Book Review: Life Between Buildings

Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space by Jan Gehl
Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1987
Paperback, 202 pages

This classic book looks at the spaces between buildings, the streets, plazas, and other open spaces of the city and how their design affects people and vice-versa. Given that Gehl is Danish, much of the many illustrations and studies focus on Copenhagen and other cities in Denmark, though this relationship can be inverted, as the quality of public space in the country is so high that a book devoted to improving public space seems almost inevitable.

Like Oscar Newman's Defensible Space, Gehl's book is both a reaction to Modernist principles and their failures, and an application and synthesis of data culled from observation. But unlike Newman's book that proposes surveillance as a means to safety, Gehl proposes that the design of public spaces themselves can create safe urban places by making them desirable and therefore occupied rather than abandoned. What makes his recommendations especially pertinent is that they start from the simple premise of asking why people go outside and what they do outside. At the root of his research and conclusions is the human condition, the desire to interact with other people, even if only indirectly via looking and listening. Which leads to the fundamental consideration that designers must have: people's interaction with the environment. If we think of public spaces as separate from people, as formal exercises, then we are heading towards creating more failures. But if we think of these spaces in terms of their access, use, and the relationship between the person and the built environment, then we are on the road to success.