The Public Life Diversity Toolkit

Gehl Institute developed a suite of tools, research, and training materials focused on the relationship between the design of public spaces and the socioeconomic diversity of the public life they support.

At its core, the project was about inspiring urban designers and planners to think more critically about who feels welcome to spend time in public space, and how to better design for inclusion. The final result was a free, downloadable report, the Public Life Diversity Toolkit, and handful of new, accessible research tools, including the Social Space Survey.

As US society grows more polarized between rich and poor, and cities grapple with the strains of economic inequality, public space remains a place where people with mixed backgrounds and incomes can come together. Diversity and serendipity are core to trust, civility, and democracy in our cities. But oftentimes, the only tool planners and advocates have to talk about inequality and social mixing is census information based on where people live – not where they spend their time. In 2015, we asked: If we care about social mixing in public space, why don’t we have the tools to measure it?

To address this question, the Public Life Diversity Toolkit contains new approaches to researching and designing for socioeconomic diversity in public space. It is a resource for designers, planners, and others who are interested in making public spaces more open and inviting to people of different races, incomes, genders, religions, and ages.

Initially, the project focused on social mixing, considering the role that design, policy, and programming play in creating opportunities for people to interact and spend time together outside their homes, cars, and places of work. Throughout the first year of the project, our research team prototyped a set of tools to identify where social mixing happens, and the types of design and programming cues that invite these interactions. The resulting tools could then be applied by communities and civic leaders to advocate for more dynamic shared spaces in their cities. Developing the tools required breaking down the components of public life and the built environment (shown below as life and form) that encourage social activity between both friends and strangers.

In our field studies, we considered three questions:

  1. Do people from different socioeconomic groups spend time in this place?
  2. Are people having spontaneous social encounters in this space, and do people recognize their neighbors and other ‘familiar strangers’?
  3. If yes, what prompted these social interactions?  

We investigated these questions using three approaches that build on the Gehl methodology:

  • First, an Intercept Survey (later renamed Participant Survey) to capture anonymous, nuanced information from a small group of people about who they are demographically (in terms of race, gender, income, neighborhood, etc.) and if they met new people, or saw people they recognized, in the public space.
  • Second, tools for observational analysis on who was socializing in the public space at one given point in time, including the Age & Gender Tally and Stationary Activity Mapping.
  • Third, a new Census for City Streets tool that used Instagram to determine the geographic mix of a place at any point in time, based on who was posting photos to the social media platform.

After a year of collecting and analyzing data, Gehl Institute published its report: The Public Life Diversity Toolkit. It features the new tools, information on their testing, and writings on the basic philosophy underpinning their development.

The second year of research placed less emphasis on measuring interaction between people with different identities in public space, and instead focused more on belonging and coexistence. For example, was the public space in question accessible and welcoming to multiple publics? If so, does its design offer spaces where people can spend time together?

In terms of tool development, the research team chose to further prototype some of the tools while combining, or leaving unfinished, others. For example, an earlier tool, the Familiar Stranger Survey, was folded into the Participant Survey.

Stemming from this work, Gehl Institute published the Social Space Survey: a worksheet for evaluating how the design and program of a public space can foster coexistence between different types of people. To use the survey, one has to simply spend time in the space, note what they see there, and then diagram the relationship between built elements and social activity there. It can be used by individual researchers to gain a first impression on the qualities of a public space, or be used in a workshop setting with a community group.


Have you used the Public Life Diversity Toolkit and/or the Social Space Survey?

If so, we would love to hear from you. Please reach out to