Using the Public Life Tools

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Getting Started

Surveys + Tools

What follows is an overview on how to carry out surveys of public spaces and the public life that takes place in them. For more information, download the complete guide in the righthand column.

A public life survey is the study of the physical and social elements of a place. It can encompass many forms of data collection, from mapping benches to counting cyclists to conducting interviews. The "tools" we refer to are the research methods developed by Jan Gehl, the Gehl practice, and/or Gehl Institute. These are the methods of mapping benches, counting cyclists, conducting interviews, etc.

The tools only tell us part of the story about a space; they must be complemented by local knowledge that can only be accessed through robust community engagement and working closely with community partners. Sometimes, the most valuable information you gather in a public life survey is something you observe, or a conversation you have, that simply comes out of spending hours at a time in a space.

We hope you find these steps useful! If you have any feedback, let us know at

1 Draft a research question

What specifically do I want to study?

Surveys work best when they are built around a central research question. Your research question can be fairly broad, but it should address something measurable, and it should be directly related to your project goals.

For example, you might ask questions like these:

  1. “People walk in other parts of town, why not in my neighborhood?”
  2. “Will building a new plaza in the neighborhood bring people together?”
  3. “Will my project have any long-term effects in the neighborhood?”

2 Determine the Scale of your Survey

At what scale should I survey in order to answer my questions?

When deciding on the scale of the survey, think about whether you need to extend beyond the project area to answer your research question. For example, measuring pedestrian traffic on neighboring streets, or the social activity in a similar public space nearby, might provide useful information about the project area itself. We recommend thinking about scale on three levels: site, neighborhood, and city.

3 Pick the right tools

What tools can be applied to answer my research question?

On our website, you can find public life tools, in the form of templates, to be used for surveys of public spaces and public life. With these tools you can collect “people data” that will provide insight into the impact of your projects, inform stories about this impact, and leverage those stories for change! We recommend mixing and matching tools to best answer your research question. While it isn’t necessary to use each tool, one tool on its own may not provide adequate answers. The best stories are often told when multiple data sets can be drawn on.

To browse the full list of tools, click here.

4 Plan the survey

How do I recruit and organize volunteers? Where and when should I plan my survey?

Estimate what to survey (and where to do it) based on your research questions, framework, and selected tools. Then ask:

  • How many surveyors are needed? Who should be surveyors and how do you recruit them? We also recommend using a Google Sheet or an online provider such as Sign Up Genius. This way, volunteers can sign up for shifts and location before attending the training event or on-site pre-survey training.
  • On which dates should you survey? Think about how people use different places on weekdays and weekends throughout different seasons. Avoid extraordinary weather events or activities to get a sense of what the site is like on an everyday basis.
  • Do you need a before and after survey related to a specific project? If the survey is planned in order to measure the impact of a temporary installation or other changes to a given public space, it is important to collect baseline data to document and understand the impact “before and after.” If you are surveying in an area with very low activity it is important to consider which tools will give you usable data when doing a pre-survey.

Once you’ve answered these questions, you can prepare your survey materials using the provided templates, create the survey schedule, and distribute the tasks to your volunteers.

5 Train the surveyors

How do I train volunteers before the survey?

Pick the right place for the training

For most surveys, it’s ideal to host a training event a day or two in advance with all the volunteers. This works especially well for surveys with many volunteers, since training a lot of people on-site can be very time-consuming. For smaller groups, it may be preferable to do the training on-site prior to surveying. This is less formal and allows for one-on-one questions.

Inform volunteers why you are doing the survey. Provide a short presentation or introduction that explains why you are carrying out this specific survey. Explain the vision that the volunteers are contributing to and what results may come from their work. Get people excited to be a part of something great!

Take people through the process of using the tools to collect data. Provide people with a location, where they can hand in their sheets when they have completed their shifts. Don’t forget to provide people with a phone number to contact if any questions / issues come up while in the field.

6 Execute the survey

I’m ready to carry out a survey! What steps should I follow?

Steps for surveyors:

Be ready to start your shift at the hour instructed. Starting late can skew your entire shift and the data collected.

  • Follow instructions from training. If you have questions, check out the How-To Guides or call your survey manager.
  • Make sure to mark name, hour, weather, location, and date on all your sheets.
  • Hand in sheets after your shift.

Steps for survey managers:

  • Oversee the survey, check in with surveyors and be available for questions.
  • Take photos to document the survey in action and the places being surveyed.
  • Be ready to fill in “no show” shifts or arrange for standby volunteers to fill in.
  • Be ready to cancel the survey if extreme weather conditions occur and be sure to inform all surveyors.

7 Tell stories with data

I’ve successfully completed my survey. Now what?

A bunch of data has now been collected. That’s great! But in order to visualize impact it needs to be more than just numbers. We recommend entering your data into Excel or Google Sheets and creating charts and graphs to display your findings.

Tips for handling your data:

  • Select the most compelling stories, but don’t cherry-pick findings
  • Be honest with the data. Interpret, but don’t misrepresent
  • Keep it simple! Publish data stories together with photos and diagrams; this will resonate stronger with a variety of recipients
  • Compare one variable at a time. If comparing two different locations, make sure you’re not comparing a weekday at one site to a weekend at another site
  • Consider intervening factors. If pedestrian volumes are low in the evening, is the city not supporting nightlife or was it raining?

Synthesize the findings into stories for impact.



Thanks for your interest in studying public life! If you would like to reach out with comments, please email: