Review: How to Study Public Life

Author(s) Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre
Publisher Island Press
Year 2013

Along with William H Whyte and Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl’s theories and practice belong to an empirical and descriptive tradition of urbanism that, in the last half-century, has remained at the periphery of urban planning, while becoming dominant in the newer field of urban design. This difference is instructive, since the lessons contained in How to Study Public Life are descriptive of life in cities as it is actually lived. Anyone who lives in an urban context can evaluate the lessons in this book with reference to their own lifetime’s worth of stored experiences. In contrast, few of us have pored over city-scale maps depicting the elements of urban life (street furniture, block size and length, diversity and range of services and uses, etc.). The failure of modernist planning is therefore far less obvious at the street scale than at the metropolitan one, and the turn towards Gehl’s way of thinking has gone furthest at the street scale. However, where the ideas in this book have been replicated across larger urban areas – as in, most famously, Copenhagen – it quickly becomes apparent that what is at stake in How to Study Public Life is not simply ‘place-making’ as currently practiced, here and there, in South African cities. Rather, it is a fundamental shift in the identities that make up the city itself, beginning with the shift of pedestrians to the centre.

These and other insights that are likely to be familiar to a readership interested in urban issues are to be found throughout this book, but that is not where its uniqueness lies. As promised by the first word in its title, this book conveys a method that is at once simple and provocative, chiefly because it places little weight on traditional expertise.

Gehl’s methods – timing walking speeds, tabulating staying behaviours, charting how sunlight and shade change the use of a square – supply a radically empirical and common-sense approach that anchors his more controversial ideas. Controversial, that is, to the surprising proportion of planners who continue to sign off on projects that entrench car-dependent cityscapes.

Starting with the simple question, “How is a bench used?”, Gehl and Svarre’s book draws a wealth of observations from scenes that we have all witnessed countless times – and imparts the tools that we, too, can use to convert city life from a living tableau to a theoretical and practical basis for further change. In a contemporary African city full of cases in which recently-built public infrastructure stands empty while informal life thrives on marginal spaces not far away, How to Study Public Life offers an accessible and powerfully simple set of eyes with which to look at our cities anew.


Brett Petzer studied French and Politics at Rhodes University before moving to take up Architecture. After work experience for Cape Town-based architectural practices and a London-based newspaper for expatriate South Africans, he became involved with, an urbanism think tank. Brett’s love of commuter cycling and urbanism has led him to a Master’s in City and Regional Planning at UCT, which he hopes to complete in 2015.


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