This guide shows how mayors can encourage vibrant public life. It's broken up into five strategies: Measure, Invite, Do, Evolve, and Formalize.
This guide is for mayors and their staff. It makes the case for why paying attention to and measuring what people do in public spaces matters. It also offers tactics and real-world case studies to help mayoral administrations get things done.
Additionally, to help you make your case to colleagues and stakeholders, we’ve included a PowerPoint presentation of the case studies, available for download above.
Public life is what people create when they connect with each other in public spaces—the streets, plazas, parks, and city spaces between buildings. Public life is about the everyday activities that people naturally take part in when they spend time with each other outside their homes, workplaces, and cars.
If you would like for us to send a physical copy of A Mayor's Guide to Public Life to your local mayor, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
If you want to understand how to improve public spaces in your city, don’t start from scratch. Start with measuring.
When you measure how many and where people choose to spend time in public spaces, as well as what they do based on their current options, you get a better sense of which design or policy changes might best contribute to a city or neighborhood’s public life. People-centered metrics enable you to make an evidence-based case for change, creating buzz for projects and persuading skeptics to get on board. Such data can also reveal previously invisible or overlooked patterns to city agencies.
Of course, measuring people tells only part of the story. It should be combined with surveys, various forms of engagement, and collecting quantitative data on the physical makeup of public spaces. It’s also important to be ethical about data collection—for example, keeping identities anonymous and making the data available to the public.
Bringing new people into the city planning process can be tough. The channels through which citizens communicate their needs to city leaders are traditionally limited and often cater to a narrow section of the general populace. To expand and diversify the voices engaging in city-making, leaders need to find new ways of soliciting feedback and incorporating residents into the development process. One option for city leaders is to go to the people, rather than expecting the people to come to them. By meeting people where they are, as part of their everyday routine out in the city, city leaders can better understand how the built environment, policies, and regulations directly affect people’s behavior and sense of place.
There is an old business adage that “you measure what you care about.” Most cities have detailed data on cars, such as the number of cars on the road, travel time, areas prone to congestion, or the number and types of traffic accidents. Cities have not, however, traditionally collected what we call people-centered metrics, or metrics based on how people use and move through public space. This has resulted in a one-sided understanding about how cities should be planned, often leading to pedestrian-unfriendly urban renewal efforts. To gain a holistic understanding of your city—including the actions, behaviors, and needs of residents—you need to collect people-centered data. Asking “when, where, and who” is the first step in understanding how to prioritize public-realm investments and how they affect people.
Citizens are often asked to weigh in on how projects should take shape, but this engagement typically takes place only after the projects have already been defined. Citizens are asked, for example, whether they prefer “option 1, 2, or 3” but do not have a say in what types of projects they actually want to see implemented. The format and timing of this engagement generally caters to a narrow portion of the population and fosters an environment in which NIMBYism4 can flourish. By inviting more people to constructively participate in the planning process, engagement not only becomes more inclusive, but also more effective.
People can sense where they are wanted. We are surrounded by signals large and small that tell us whether or not we are welcome. To foster public life, every person needs to feel that they are welcome to participate in the creation and design of public spaces and to participate in public life. Widespread awareness among constituents of how decisions are made, where meetings take place, and how to attend is crucial in drawing out feedback to improve public life.
Reducing barriers to participation is central to making people feel they are truly invited to be a part of the planning process. A park is only welcoming if it is easy to access and comfortable to spend time in. Similarly, people won’t speak up if they feel that they won’t be listened to. Rather than expecting citizens to come to them, city leaders must go to citizens in order to receive more diverse input. Moving public meetings directly to project sites, convening open forums on a regular basis, providing American Sign Language translators, and being flexible and open to addressing unique, neighborhood-specific agendas rather than standardized city agency priorities can all help ensure constructive insight from diverse groups.
While understanding the value of public life is crucial, actually implementing design and policy changes that improve public spaces for everyone is easier said than done. In the “Invite” section, we described ways to proactively incorporate the voices of different stakeholders into the city-making process. Here, we describe action-oriented approaches to producing real outcomes in space: starting with temporary interventions that build on what already exists but always working toward long-term, systemic change.
It can be difficult for mayors to connect with their constituents and to listen properly. There are thousands of interests and competing priorities that must be navigated. The processes through which citizens communicate their needs to city leaders are traditionally limited and cater to a narrow group of the population. For example, focus groups that cater to angry older people and a couple engaged hipsters do not reflect the diverse needs of a community. To expand and diversify the voices engaging in city making, leaders need to find new ways of soliciting feedback and bring citizens closer to engaging in the development process. Increasing connection to citizens is an important step to to measuring what people do, where they do it.
It’s easy to overlook local assets that exist in your own backyard. Landmarks, access to open space, known institutions, or community centers may not have an immediate relationship to the big vision or project guidelines, but they can be key building blocks. Similarly, people and the activities they already do in public spaces—whether or not they are permitted—can be built upon. Sitting on ledges, cutting across lawns, turning chairs around to face the street, barbecuing, even skateboarding—these are all things that signal personal desires for specific uses of public space. Rather than starting from scratch, identify existing assets and build upon what people are already doing. Welcome people and their ideas.
Projects for improving public spaces should be approached with flexibility. They can be broken down into multiple stages, with each stage involving an evaluation process, thus allowing the projects to improve over the course of their implementation by responding to previously unknown conditions. This strategy not only makes the projects more sensitive to dynamics on the ground, but also enables greater experimentation for designers, event programmers, and agency staff. Moreover, it allows residents to voice their feedback at multiple project stages.
While it’s easy to embrace the ethos of the Jane Jacobs quote “the city is never finished,” it’s more difficult to make this a reality with funding and resources. Breaking down the project-delivery timeline into several iterations can reveal what’s possible, create memorable shared experiences for residents, and inform future concepts. Furthermore, inviting citizens to test initiatives directly (before a large investment is made) can reduce risk and help ensure investments are used most effectively to maximize positive impact. The ways in which citizens use a project—ways that are often unimagined and unintended by the project instigators—are crucial to determining its success. Project monitoring, evaluation, and reimagining should be an ongoing process because the way people use the city is constantly evolving. Our city-making projects should embrace, and plan for, the notion that the city is never finished.
Traditional development processes place difficult demands on citizens, expecting them to understand complex drawings and concepts and provide meaningful input with incomplete information. Instead, ask citizens questions such as, “What is your favorite place in the city and why?” And: “Which of the city qualities identified do you want to see more of in your neighborhood?” Citizens can provide feedback on topics they are experts in. Responses to these questions are naturally more action-oriented and create opportunities for citizens to define the success criteria for projects.
While enhancing a single park or street is worthwhile, the broader goal for mayors should be institutionalizing people-centered approaches in government and civic society. Cities can be more vibrant, equitable, and livable when measuring and interviewing the people who are most affected by projects is a built-in component of the planning process. Such an approach is not only possible, but has proved highly successful at the city scale.
Use people-centered metrics and tactics to cultivate a higher quality of life for all residents. When people are made visible in the data gathering of every city agency, the built environment becomes more livable and accommodating to the human scale.
In an era of tactical urbanism, cities run the risk of shortchanging citizens by ending projects in the trial stage. Public-realm improvements must be more substantially invested in and made permanent. Early successes during the “Do” stage of short-term projects must be leveraged into medium- and long-term policies and developments to ultimately move from evolution to formalization. In this way, a whole culture of putting people first spread across departments, with the evaluation of public life now institutionalized cross the city.
The strategies and case studies offered in this guide are meant to inspire mayors to take action. We hope that the prescribed formula—Measure, Invite, Do, Evolve, Formalize—can make executing projects in public spaces easier and help initiate cultural shifts at city governments that prioritize the human-scale, social dimensions of the built environment.
Today, many cities are beginning to recognize the importance of public life and are implementing policies and design interventions to foster more pedestrian-friendly commercial districts and central parks, in particular. This is an exciting development, but we want to conclude by also stressing the importance of equity in relation to public spaces. It’s crucial to invest in areas far from tourist destinations, in the spaces of everyday life for non-elite residents, in ways that are always informed by local priorities. Meanwhile, public spaces that are more centrally located should belong to everyone, and their design and programming must reflect this.
Mayors have to balance many conflicting interests for their constituents and manage day-to-day operations while planning for the future. Yet all the work they do fundamentally contributes to ensuring that public spaces serve as a platform for people to thrive, and there are few greater legacies a mayor can leave behind than to invest in the city’s public life.
Gehl Institute’s mission is to transform the way cities are shaped by making public life an intentional driver for design, policy, and governance. We believe that in order to make cities more equitable and just, public spaces should be made more accessible and welcoming to more people. Our interdisciplinary work combines research, advocacy, and network-building.
First launched in 2015 by Gehl, a privately held urban design practice based in Copenhagen with offices in San Francisco and New York City, Gehl Institute has set up independent operations as a 501(c)(3) in New York City.