For Public Life, Not Another School of Thought

We emerged from the Act Urban conference in Philadelphia with flushed souls, our minds invigorated and challenged, our hearts full with the camaraderie and candor entrusted to us. A repercussion of the vigorous debates was the growing perplexity as we set out to define the phrase “public life,” which is central to Gehl Institute’s mission.

The phrase “public life” both expresses so much, and yet offers few tangibles. Nearly everyone could find something in the phrase that resonated with them, and yet they would disagree from one definition to another. Others worried that we were embarking on an intellectual exercise.

I don’t find this work to be an intellectual exercise, in fact, in my years of working to improve the public realm have proven that it’s rare that good ideas are ever persuasive on their own. They always need application and context.

I found so little in conflict with the ways that public life was debated. Was it the “social activities in public spaces,” as stated by John Bela? Yes. Was it the everyday lives people live in the public realm? Yes. And the dimension that we added in, which will be crucial to the foundation of Gehl Institute’s work, is that it is also very much about promoting civic life, of building up the muscles to pull on the levers of power to enact change.

There you have it, the dimensions of public life for Gehl Institute:

Social activities in public spaces

Everyday lives in the public realm

Civic life

Life in Social Spaces

Social activities in public spaces

Our projects, which are designed to position ourselves as students and to take in what people have to teach us about our public realm, nearly always support at least two of these three dimensions. The Public Life & Urban Justice in NYC’s Plazas looked at the ability of spaces to support every day errands as well as their ability to deepen a sense of neighborhood belonging and ownership, even for people who immigrated. Experiments such as SplashJAM in Lexington, Kentucky and the Federal Bureau of (public life) Instigation in West Palm Beach inject a major dose of fun in public spaces in cities where the public realm has eroded and everyday lives lived more frequently in private cars and members-only enclaves. In fact, the primary reason we make an effort to document our process, to share our findings and methodologies, is to exercise the civic muscle.

Civic Life (photo credit: Stine Ilum)

Civic Life (photo credit: Stine Ilum)

As you can see, public life, since it constitutes all that people revere and uphold in the public realm, takes different dimensions depending on context and even its moment in time and space. There may come a day when we will change our definition. But we will certainly never stop working to make the public realm more livable, accessible, and sustainable for all.