Places for People 2004, released in August of this year, is the ‘latest instalment’ in Melbourne City Council’s long-term urban plan. Since the early 1990s, this has seen the consistent application of a range of urban design strategies and individual initiatives of varying scales. Importantly, it has focused on achievable actions and aimed at reinforcing the existing, authentic characteristics of the city – such as the subtle influence of the city’s topography and the established patterns of nineteenth and early twentieth century development related to that topography and the Hoddle Grid – to underline its cultural identity and create a socially and economically thriving city centre.
Alongside Copenhagen, Melbourne is believed to be the only other city in the world to have a formal research program for public life, with data collected over more than one decade. Places for People is an ongoing study examining the character, range and variety of public places, supported by surveys into the ways in which people use these spaces. The research methodology, developed by Jan Gehl and refined over many years, has qualitative and quantitative dimensions. It combines pedestrian traffic counts and surveys of stationary activities (behavioural mapping) with detailed assessment and mapping of the urban environment, particularly the types and distribution of public places and pedestrian connections, built form, street furniture, and many other factors that enliven urban quality and character, such as street level facades and urban art.
Applying precisely the same methodology used to analyse the uses of Melbourne’s public spaces in Places for People: Melbourne City 1994, has enabled Council in 2004-05 to evaluate what specifically has changed, and which of these changes has been most beneficial in supporting the public life of the city. This research also contributes to a greater understanding of how to make people-friendly spaces that are inviting, comfortable, accessible, equitable, safe, secure and meaningful.
Places for People studies the social activities that people engage in when not walking – such as standing, sitting, watching, leaning, listening, and playing and so on. These activities are a very strong indicator of the quality of an urban space to linger in for its own sake. A large number of pedestrians walking in the city does not necessarily indicate a high level of urban quality. However a substantial number of people choosing to spend time in the city is proof of a lively and attractive public realm. Again, very few cities in either Australia or overseas have information collected on stationary activities, especially over time.
Through its rigorous research, analysis and planning, Places for People highlights how essential public life is to creating successful urban places, and that the process of design is superior when founded on systematic research into patterns of use and urban conditions.