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January 26th, 2019 Comments

How to observe human behavior in cities?

The best way for architects and urban planners to design livable cities, that is, with public spaces designed for citizens, is to observe human behavior in cities. This is how the Danish architect Jan Gehl and the specialist in urban spaces,  Birgitte Svarre , put it in their book "How to Study Public Life", where they rescue observation as a practice that helps to understand why people act in a certain way in certain places, what these spaces have that make this possible and what is the relationship of people with a certain place, among other topics.

To observe the behavior of people in the cities, the authors made a list of seven tools, which can be found below with some examples of the book.


The idea of recovering public space for citizens arises as a result of the change in working hours that occurred in some countries during the '60s that left more days off, giving more time to people to enjoy a park or walking quietly through the streets. However, as the cities were not prepared for this, the neighborhoods acquired an increasingly specific character, some being only for work and others for commercial purposes, being disconnected from each other.

Gehl could verify this in a study he did in 1968 on Stroget Street in Copenhagen where he observed the behavior that people had depending on the day of the week and the time. Thus he obtained that during the working days people walked faster in the morning and in the afternoon, while at noon they made it slower. On the other hand, during weekends, they always moved more slowly.

Likewise, he recognized on the same street that in winter people took an average of 62 seconds to travel 100 meters versus the 85 seconds it took them to walk the same distance in summer. With these results, Gehl emphasizes that it is valuable to know these factors because they can be applied to other areas, for example, that pedestrians are willing to walk to get to some stop on public transport.

To achieve results like the previous ones, the book proposes seven tools : search for traces, photograph, keep a diary, map, pilot walks, track and trace.

The first one, data search , is given by the "footprints" left by one or more people when passing through a place. In this sense, the authors believe that there are traces that provide information about the behavior of people in a given space. For example, the footsteps on the grass can inform on the routes that people choose when walking through a park or if there are restaurant tables on the sidewalks it reflects the security that is perceived in a space.

The photograph is a means that the vast majority have at hand, and therefore, the book is presented as a second mechanism that would help humanize cities and simplify data on interactions that occur in urban areas. Continuing with this visual rescue, time-lapse videos are recommended, because like the photos they also show the rhythm of urban life and the differences that exist in this sense between cities.

The exercise of taking notes in a journal during a visit to a public space is a third practice that the authors value, because with it activities are recorded in real time, which would influence the recognition of the options that gives a place to occur certain activities

Knowing the limits of the public space that is going to intervene is necessary so that the data collected can only be applied there. For this reason, the book recommends mapping a place as an exercise to represent information in a particular sector.

Although technology is playing an important role in the development of cities, observation is even more important, because while an observer is in motion, that is, he is doing a pilot walk , he can be affected by certain problems that technology does not perceive. . An example of this is when Gehl could recognize in Sydney that pedestrians spent 52% of the time of a trip waiting at traffic lights.

The last two tools of the book allow to know the routes of movement of pedestrians, which can be registered in two ways. The first, called trackear , consists of knowing the movement of citizens in wide spaces, while the second, tracing , is obtained in limited spaces.

With this toolkit, the authors believe that it would be possible to design more habitable cities designed for people so as not to repeat the design of some cities where space is lost between buildings and there are no good interconnections between the space for cars and that of pedestrians. To complement this, they also developed 12 rules that should be met in cities to make them more friendly to citizens:

1. Have protections against accidents and traffic. 
2. Promote life on the street to reduce violence in public spaces. 
3. Design protections against unpleasant stimuli, such as bad odors, noise, smoke and dirt. 
4. Create well-designed spaces that provide the option to walk. 
5. Design spaces with places to stand, such as physical supports and rest areas. 
6. Design infrastructure to sit down. 
7. Spaces that give the possibility of observing, that is, having unobstructed lines of sight and good lighting at night. 
8. Places where you can talk and listen quietly with good distance between banks and with moderate levels of noise.
9. Spaces so that people of different ages can relax and entertain themselves. 
10. Small-scale services, such as signs, maps, litter bins and mailboxes. 
11. Spaces with elements that help to enjoy different climates. 
12. Elements that generate positive feelings, such as animals, plants and flowers.

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