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Gehl refers to three different types of activities that take place within public space and suggests a positive correlation between a good quality physical environment and subsequent social activities that occur. But what actually contemplates a good quality environment or a ‘living city’?

A Spectrum of Activities

A good environment will often have all three types of activities interwoven (necessary, optional, social), a combination of activities make places socially meaningful and attractive. Planners and architects cannot influence the quality of social interaction that takes place but can provide the backdrop and opportunities for people to meet, see and hear.

Figure 1. Spectrum of Activities and quality of environment

City Characteristics

Design that encourage people to spend time outdoors and interact with others can make a positive difference to quality of life. Two crude examples comparing the modernised city and living city is detailed in table 1 below to demonstrate typical characteristics of a poor and good quality environment.

Table 1. The modernised city v The living City

­­­­Gehls Theory

Gehls theory suggests spaces should be planned and designed to assemble, integrate, invite and open-up to people. These characteristics are believed to influence how long an activity can last and how many people are likely to be involved. Narrow plots of high density can host a number events that stimulate one another with many integrated functions side by side, offering a wealth of experiences. Public spaces should be accessible and inviting with views into them that open up into the public environment offering a two way experience for those inside and outside.

The Pedestrianised City

Venice can be described as a ‘living city’. It has always functioned as a pedestrianised city due to its narrow streets and canal bridges that restrict car access. The streets work for the human scale and provide space for pedestrians to interact and flow through interesting spaces, allowing both the whole space and details to be seen. This concepts explains the Venetian practice of arriving late at prearranged meetings because people inevitably meet friends or stop to look at something while walking through the city. The effect of ‘natural surveillance’ is also evident through very few drownings due to the high level of activity along the canals.

In cities where automobiles take priority actions need to be taken to switch to a pedestrian priority. This has been successful in a number of cities where automobile priority streets have been converted to pedestrianised zones, examples include; New Road in Brighton, Northumberland Street in Newcastle and Strøget, Copenhagen.

Figure 2. Historic image of Northumberland street before being pedestrianised

Cities face the challenge to increase density in order to respond to population growth, whilst still maintaining a good quality environment. Vancouver, Canada have managed to achieve this fairly successfully through development based upon two layers. The lower level follows building street lines and provides an active ground floor for the human scale. The second level provides skyscrapers which are set back so not to impact upon the pedestrian landscape as well as shield the waterfront from wind and shade.

Do you think a living city should be of pedestrian priority? Are streets and public spaces the place for interaction? Is ground floor level design key to life in our cities?


Gehl. J. (1987) Life Between Buildings. Island Press. Washington

Gehl. J. (2010) Cities for People. Island Press. Washington

School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

Tel: 0191 208 6509


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