23 April 2008

Life Between Buildings

The following is a quote from a book I just checked out from the library. It is out of print and the library copy is a paperback with the pages falling out. The photos are also from the book.
The opportunity to see and hear other people in a city ... offer(s) valuable information about the surrounding social environment...

This is especially true in connection with the social development of children, which is largely based on observations of the surrounding social environment, but all of us need to be kept up to date about the surrounding world in order to function in social context.


Through the mass media we are informed about the larger, more sensational world events, but by being with others we learn about the more common but equally important detail. We discover how others work, behave, and dress, and we obtain knowledge about the people we work with, live with, and so forth. By means of all this information, we establish a confidential relationship with the world around us. A person we have often met on the street becomes a person we "know".


In addition to imparting information about the social world outside, the opportunity to see and hear other people can also provide ideas and inspiration for action.

We are inspired by seeing others in action. Children, for example, see other children at play and get the urge to join in, or they get ideas for new games by watching other children or adults.


The trend from living to lifeless cities and residential areas that has accompanied industrialization, segregation of various city functions, and reliance on the automobile also has caused cities to become duller and more monotonous. This points up another important need, namely the need for stimulation:

Experiencing other people represents a particularly colorful and attractive opportunity for stimulation. Compared with experiencing buildings and other inanimate objects, experiencing people, who speak and move about, offers a wealth of sensual variation. No moment is like the previous or the following when people circulate among people. The number of new situations and new stimuli is limitless. Furthermore, it concerns the most important subject in life: people.

Living in cities, therefore, ones in which people can interact with one another, are always stimulating because they are rich in experiences, in contrast to lifeless cities, which can scarcely avoid being poor in experiences and thus dull, no matter how many colors and variations of shape in buildings are introduced.
Wherever there are people ... it is generally true that people and human activities attract other people. People are attracted to other people. They gather with and move about with others and seek to place themselves near others. New activities begin in the vicinity of events that are already in progress.


In the home we can see that children prefer to be where there are adults or where there are other children, instead of, for example, where there are only toys. In residential areas and in city spaces, comparable behavior among adults can be observed. If given a choice between walking on a deserted or a lively street, most people will choose the lively street. If the choice is between sitting in a private backyard or in a semiprivate front yard with a view of the street, people will often choose the front of the house where there is more to see.

Both in areas with single-family houses and in apartment house surroundings, children tend to play more on the streets, in parking areas, and near the entrances of dwellings than in the play areas designed for that purpose but located in backyards of single family houses or on the sunny side of multi-story buildings where there are neither traffic nor people to look at.

-Life Between Buildings, Jan Gehl 1971


Anonymous said...

I was going to ask you when that book was published. 1971 was just 3 years after the riots in several American cities, so I wondered if perhaps this book was a PR project.

There was something about the photos that appeared odd to me. Upon searching for more information about Mr. Gahl I learned that he is Danish, and I think these photos were taken in European cities. The photos you posted don't appear to reflect much population diversity, perhaps others in the book do?

1971 would have been 26 years after the end of WWII - in which many European cities received major damage. I wonder if his book was reflecting a spirit of renewal after a generation of peace in Europe? 1971 was also the year prior to the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, which in some ways indicated that Europe was getting back on its feet.

It was also interesting to learn that his wife was a psychologist and her ideas helped shape his social approach to urban architecture. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Gehl

CityKin said...

According to the book credits, the photos are of Denmark and Australia circa 1970.

I have been trying to get relevant kid pics myself of Cincinnati, but it can be hard. Some adults give me some hard looks when taking photos at the playground... Kinda demonstrates the bubble we are putting around our kids.

Anonymous said...

You are definately on to something Mike; it's like trying to change the direction of an ocean-going freightliner.

Interesting that NYC hired Mr. Gehl in 2007 to make its streets more pedestrian friendly, modeled after the success in Copenhagen.

Anonymous said...

Gehl is one of the people behind recent efforts in nyc, talked about in Taking Back the Streets.

This is largely the subject of my research and there are some more recent ideas about this kind of "life between buildings". I would be curious to hear your thoughts about children and youth in the neighborhood.

One theory that takes this to an extreme is Everyday Urbanism ( interesting description in relation to New Urbanism).

I am sure that Gehl's context determined a lot of his observations, but I think that given the types of planning and urban issues that cities like Cincinnati are dealing with it is just as, even not more, crucial.

CityKin said...

I never heard the term Everyday Urbanism, but I like the article, and I definitely agree with the last paragraph.

As for kids in OTR, my first observation is that their numbers have been dramatically decreasing. I'm not sure if the statistics would support me, but it sure seems that 5 or 10 years ago there were kids all over the streets playing ball and riding bikes etc. Now it seems that there are some toddlers with mothers at the playground and some teens hanging on the corner, but the tweens are not seen much. Seems they need more public places, which is one reason I keep pushing for the pools to stay.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the last paragraph seems to be right on. New Urbanism as a theory definitely has much more to offer our current situation and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.