B5. Urban vitality

Social life in spaces

Aims and method:

William ‘Holly’ Whyte’s work established the benchmark for observational studies of how people use public spaces. His work utilised photographic time lapse techniques to examine New York’s open spaces created as a result of the city’s incentive zoning regulations.

Key findings:

· Social spaces exhibit a good location, preferably on a busy route and are both physically and visually accessible

· Social spaces have streets that are part of the ‘social’ space; cutting a space off from the street with railings or walls isolates it and reduces its use

· Social spaces are level or almost level with the pavement; spaces significantly above or below this are less used

· Social spaces have places to sit – both explicit (benches, seats, etc) and integral (steps, low walls, etc.)

· Social spaces often have moveable seats, enabling choice, and the communication of character and personality

· Less important factors include sun penetration, aesthetics (what mattered was how people used the space), and the shapes and sizes of spaces.


Whyte, W. (1980) The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, New York, Project for Public Spaces


Cities for people

Aims and method:

Jan Gehl’s work in Copenhagen and in cities around the world has been extensively documented. His methods of observation, advocacy and action, and re-measurement have been widely adopted, and much evidence is brought together in this book.

Key findings:

· In Copenhagen between 1962 and 2005 the area devoted to pedestrians and city life grew by a factor of seven, from 15,000m2 to 100,000m2.

· Public space, public life activities in 1968, 1986 and 1995 show that the extent of staying (leisure) activities increased by a factor of four

· Bicycle traffic doubled in the period 1995 to 2005 and in 208 represented 37% of travel to and from work

· The more space that is offered the more life comes to the city, with the pattern now being repeated in the outlying districts of Copenhagen.


Gehl, J. (2010) Cities for People, Washington DC, Island Press


Determinants of space occupancy and use

Aims and method:

Reports on a research project that explored the use and experiences of new and regenerated public spaces in London. Within the single city meta-case study, 14 mixed method local cases formed the core of the research, chosen to explore the diverse range of contemporary spaces in London, and incorporating user interviews and time-lapse observation of the spaces.

Key findings:

· ‘Amenities’ – cafes / restaurants, shops, big screens, band stands, kiosks, markets, sports facilities, toilets, seating, etc. – and ‘features’ around and in a space – fountains, paddling pools, street pianos, public art, sculptural furniture, play equipment, skating opportunities, etc. – encourage engagement with the space, learning through play and informal social exchange

· Visual permeability into and through a space encourages through movement and a sense of ‘publicness’ but does not guarantee either. By itself visual permeability has little to do with space animation which is determined much more by the attractors, amenities and features on a space

· Users, on average, stay longer in soft spaces than in hard spaces

· Grass is highly conducive to relaxation, play and social exchange, it is comfortable, flexible and allows users to position themselves to take advantage of micro-climatic conditions

· Different users are attracted by different microclimatic qualities, some seek shade and others sun, all seek shelter in inclement weather. Spaces that allow a degree of choice are more comfortable for a greater number of users across a greater part of the year.

· High levels of transient use generally stimulate high levels of situated activity, with the highest density of such activities occurring in the interstices between dominant lines of movement and around key features and amenities


Carmona, M. (2014). The Place-shaping Continuum, A Theory of Urban Design Process. Journal of Urban Design, 19(1), 2-36


Lively social space, well-being activity, and urban design

Aims and method:

The study examined the extent to which a public space intervention promoted liveliness and three key behaviours that enhance well-being (‘connect’, ‘be active,’, and ‘take notice’). The exploratory study combined directly observed behaviours with self-reported, before and after community-led physical improvements to a public space in central Manchester (UK). Observation data (n = 22,956) and surveys (subsample = 212) were collected over two 3-week periods.

Key findings:

· The implementation of small-scale public realm improvements significantly and substantially increased the number of users, their duration of stay, and well-being activities observed.

· It was discovered that the proportion of community users increased by 14%, suggesting an improvement in community life in the space.


Anderson, J., Ruggeri, K., Steemers, K., & Huppert, F. (2016). Lively Social Space, Well-Being Activity, and Urban Design Findings From a Low-Cost Community-Led Public Space Intervention. Environment and Behavior, 0013916516659108.


Vital Neighbourhood Spaces

Aims and method:

Examines whether nearby nature contributes to the vitality of urban neighbourhood spaces. The authors made 758 observations of individuals in 27 relatively barren and 32 relatively green outdoor common spaces in an inner-city neighbourhood – Ida B.Wells – a large public housing development in Chicago, USA.

Key findings:

· The research found on average 90% more people using green than barren spaces, and, on average, 83% more individuals engaged in social activity in green versus barren spaces.

· Results indicate that the presence of trees and grass is related to the use of outdoor spaces, the amount of social activity that takes place within them, and the proportion of social to non-social activities they support

· The observations were particularly marked in relation to female use of the spaces.

· The location of the spaces examined (front, back, or side of the apartment building) was not related to the amount of social activity observed.


Sullivan, W. C., Kuo, F. E., & Depooter, S. F. (2004). The fruit of urban nature: Vital neighborhood spaces. Environment and Behavior, 36(5), 678-700.


Place-making and its implications for social value

Aims and method:

The authors investigate the impact of place-making approaches on the social value of two recently completed squares in London. Empire Square is described as a space built to serve a new development; Bermondsey Square as a space built to link a new development with neighbouring businesses and communities. 100 surveys and 33 semi-structured interviews were conducted at both case studies with the objective of uncovering explicit connections between their behavioural, perceptual and social dimensions.

Key findings:

  • The dissociation of Empire Square from the identity of the local context results in only 20% of respondents indicating a social impact from the design. This statistic increases to over 90% of those surveyed at Bermondsey square.
  • The ability for Bermondsey Square to flexibly accommodate both tangible and intangible uses results in it having a higher perceptual place-vitality of 70%, outperforming Empire Square’s ~10%.
  • The incorporation of local community groups in the management of Bermondsey square results in ~80% of survey respondents feeling encouraged to use the space. The contrasting figure at Empire Square is ~30%.
  • The majority of Empire Square’s users (62%) come to the square alone.


Alzahrani, A., Borsi, K., Jarman, D. (2017). Place-making and its implications for social value: A comparison study of two urban squares in London. International Journal of Sustainable Development and Planning. 12(4), 752-762


Streetscape Features Related to Pedestrian Activity

Aims and method:

Explores the impact of built environment characteristics on travel behaviours. Specific attention is paid to how pedestrians perceive and respond to micro environments presented by streetscapes. An assessment of relationships between 20 streetscape features and pedestrian traffic volumes, recorded in 588 blocks located in New York, are used to justify varied pedestrian counts against a range of controllable-explanatory variables. These variables include development density, land use diversity, street network design, destination accessibility, and distance to transport..

Key findings:

  • Features that positively increase pedestrian traffic include active frontages and street furniture.
  • Influential street furniture features include signage, benches, parking meters, dustbins, newspaper boxes, bollards, and street lights among other features that enhance the complexity of a streetscape. T
  • he effectiveness of these features is increased when they are in harmony with established land uses, public safety measures, and similar design elements.
  • Active Frontages that offer transparency with ground floor uses are able to facilitate street vitality independently of proportions of retail present at a location.


Ewing, R., Hajrasouliha, A., Neckerman, K., Purciel-Hill, M., Greene, W. (2016). Streetscape Features Related to Pedestrian Activity. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 36(1), 5 - 15