Jan Gehl’s Promotion of Urban Public Life


The 21st Century saw many contemporary urbanists creating new changes to our cities. One of the most prominent Urban Planner in recent decades has to be Jan Gehl from Denmark. He is sometimes known as the ‘guru’ or ‘doyen’ of urban spaces, not only in his home country but throughout the western world. Gehl is a Danish architect and planner who has tremendously influenced open spaces, walkability, healthy cities and sustainable transport in many cities around the world. He has a specific interest in the quality and performance of public spaces which started with a research grant from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts to study the form and use of public spaces. He was influential in transforming Copenhagen’s transport systems with a focus on cycling and public mobilities. He also advocated for public spaces, especially spaces where there is a large footfall and social spaces such as cafes and restaurants. His wife who is a psychologist had an impact on him to look at the social side of urbanization which was not well known during the time. There was a need to think of people in the cities and put people first, rather than other amenities, and to build for the livelihood of people in the cities. So, it was important to ask people what they wanted.

Jan Gehl - Urban Planner

The concept of ‘Public Life’

He has written many books but his books, Life Between Buildings and Cities for People are both prominent and important in understanding the intricacies involved in the structure and function of urban public spaces. Gehl first published his influential Life Between Buildings in English in 1987. Gehl promotes a sensible theory to open public spaces and to bring people and lives into the public realm. One of the largest pedestrianized street in the world called, Copenhagen’s Strøget carfree zone is a result of Gehl’s advocacy for public spaces. Gehl uses the term ‘public life’ to emphasize the life in the public spaces and for people to understand that going out of their homes and interacting with other elements in the public spaces are important for a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. This concept has been adopted in many cities around the world, including New York City’s Time Square which is known for its public life throughout the day and night – 24/7.

Gehl broadly influenced people’s thoughts around public spaces in the developed world including Australia, USA, and Europe, as these countries have the capacity and capability to provide a good infrastructure for public life. However, that said, these concepts can also be adopted in the developing world and Brazil which is fast growing is adopting many of Gehl’s concept of public spaces and public life in many of their urban streets. There is also scope for India to develop these concepts if the political bureaucracy wasn’t as involved in the infrastructure. I feel that not many Indians really value much of their public spaces other than basic parks and botanic gardens but there are no squares or pedestrianized public spaces in India, which can certainly be improved with more knowledge into the topic which Gehl’s books can provide.

Sensory Input and Human Centered Urbanism

This is evident in Gehl’s first book, Life Between Buildings where he clearly supports this argument by looking into the intricacies of public spaces, where he forms his own theory of ‘Human Centered Urbanism.’ he considers the relationship between quality of the public space in relation to its use. Here, he suggests the relationship between the quality of the public space in relation to its use. He provides different categories in the ways in which people engage in public spaces which is central to his theory. He finds meanings and associations to the different ways in which people use and perceive their public open spaces. For example, some people might be more inclined to interact with the public art whereas, others might be interested in walking around or observing their surroundings while building open spaces for people soundings to get some fresh air, whereas others might be there with friends to have a cup of coffee.Gehl sees deep values and meanings with such behaviors that are attached to daily life in the public space. This is what he calls ‘public life.’

Sensory input in public life is another aspect Gehl focuses on in his books. He focuses on the use of people’s five senses ­ sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste ­ which he says needs to be considered in the planning structures to understand the mediums with which people use their public spaces. This is a growing phenomenon in the theory of public spaces as sensory input drastically influences the ways in which people access their living environment, not just public spaces. If they do not sense their cities, people cannot access their environment and cannot voice their needs with the environment. For instance, a blind person cannot seek help if they do not understand that the environment needs sight as an important spatial attribute in our cities. When people sit, walk and talk they are continually using their senses and some urban spaces are more accessible and promote these senses than others. He suggests that these senses give growth for self-expression in the public spaces. Gehl suggests that promoting the use of the senses is important for people to understand and get a deep sense of understanding of their public realm. This is evident in Gehl’s quote:

“opportunities for meetings and daily activities in the public spaces of a city enable one to be among, to see, and to hear others, to experience other people functioning in various situations” (Gehl, 2011, p.15).


As evident, Gehl has contributed a lot to the urban spaces of our present generation. His pioneering concepts, many of which were influenced by Jane Jacobs and William Whyte, are central to the ways in which many of our built environments are shaped in the 21st Century. He is well known for his concepts throughout the world but is yet to implement them in the developing world. He did not just advocate for bicycles but also for walkability and open spaces which is a central theme to accessibility in urban life. If people around the world follow his tenants, they would benefit tremendously and provide the whole society with a better quality of life.

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