Pile of five books about studying public life.

Learning from early masters of public life studies

I was recently involved in service design research to support an initiative that involved potential changes to the client’s staff’s way of working, but also to the design of its program of activities and to part of its interior. 

As we explored the problem, I found myself re-reading the work of seminal thinkers including Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, William Whyte, Christopher Alexander, and Kevin Lynch. Their ideas about the relationship between spatial design and human interactivity proved particularly useful, though they date from decades before we and our environment become digitally enhanced and networked in a ‘world-wide-web’.

Their work provided our team with the key to understanding the complex ways in which spatial design, organisational culture and activity impact each other, enabling us to make next steps.

Gehl’s (Life Between Buildings) insights about the ways in which ‘low-intensity contact’ underpins the growth of deeper, ‘high-intensity’ relationships – and his observations of the ways the built environment can help or hinder its flourishing – helped us create design principles for the new space and activities.  Alexander et. al’s  approach (A Pattern Language) – gave us a form to use in creating a conceptual model of the built space based on the way users experience it and interact in it, as opposed to relying solely on functional requirements or style conventions. Lynch’s (The Image of the City) abstraction of edges, paths, nodes and other elements that make up users’ mental model of a space, helped us interpret user input to form a realistic idea of the constraints and opportunities offered by the building’s interior design.

What we can learn

One striking feature of these pioneers’ approach is their lean integration of quantitative and qualitative research. This enabled them to create strong evidence for findings which otherwise might have been dismissed as nostalgic fantasies or subjective impressions not rigorous enough to base design interventions on. They deployed a rich set of instruments: measuring the number and duration of encounters, the speed of walkers and traffic, and using mapping, path-tracing, interviews, time-elapse film and photography. They used these to create solidly evidenced models that revealed the relationships between behaviours and environments. Their visualisation of their findings was also innovative and thought-provoking.

How many? Who? Where? What? How long? They showed us how these seemingly simple questions, when answered through rigorous data collection and combined with qualitative insights, can reveal new kinds of order that are hiding in plain sight.

Some reading tips

How to Study Public Life by Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre contains many cases with explanations of the methodologies and results, from the 1960s up to very recent ones. For a great example of quant-qual integration and visual representation of results, see Appleyard and Lintell’s visual explanation of the relationship between the traffic speed and social life of three San Francisco streets on page 114.

If you don’t have time to read Jane Jacobs’ work at length, read the section about her in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, entitled ‘The Case Against High-modernist Urbanism: Jane Jacobs’.