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Jan Gehl. Public space public life

by Andrea Di Giovanni

Jan Gehl is an architect and professor of urban design, Director of the Center for Public Space Research at the Architecture School of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and founding member of Gehl Architects - Urban Quality Consultants.
For more than thirty years he has carried out his educational, research and professional activity in the field of urban design.
He has worked in many major cities throughout the world, including Copenhagen, Stockholm, Riga, Cape Town, Zurich, Amman, Wellington, Dublin, London, Edinburgh and Melbourne. He has won many awards for his work in the field of urban design.

Research activity
His research activity concentrates on public life. Gehl observes the activities that people carry out in the urban public space, reflecting specifically on the influence of environmental characteristics in enabling certain fundamental activities to be performed.

Three books
The research work of Jan Gehl over a period of thirty years is marked by three books.
Life Between Buildings. Using Public Space (1980-1987) is a work of a methodical nature on his observations of social activities in the urban public space, developed through research conducted during the 1970s.
Published in many languages and reprinted several times, it represents today, twenty years after its first English edition, a fundamental point of reference for those concerned with urban design. Even though it involves practical concerns, this book is not a manual (or if so, only in the widest sense), neither for its structure and even less so for the way in which it examines problems, and is never based upon pure logic.
The book puts forward an ordered series of observations on the urban environment and on environmental factors that have an influence upon the use of public spaces, using forms of public life and the spatial characteristics of places as a starting point for reflection.
The author reflects around various particularly dense and fertile thematic arguments with lucidity and clarity of expression.
Public Spaces Public Life (1996 with Lars Gemzøe) describes research upon the centre of Copenhagen which has as its subject the effects of the pedestrianisation policy and projects for restructuring the public space which were carried out in the Danish city from the early 1960s. Today these effects have increased the vitality of social practices and improved the habitability of the public space.
New City Spaces
(2000 with Lars Gemzøe) is a review of case studies on recent policies and projects in relation to urban mobility and public space in nine cities throughout the world - Barcelona, Lyon, Strasburg, Freiberg, Copenhagen, Portland, Curitiba, Cordoba and Melbourne. The second part of the book has a methodical collection of 39 examples of public pedestrian spaces or spaces with pedestrian priority, described by way of a unified grid.

Various considerations
Jan Gehl's research focuses upon the quality of the urban public space which, according to the author is a necessary condition for guaranteeing the vitality of environments. Gehl provides a point of view that is particularly relevant, which gives central importance to the public city and its adequacy in relation to contemporary social practices, in which the author observes constant evolution as well as variability in relation to contexts and seasons.
The aim is to design in a manner that corresponds with recognised social needs, translating the variety of suggestions and viewpoints produced by research in terms that are technically pertinent. Gehl never investigates individual mental processes but concentrates his attention on the role of physical environments in permitting or generally stimulating particular collective conduct.
A second technically relevant aspect concerns the need, according to Gehl, to explore through the project the multiplicity of scales through which the dynamics of living can be seen. Large, medium and small scales identify different fields of social practices and levels of interaction with the territory and the city. In the same way, the author organises and puts to work a wide and interesting set of techniques that are useful in comparison with the "non expert" knowledge of the inhabitants and users of the public space, which Gehl regards as essential.
Particular attention is given to the way in which the observations carried out and the relative data are represented. Simple and elaborate examples describing phenomena in progress and objectives followed demonstrate the performance approach that distinguishes all of Gehl's research.
These are objectives that the author considers feasible only through an integrated action of projects and urban policies. From many points of view Jan Gehl's research constitutes today a useful point of reference for processes of transformation that are taking place in cities throughout the world.
They are physical and social worlds that are always special, in which living takes place in unusual forms that the author helps us to consider in greater depth.