges of the public
spaces, and only once they
are fully occupied, do people
tend to move inwards. The
edge effect exists because
people prefer to sit in areas
facing the pedestrian fow,
and therefore the location on
the boundary of the public
spaces will provide the best
views, with extensive and
richer visual felds. Gehl sug-
gests that benches that pro-
vide a good view of the sur-
rounding activities are used
more often than benches
with less or no view of others
since human activities are
the main attraction for users
of public spaces. Although
Gehl makes a distinction,
claiming that the location for
sitting is chosen more care-
fully than standing, he points
out that the edge effect is ob-
served in both cases. Refer
also to Alexander et al. (1977
op cit.) and Marcus and
Francis (1990).
Cities For People, 2010
Photo source:
< http://islandpress.org/ip/
books/book/islandpress/C/
bo8038192.html >
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Book Review:
Life Between Buildings
& Cites for People
Campos, B.
the methods and tools he believes are necessary to
reconfgure public spaces into the environment he
believes they all should be: urban meeting places,
places for social cohesion and interaction.
The book follows a similar structure to Life Be-
tween Buildings. Chapters 3 and 4 are possibly the
two chapters that the readers of JOSS might fnd
the most innovative and signifcant. When stressing
the importance of mixed use and active frontages,
Gehl points out that mixed functions provide more
activities around the clock bringing safety and
protection to both residents and visitors to the
surrounding public space. As for shared spaces:
Gehl is sympathetic with the idea and recognizes
its benefts, however he points out that although
mixing traffc (pedestrian, cyclists and vehicular)
is possible, mixed traffc solutions must prioritise
pedestrians.
Gehl also examines the positive relationship
between well-functioning urban areas and sus-
tainability. However, the signifcance of sustain-
ability is centred on the responsible management
of resources and health benefts. Gehl does not
examine the social and economic benefts of sus-
tainable city centres as a result of what adequate
accessibility brings to pedestrian movement and
trade as presented in the seminal work of Hillier
and colleagues
7
. Another missed opportunity is
the lack of reference to city life as an outcome of its
emergent morphology and the role of urban spatial
confguration, both at local and global levels, on
the performance of public spaces (Arruda Cam-
pos, 2000). The space syntax methodology as a
design tool and its functionality, which allows the
correlation of spatial elements and social variables
is paramount for understanding public spaces,
mainly the correlation between confguration and
pedestrian movement fows and stationary activity
(Hillier et al., 1993).
There is no doubt that Gehl understands the
mechanisms behind life between buildings. Gehls
human dimension as the starting point for the
design of the urban environment is inspirational.
Both books are engaging, logical and rich in case
studies, which illustrate Gehls approach. If Life
Between Buildings was and still is an outstanding
contribution to the subject, Cities for People, despite
addressing a number of current issues, could have
been more engaging and informative about how the
spatial morphology of the urban grid shapes the
performance of urban spaces.
Nevertheless, both books are a must-read for
students, designers, as well as anybody interested
in the performance of public spaces and the urban
environment as a whole.
Notes:
5
Gehl produced a survey
of patterns of space use in
public spaces in Stroget,
Denmark. He notes that the
levels of static occupancy of
public spaces had dramati-
cally increased over a period
of twenty years and all avail-
able squares of good qual-
ity were flled to capacity
every day. He concludes that
the main reasons for deter-
mining the quality or usability
of each space are closely re-
lated to its location in relation
to the main pedestrian fows,
which had also dramatically
increased in the previous
twenty years, meaning that
the static occupancy had in-
creased in direct proportion
to the levels of pedestrian
movement.
6
A very common interpre-
tation is that liveable pub-
lic spaces should observe
enclosure and irregularity
principles, which were de-
rived from studies of tradi-
tional medieval squares.
Sitte (1889 op cit.), Unwin
(1909) and Zucker (1959)
regard enclosure, defned
by the grouping of architec-
tural masses around an open
space, as the fundamental
property of public spaces.
Only enclosed spaces could
provide the users a sense
of well-being, comfort and
pleasure, and therefore
would ultimately determine
the preference by the public
for such spaces.
7
See Chapter 4 Cities as
Movement Economies in
Hillier (1996) and Stonor
(2009).
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