Planning for people - Public Life Surveys

by Den Aitken

People. Place. Design.  The scale of our cities is changing. For decades, the design of our cities has been significantly distorted by the prioritisation of private vehicle movements at the expense of public life. However, driven by buzz words such as “people-friendly”, “placemaking”, “livability” and “the human scale” a sea-change has been not so quietly gaining momentum.

And for good reason - because we can either build cities that are great for cars, or we can build cities that are great for people. We cannot do both.

Enter Public Life Surveys.

In a sentence, Public Life Surveys are an observation method for capturing the patterns of people in our streets, parks and public spaces, intended to ensure people are at the forefront of urban planning.


Developed in the mid-1960’s, by Architect Jan Gehl, Public Life Surveys are fundamentally about the observation of human behavior in urban environments - the places they live, work and visit. Gehl realised that while nearly every major city around the world records vehicular traffic, economic growth, housing development, noise, and pollution, very little is recorded regarding people and the effect the built environment has on their movements and behaviours.

So Gehl embarked on what was to become a life’s work – a curiosity to know more about people, how their lives are influenced by the built environment and how the design of this environment can better meet their needs.


Take for example, the monitoring of pedestrian activity, a fundamental component of Public Life Surveys. As the name suggests, this is quite simply a tally of pedestrians walking within a given survey area during a given period of time. While on the surface this may appear to be specific only to the immediate location – the number of pedestrians walking past said location within a particular timeframe – but when measured at multiple sights, over multiple timeframes however, these numbers begin to take on new life.

They begin to identify patterns and hierarchies of pedestrian movement. They show us where people walk and where they don’t. They show us when people walk and when they don’t. The show us which routes they take and what routes are best avoided. Coupled with an age and gender survey – another core component of a Public Life Survey - they tell us who is walking and who is not, which in turn tells us something about the quality, comfort and perceived levels of safety of our urban spaces.


Add to this a thorough examination of stationary activities – people sitting, engaged in cultural activities, talking with friends, lying down reading a book or playing – and not only do we know who is walking, where and when, we also begin to understand where they are going, what they do when the get there and how long they stay.

And then, as explained by Eva Kail, CEO for the city of Vienna, “once you’ve analysed the patterns of use of public space, you start to define the needs and interests of the people using it, and then planning can be used to meet these needs”.


And so, since establishing AitkenTaylor, a key part of our tool kit for helping our clients achieve people-focused urban design is the delivery of Public Life Surveys. Because once we better understand the relationships between people and their surroundings we are better poised to ask more informed questions about what it is we want from our cities and what we need to do to get there. So what does your city want?  More places for cars, or more places for people?


Bio: Den Aitken is the Director and Design Principal at AitkenTaylor. He is a registered landscape architect with broad experience across local government, academia and private practice.  After working alongside the Gehl Architecture team in 2015, Den has led a number of Public Life Surveys and ensures that this methodology is embedded in each of the projects AitkenTaylor undertake.