In Public

How Observing and Recording Pedestrian Activity Transformed a City Center

Twenty years after Jan Gehl’s famous study of people in Melbourne, the city is unrecognizable.

These days, downtown Melbourne bustles with activity. (Photo by Dimitri B via Flickr)

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When Danish architect Jan Gehl found himself working as a guest professor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, he may have felt like a pilgrim in an unholy land.

This was the man, after all, who had published Life Between Buildings two decades prior, a text that cried out for cities to be oriented around people rather than architecture and freeways. The very title suggested — in distinctly un-1970s fashion — that the lifeblood of cities was the activity that reigned in their public spaces, not in the structures that divided them.

To find a city more antithetical to this idea than Melbourne would have been a challenge. When Gehl arrived there in the early ’90s, desolate streets defined Australia’s second biggest city. “It was neutron-bombed, not a soul — not even a cat,” Gehl once said of Melbourne. The city had abandoned public life almost entirely. Sidewalks and parks were void of humanity.

While he was lecturing there, he was also conducting one of his surveys of public life, in which he would meticulously observe and record how citizens interacted with their city. Through this work he established contact with Melbourne’s leaders, who expressed an interest in his findings. It was the beginning of a relationship that would radically transform the nature of the city.

“Jan bridged the gap between the sociologists talking about the impact of people, and the hard facts of the traffic engineers,” says Henriette Vamberg, a partner at Gehl Architects. To do this, in 1994, Gehl and his students fanned out across Melbourne and documented its residents’ behaviors using a method his firm still uses to this day. “They stand in different locations and count everyone passing them,” says Vamberg. “They do that for ten-minute time samples, and then extrapolate that for up to an hour. They look at recreational activities, how people are spending their time, and that’s being mapped.” The process results in what Vamberg describes as a virtual “photograph of the city.”

With that data in hand, Gehl worked with Melbourne’s city planners to make incremental changes to the public realm so that it would foster a more engaged civic life. This incremental approach is a hallmark of Gehl’s process: he would make small tweaks based on the data he’d collected, and then, once those changes were made, collect more data and see how well they had worked. Proceeding in baby steps like this helped him avoid designing for buildings rather than people, a misstep he liked to call “the Brasilia Syndrome,” after Brazil’s famous modernist city.

In Melbourne’s case, the work done by Gehl has undergone a sweeping review every 10 years since. “Jan did the public space study in 1994 — that was the first one,” says Vamberg. “The next was done in 2004, where we worked with the city of Melbourne and did it together. And the last one was done in 2014, and this time it’s a pleasure for us that the city did it on their own using the methodology.”

This is of course the ultimate goal: to bake Gehl’s approach into routine city planning processes. “Now it’s just part of what Melbourne does,” says Vamberg. “Part of Jan’s method, it wasn’t just about the numbers. It was also about teaching, inviting stakeholders and interest groups into the city to learn about the methodology and adopt it.”

Those two reviews revealed impressive results. Between 1994 and 2004, public spaces on Melbourne’s streets and squares increased by 71 percent. The number of cafes and restaurants nearly tripled. And the public came out to use them: pedestrian traffic on the city’s central Bourke Street Mall surged from 43,000 to 81,000 people per day. (Melbournians use “busier than Bourke Street” as slang for a crowd). Swanton Street, another major thoroughfare, now sees more daily foot traffic than London’s bustling Regent Street.

The city expanded temporally, too. Whereas evenings in downtown Melbourne were even quieter than days, nighttime pedestrian activity doubled between 1994 and 2004, according to the review. Nocturnal street activities pay dividends to cities in multiple ways — shops can extend their hours, which spurs the economy, and crime levels often fall with more eyes on the street.

The 2014 survey’s results are yielding even more data. For this survey, the project area was doubled, and the number or survey sites increased. Vamberg says that this survey has shown a continued expansion of Melbourne’s public realm, including more shifting of pedestrian traffic from days to nights and from weekdays into Saturday. Next year Gehl architects will publish selected results from this survey on the Melbourne Council’s Open Data Platform, which is currently in the pilot phase. Doing so will allow others to incorporate the data into their own research, continuing Gehl’s mission to not merely collect data, but to help others use it.

The column, In Public, is made possible with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Will Doig was formerly Next City’s international editor. He's worked as a columnist at Salon, an editor at The Daily Beast, a lecturer at the New School, and a communications staffer at the Open Society Foundations. He is the author of High-Speed Empire: Chinese Expansion and the Future of Southeast Asia, published by Columbia Global Reports.

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Tags: public spacemelbournegehl architects

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