Santa Monica creates first city well-being index in the US

Gehl Institute – Five keys to a healthy and liveable city


Copenhagen observes and records data on the behaviour of bicyclists in order to inform investments in cycling infrastructure. (Kristoffer Trolle/Wikimedia Commons/cc)
1. Public life is what happens in public spaces, on streets, and in between buildings.
2. Public life thrives when all people can enjoy being in public together.
3. A vibrant public life promotes health, makes our cities safer, can lead to more civic engagement, can create economic opportunity and mobility, builds social capital, and connects people to their local communities.
4. Cities that have a vibrant public life are more competitive and attract and retain talent.
5. Public life needs to be tended to by
a) paying attention to how people feel about public spaces and what they do there;
b) by designing streets and public spaces that encourage social activity; and
c) by changing the policies, processes, and practices of a city to be more people-centered.

The world’s cities today are facing multiple challenges, from exposure to climate change to concerns about social segregation to deepening health crises.What’s more, these issues are profoundly interrelated. Urban planning policies that have prioritized cars over walking or bicycling simultaneously worsen air pollution, lengthen commutes and contribute to incidence of “urban diabetes”, which the World Health Organisation has called “a new urban epidemic”.With public finances under stress worldwide, one thing’s for sure: Allocating municipal money to tackling these issues separately isn’t just ineffective — it’s unaffordable.

So how can cities address these challenges in a holistic way?  Urban planners, engineers and architects from Barcelona, Bengaluru, Bogotá, Cape Town, Vancouver and several other cities met to investigate how cities can become simultaneously healthier and more livable while limiting carbon emissions. The gathering in Copenhagen was part of a partnership between Gehl, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and Novo Nordisk’s Cities Changing Diabetes programme.

Using Copenhagen as a laboratory, we walked and cycled the city and spoke with local officials about how Copenhagen became a world-class example of a healthy and livable city. We learned how Copenhagen overcame barriers to walking and cycling projects, such as safety concerns, technical design, and maneuvering the local political context. We also discussed innovative practices in other global cities.

Each city came with a project back home to share and develop. Despite their very different local contexts, the city leaders faced similar challenges: a lack of technical expertise, trouble with data collection and difficulty in communicating the goals of pedestrian and bicycle projects to citizens and departments heads alike.

Five major themes emerged from our discussions and site visits — takeaways that all cities can learn from. Many of these themes are drawn from A Mayor’s Guide to Public Life, a book published by the non-profit Gehl Institute.

1. Measure what people do — right where they do it

Most cities have detailed data on cars, such as the number of cars on the road, travel time, areas prone to congestion, or the number of traffic accidents. However, cities have not traditionally collected what we call people-centred metrics — data on how people use and move through public space.When you measure where people choose to spend time in public spaces, as well as what they do there, you get a better sense of which design or policy changes might best contribute to a city’s or neighbourhood’s public life. Collecting people-centred data enables city leaders to make an evidence-based case for change, create buzz for projects and persuade sceptics to get on board. Such data can also reveal previously invisible or overlooked patterns.That’s exactly what New York City did before making big changes to the layout of its famous Times Square. One key finding was that 90 percent of the space in Times Square was dedicated to cars, even though 90 percent of the movement through the area actually took place on foot. Based on this new data, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg created new public spaces along Broadway and re-routed car traffic. The new public spaces and pedestrianization of Times Square transformed the area’s public life, increasing the number of people who stayed in public spaces by 84 percent and improving vehicular flows along main avenues.

2. Put people first

People can sense where they are wanted. Signals surround us telling us whether or not we are welcome, such as “do not linger” signs or a lack of public seating in beautiful urban places. To put people first, every person needs to feel that they are welcome to participate in the creation and design of their city and to participate in public life — what we do collectively or alone — when we are not at home, work, or in our car.Citizen engagement is the key to putting people first. A great example comes from Pittsburgh, where Mayor Bill Peduto has begun inviting city residents to meet with him and his staff through a programme called “Mayor’s Night Out”. These events are opportunities for the mayor and city staff to meet citizens in different neighbourhoods and invite them to voice ideas and concerns. Similarly, a “Mayor’s Night In” programme opens the doors to City Hall, inviting residents to visit offices of top city officials and share their thoughts. The success of these events is evidence of the results of putting people first by nurturing a two-way communication and democratizing the city-making process.

3. Do test projects

While understanding the value of public life is crucial, actually implementing design and policy changes that improve public spaces for everyone is easier said than done. That’s why action-oriented planning is so important. This is a process of learning from pilot projects or interventions by testing them out and seeing what works before making long-term investments.An example of an action-oriented approach to city building comes from Denver. The city’s 16th Street Mall, though a street for pedestrians and buses only, offered few reasons for people to spend much time there or spend money with retailers on the street. To show that the street was worthy of transformation and investment, the Downtown Denver Partnership created a temporary event called “Meet in the Street”, a street fair with locally produced art, food, and cultural activities.After piloting the programme on two Sundays, data showed that overall pedestrian activity levels increased upwards of 62 percent, and the number of people sitting outdoors increased by 194 percent. The event was later expanded to run over five weekends throughout the summer.

4. Formalize this approach

While enhancing a single park or street is worthwhile, the broader goal for mayors should be institutionalizing people-centred approaches in government and civil society. This means finding ways to turn temporary interventions into more formalized efforts that can spread the culture of putting people first across city departments.Copenhagen does this through an annual process of collecting data that is used to guide major public investments. It started in the 1990s with a strategy called a “bicycle account” — the behaviour of bicyclists was observed and recorded in order to inform investments in cycling infrastructure. The strategy has become a formal, evidence-based component of the city’s mobility framework.Now, city officials have expanded on this with something called a “public life account”. A team is tasked with collecting data on how people are using public spaces and tracking progress over time. In 2015, the city found 20 percent more people spent time in public spaces compared to 2010. And 80 percent of residents felt satisfied with the public realm. The yearly collection of data has allowed Copenhagen to institutionalize the evaluation of public life and align its policies and investments in public space accordingly.

5. Ask better questions

If we want better cities, we need to ask better questions. When it comes to bicycling, for example, too many cities are content to simply ask how many kilometres of bike lanes they have, or how much money has been invested in them. Instead, they should be asking, as New York City does, how much more cycling is occurring. What’s more, they should hold themselves accountable by publishing their findings for the public to see.To get good answers, all actors in a city must have a stake in asking the questions. For city leaders, it isn’t just about inviting more people to the table, but also re-imagining what the “table” actually is and being sincere about the power dynamics formed at those meetings. City leaders need to put themselves on the line by targeting outcomes that may be out of their direct control. Architects and engineers need to be more critical in engaging with the “whys” and “to what ends”. Citizens need to be empowered to exercise their voice by conducting public consultations in a shared, people-centred language of what matters. And businesses need to recognize that the city is an important stage for their employees, their customers, and their stakeholders.For too long, human beings have been overlooked or even excluded in urban strategy. Starting with the people who live in a city as the common denominator can bring solutions, simultaneously, to many of the challenges that cities face. Now is the time to add people back into the equation.**


If you want to understand how to improve public spaces in your city, don’t start from scratch. Start with measuring.

When you measure how many and where people choose to spend time in public spaces, as well as what they do based on their current options, you get a better sense of which design or policy changes might best contribute to a city or neighborhood’s public life. People-centered metrics enable you to make an evidence-based case for change, creating buzz for projects and persuading skeptics to get on board. Such data can also reveal previously invisible or overlooked patterns to city agencies. 

Of course, measuring people tells only part of the story. It should be combined with surveys, various forms of engagement, and collecting quantitative data on the physical makeup of public spaces. It’s also important to be ethical about data collection—for example, keeping identities anonymous and making the data available to the public. Measure what people do — right where they do it

  1. Bringing new people into the city planning process can be tough. The channels through which citizens communicate their needs to city leaders are traditionally limited and often cater to a narrow section of the general populace. To expand and diversify the voices engaging in city-making, leaders need to find new ways of soliciting feedback and incorporating residents into the development process. One option for city leaders is to go to the people, rather than expecting the people to come to them. By meeting people where they are, as part of their everyday routine out in the city, city leaders can better understand how the built environment, policies, and regulations directly affect people’s behavior and sense of place.
  2. Define success through people-centered metricsThere is an old business adage that “you measure what you care about.” Most cities have detailed data on cars, such as the number of cars on the road, travel time, areas prone to congestion, or the number and types of traffic accidents. Cities have not, however, traditionally collected what we call people-centered metrics, or metrics based on how people use and move through public space. This has resulted in a one-sided understanding about how cities should be planned, often leading to pedestrian-unfriendly urban renewal efforts. To gain a holistic understanding of your city—including the actions, behaviors, and needs of residents—you need to collect people-centered data. Asking “when, where, and who” is the first step in understanding how to prioritize public-realm investments and how they affect people.


Citizens are often asked to weigh in on how projects should take shape, but this engagement typically takes place only after the projects have already been defined. Citizens are asked, for example, whether they prefer “option 1, 2, or 3” but do not have a say in what types of projects they actually want to see implemented. The format and timing of this engagement generally caters to a narrow portion of the population and fosters an environment in which NIMBYism can flourish. By inviting more people to constructively participate in the planning process, engagement not only becomes more inclusive, but also more effective. 

  1. Provide a deliberate invitation to people to participate in the processPeople can sense where they are wanted. We are surrounded by signals large and small that tell us whether or not we are welcome. To foster public life, every person needs to feel that they are welcome to participate in the creation and design of public spaces and to participate in public life. Widespread awareness among constituents of how decisions are made, where meetings take place, and how to attend is crucial in drawing out feedback to improve public life.
  2. Invite participation by reducing barriers

    Reducing barriers to participation is central to making people feel they are truly invited to be a part of the planning process. A park is only welcoming if it is easy to access and comfortable to spend time in. Similarly, people won’t speak up if they feel that they won’t be listened to. Rather than expecting citizens to come to them, city leaders must go to citizens in order to receive more diverse input. Moving public meetings directly to project sites, convening open forums on a regular basis, providing American Sign Language translators, and being flexible and open to addressing unique, neighborhood-specific agendas rather than standardized city agency priorities can all help ensure constructive insight from diverse groups.


While understanding the value of public life is crucial, actually implementing design and policy changes that improve public spaces for everyone is easier said than done. In the “Invite” section, we described ways to proactively incorporate the voices of different stakeholders into the city-making process. Here, we describe action-oriented approaches to producing real outcomes in space: starting with temporary interventions that build on what already exists but always working toward long-term, systemic change.

  1. Be experimental with low-cost, low-risk test projects

    It can be difficult for mayors to connect with their constituents and to listen properly. There are thousands of interests and competing priorities that must be navigated. The processes through which citizens communicate their needs to city leaders are traditionally limited and cater to a narrow group of the population. For example, focus groups that cater to angry older people and a couple engaged hipsters do not reflect the diverse needs of a community. To expand and diversify the voices engaging in city making, leaders need to find new ways of soliciting feedback and bring citizens closer to engaging in the development process. Increasing connection to citizens is an important step to to measuring what people do, where they do it.

  2. Build on what already exists in a place

    It’s easy to overlook local assets that exist in your own backyard. Landmarks, access to open space, known institutions, or community centers may not have an immediate relationship to the big vision or project guidelines, but they can be key building blocks. Similarly, people and the activities they already do in public spaces—whether or not they are permitted—can be built upon. Sitting on ledges, cutting across lawns, turning chairs around to face the street, barbecuing, even skateboarding—these are all things that signal personal desires for specific uses of public space. Rather than starting from scratch, identify existing assets and build upon what people are already doing. Welcome people and their ideas.




Projects for improving public spaces should be approached with flexibility. They can be broken down into multiple stages, with each stage involving an evaluation process, thus allowing the projects to improve over the course of their implementation by responding to previously unknown conditions. This strategy not only makes the projects more sensitive to dynamics on the ground, but also enables greater experimentation for designers, event programmers, and agency staff. Moreover, it allows residents to voice their feedback at multiple project stages.

  1. Allocate sufficient funding for project evaluations at each iteration

    While it’s easy to embrace the ethos of the Jane Jacobs quote “the city is never finished,” it’s more difficult to make this a reality with funding and resources. Breaking down the project-delivery timeline into several iterations can reveal what’s possible, create memorable shared experiences for residents, and inform future concepts. Furthermore, inviting citizens to test initiatives directly (before a large investment is made) can reduce risk and help ensure investments are used most effectively to maximize positive impact. The ways in which citizens use a project—ways that are often unimagined and unintended by the project instigators—are crucial to determining its success. Project monitoring, evaluation, and reimagining should be an ongoing process because the way people use the city is constantly evolving. Our city-making projects should embrace, and plan for, the notion that the city is never finished.

  2. Make it easier for citizen input to be positive, meaningful, and constructive

    Traditional development processes place difficult demands on citizens, expecting them to understand complex drawings and concepts and provide meaningful input with incomplete information. Instead, ask citizens questions such as, “What is your favorite place in the city and why?” And: “Which of the city qualities identified do you want to see more of in your neighborhood?” Citizens can provide feedback on topics they are experts in. Responses to these questions are naturally more action-oriented and create opportunities for citizens to define the success criteria for projects.




While enhancing a single park or street is worthwhile, the broader goal for mayors should be institutionalizing people-centered approaches in government and civic society. Cities can be more vibrant, equitable, and livable when measuring and interviewing the people who are most affected by projects is a built-in component of the planning process. Such an approach is not only possible, but has proved highly successful at the city scale.

  1. Implement a culture of people-centered approaches

    Use people-centered metrics and tactics to cultivate a higher quality of life for all residents. When people are made visible in the data gathering of every city agency, the built environment becomes more livable and accommodating to the human scale.

  2. Find a method of institutionalizing change

    In an era of tactical urbanism, cities run the risk of shortchanging citizens by ending projects in the trial stage. Public-realm improvements must be more substantially invested in and made permanent. Early successes during the “Do” stage of short-term projects must be leveraged into medium- and long-term policies and developments to ultimately move from evolution to formalization. In this way, a whole culture of putting people first spread across departments, with the evaluation of public life now institutionalized cross the city.


The strategies and case studies offered in this guide are meant to inspire mayors to take action. We hope that the prescribed formula—Measure, Invite, Do, Evolve, Formalize—can make executing projects in public spaces easier and help initiate cultural shifts at city governments that prioritize the human-scale, social dimensions of the built environment.Today, many cities are beginning to recognize the importance of public life and are implementing policies and design interventions to foster more pedestrian-friendly commercial districts and central parks, in particular. This is an exciting development, but we want to conclude by also stressing the importance of equity in relation to public spaces. It’s crucial to invest in areas far from tourist destinations, in the spaces of everyday life for non-elite residents, in ways that are always informed by local priorities. Meanwhile, public spaces that are more centrally located should belong to everyone, and their design and programming must reflect this.Mayors have to balance many conflicting interests for their constituents and manage day-to-day operations while planning for the future. Yet all the work they do fundamentally contributes to ensuring that public spaces serve as a platform for people to thrive, and there are few greater legacies a mayor can leave behind than to invest in the city’s public life.

About Gehl InstituteGehl Institute’s mission is to transform the way cities are shaped by making public life an intentional driver for design, policy, and governance. We believe that in order to make cities more equitable and just, public spaces should be made more accessible and welcoming to more people. Our interdisciplinary work combines research, advocacy, and network-building.First launched in 2015 by Gehl, a privately held urban design practice based in Copenhagen with offices in San Francisco and New York City, Gehl Institute has set up independent operations as a 501(c)(3) in New York City.