William Whyte: The Social Life of Small Urban Places

552476Truly one of the greats of urban planning, I loved this pivotal look at how you study public space and what you learn from the practice.

Not that it’s scintillating reading.

Instead it is steady and deep, and based on actual observation. For instance, their study of the spaces that are most used and where most people sit, after sifting all the evidence they find the one common variable is:

People tend to sit where there are most places to sit.

This may not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, and, now that I look back on our study, I wonder why it was not more apparent to us from the beginning…the most attractive fountains, the most striking designs, cannot induce people to come and sit if there is no place to sit.

The sad reality is that almost no one planning and building public spaces actually fills them with places to sit. The sad fact of common sense, is that design often draws on different understandings of the world that clash with how spaces are actually used and loved. Books like this allow you to bring this up in an educated manner with a weight of evidence behind you.

Or carry out your own study. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, public space is key to our wellbeing and getting it right changes how we live and how we move through the city:

…an elemental point about good urban spaces: supply creates demand. A good new space builds a new constituency. It stimulates people into new habits — al fresco lunches — and provides new paths to and from work, new places to pause. It does all this very quickly. (16)

How to judge the success of a space?  Look for people in groups —  people meet places that are known, that are liked and that are safe. They have decided to go there on purpose. You also look for a higher than average number of women:

Women are more discriminating than men as to where they will sit, more sensitive to annoyances, and women spend more time casting the various possibilities. (18)

This is true I think, as women are more subject to harassment and annoyance. Off-peak use often gives best clues to people’s preferences, people sit wherever they can when a place is jammed but they sit where they like best when it is not.

An interesting note on behaviour, and one that rings true even though I have greater hopes for squares and things:

Plazas are not ideal places for striking up acquaintances, and even on the most sociable of them, there is not much mingling. When strangers are in proximity, the nearest thing to an exchange is what Erving Goffman has called civil inattention.  (19)

But William Whyte notes that activities happening in the space — performances, food vendors, sculpture but particularly performance — make it more likely people will talk to strangers, share thoughts as they share an experience.

I love the insight that people say one thing when asked what they want, but actually they want a particular version of it:

What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people. If I belabor the point, it is because many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true, and that what people liked best were the places they stay away from. People often do talk along such lines; this is why their responses to questionnaires can be so misleading. How many people would say they like to sit in the middle of a crowd? Instead they speak of getting away from it all, and use terms like “escape,” “oasis,” “retreat.” What people do, however, reveals a different priority. (19)

People feel safer in a crowd, less conspicuous, it becomes more of an oasis I think if there are five people in a courtyard establishing its publicness and safety, than if you are alone. Though sometimes I like being alone. There are plenty of insights about sitting here…like it is good to be comfortable. but

It’s more important, however, that it be socially comfortable. This means choice: sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone. (28)

Whyte describes how people always adjust moveable chairs before sitting down, even if it’s just a couple of inches. Hell, I do it too. He writes:

Circulation and sitting, in sum, are not antithetical but complementary.

You walk, you sit, the two go together. And where do you sit? For all the sitters in the world this rings true:

Benches are artifacts the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. They’re not so good for sitting. (33)

He writes about when people stop to talk to someone chance met, they don’t step aside but usually do it ‘smack in the center of the flow’ (21). And damn, that is also so true. And hell of annoying.

What is not to love about this little piece of urban spatial poetry?

Foot movements are consistent, too. They seem to be a sort of silent language. Often, in a shmoozing group no one will be saying anything. Men stand bound in amiable silence, surveying the passing scene. Then, slowly, rhythmically, one of the men rocks up and down: first on the ball of the foot, then back on the heel. He stops. Another man starts the same movement. Sometimes there are reciprocal gestures. One man makes a half turn to the right. Then, after a rhythmic interval, another responds with a half turn t the left. Some kind of communication seems to be taking place here, but I’ve never broken the code. (22)

I don’t know the code either, but I like it.

This explains the horribleness of Wilshire Boulevard’s wind tunnel in Los Angeles, or how damn cold Canary Wharf and other downtown areas get:

…very tall, free-standing towers can generate tremendous drafts down their sides. This has in no way inhibited the construction of such towers, with the result, predictably, that some spaces are frequently uninhabitable. (44)

I agree that you need food, street cafes and I love his love of street vendors, I agree the more the better. I never understood the passion of planners to shut them down. You know them, you talk to people in line, they are vital parts of the community, full of gossip and helping make places safe. I love them. My heart breaks when the police come and destroy everything and take them away.

Anyway, one last comment on the chapter, titled: ‘The Undesirables.’ It could use a better title. The ‘undesirables’ are our people too and that is unkind, yet you know that is how too many people thing of them and this chapter is written for them. To counteract their bum-proof benches and surveillance cameras and gates and spikes and all those horrible things that make you despair of our society.

Whyte writes:

Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino…it is the empty places they prefer; it is in the empty places that they are conspicuous–almost as if, unconsciously, the design was contrived to make them so.

Fear proves itself. (61)

The best way to handle this issue is to make the space attractive to everyone. To have people in them who take care of the space, mediate issues. To understand we are a community and there are other ways to deal with problems than to lock people away or force them elsewhere.

But that is the big fight, no? And this book one tool to fight for public space that promotes sociality, conviviality, community.

[Whyte, William H. (1980) The Social Life of Small Urban Places. Washington D.C.: The Conservation Foundation.]


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