Five Key Questions for the Study of Public Life

cities for people

Although studies on the interaction between public life and public space are relatively few, several great examples do exist. From Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities to William H Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and Jan Gehl’s Life Between Buildings, there are a number of excellent resources that systematically break down and analyse the interactions between public life and the public spaces within which they take place.

Recently, Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre published a How to Study Public Life (Island Press, 2013), and in it they describe the system that Gehl has used and honed since the early days of his career. Direct observation is critical for this, and they go about describing five questions that form the basis for their studies of the interaction between people and public life. Questions that allow them to attain specific and valuable information that can then be used to ultimately inform design and policy.

Information relevant to questions are recorded through various means, i.e. maps, tables, field notes, etc. and are described in their book, but given that the foundation of their approach lies in the critical questions they ask, I thought it would be worth sharing a summary of the latter with our readers, in the hopes of inspiring the creation of more people-focused public spaces across the country.

How Many?

Is one of the most fundamental question when observing public life. To Gehl, it refers to the number of people that are performing specific activities. Although there are often a variety of activities being done in any particular public space that can be counted, the two most fundamental ones worth registering are “how many people are moving (pedestrian flow) and how many people are staying in one place (stationary activity).” Given that such data is most useful in comparison to something else, it is recommended that various counts be made during different seasons, days, and times of day. Weather and time should be noted, as well, since these both directly affect use.


Is related to the above, insofar as it focuses on where people are performing specific activities. Where people are moving and/or are stationary is critical to note: is it along the perimeter or middle of a space? Evenly distributed or groups? Within public space? Semi-public? Private space? In the sun? Shade? These are just a few relevant questions, the answers to which allow observers to intelligently speculate on positioning elements, (i.e. entrances, furniture, programs, etc.) within a space.


Looks precisely at the different groups of people using a space. As with counting activities, this can be overwhelming and complex, so it is most easily registered by the creation of broader categories, such as gender and/or age. Generally speaking, groups such as women, children, the elderly and disabled tend to get overlooked frequently and are worth including in your studies. The basic knowledge of how different groups of people use a space can be used to plan and design more precisely to accommodate specific needs.


Intimately connected to Where?, this question focuses on the specific types of activities being performed within a public space. Is it commercial activity? Exercise? Standing around watching a street performer? Waiting for the bus? The answers to these are critical for the design of city spaces and can be grouped under large themes, (i.e. health, commerce, etc.), if required.

Since the list of activities being performed can be virtually limitless, it is important to find categories that best describe the events. Gehl describes the primary activities in any public space as being walking, standing, sitting and playing. Furthermore, he usefully separates activities into two broad categories: necessary and optional. The former describes those motivated by necessity and include “shopping, walking to and from the bus, or working as a parking enforcement attendant, police officier or postman.” While optional activities are more a matter of choice and “comprise strolling or jogging, sitting on a stair step, chair or bench to rest, reading the newspaper, or simply enjoying life while walking around or seated.”

Gehl importantly notes that social activities develop around both necessary and optional  activities. The only requirement is that other people must be present.

How long?

This adds an all-important temporal dimension to one’s observations by asking how long various activities take place: how long it takes someone to walk from one location to another, how long people stay watching others, for example. Establishing the nature of the relationships between activities of different duration can provide many meaningful insights that have design and policy implications.

As mentioned earlier, Gehl deploys a variety of means to recording the data collected  from mapping to simple annotated sketches   and these methods are interesting in and of themselves. But like any meaningful insights that have gleaned over the course of history, everything starts with simple, well-constructed questions. The design of public space is no exception, and given Gehl’s track record of successes, we would do well to follow his lead.


For more information on How to Study Public Life, visit the Island Press website. You can also read the Spacing book review here.



The Cities for People features are a project between Spacing and Cities For People


  1. All steps to take to design public space for the public, are well thought of. But, which city are you planning to build with this knowledge, now? Surely, not Toronto, which has an infinitesimal degree for any improvement, following the helter skelter planning within the present infrastructure.

  2. Good question, Lela. The questions outlined and described by Gehl are not only for the planning and design of new cities. In fact, most of his work lies in transforming existing areas of cities that are not working. Cities, in general, are works in progress, and Toronto is no exception. I would argue that the questions and approach described in the article are a great foundation for observing the interaction between people and the city spaces they inhabit. Doing so in any city – Toronto included – would surely give those in charge of shaping it valuable insight on how to improve their public spaces.

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