“It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.“—William H. Whyte
Ever wonder why the plaza in front of the American Life building is always desolate while the plaza at the National City Tower (Fifth and Market) often teems with life? William H. Whyte knows. Whyte was a journalist, sociologist, and people-watcher whose study of the way we interact in urban spaces left an important mark on how we view the city. (I mentioned him earlier when he appeared on a list of noted urban thinkers.)
One of his most important works, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, helped to clarify our behaviors in the city, from the simple children’s play lot to the modernist skyscraper plaza. He observes how people congregate, where they sit, and what factors attract and repel people from particular spaces. His findings, I have found, also prove true in my own observation of the city.
One subtle behavior you can test out for yourself is how people mimic posture and stance in conversation. Talk to someone near a set of steps and casually place your foot on another step. Whyte observed that, in most cases, the other person will reciprocate and also place his or her foot on the adjacent step as well. You are in essence forcing the person you’re talking to to chance stance unknowingly.
Another of my favorite observations involves movable public furniture, such as a folding chair (as opposed to a bench). Whyte notices that when someone moves to sit down in the chair, he or she will move it. This shift could be an ever so slight turn in direction or a change of several feet. By moving the chair, one creates a personalized space and a feeling of ownership in his or her surroundings. Bryant Park in New York with its famous folding chairs is a classic place to watch this behavior unfold over and over again.
Watching these behaviors naturally play out and understanding why we interact in such subtle ways is quite fascinating. It’s one thing to simply move through the city as we all do, but to suddenly see before your eyes the invisible behaviors that are playing out is a powerful way to view public space.
Whyte created a film as well as a book detailing these observation, beginning with the plaza in front of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram’s Building in Manhattan. (Check out the the video broken into segments on YouTube. h/t Tropolism) I had the opportunity to have lunch in this plaza several times this summer and was able to recount some of his initial observations from decades ago. People behave the same today as then. You could, of course, watch any urban space in any city and come away with similar observations.
Back in Louisville, we have quite a few small urban spaces mixed throughout Downtown and elsewhere, some better designed than others. Many are hanging on by just a thread, showing just how much poor design people will put up with. Seagrams’ plaza and the American Life plaza were designed by the same architect, Mies van der Rohe, but their quality as urban spaces is drastically different.
What are your observations of small urban spaces whether it’s a pocket park, an urban plaza, or simply the sidewalk? What are your favorite and least favorite spots and what contributes to their successes and failures? Perhaps one day we can determine what exactly it would take to transform all of these spaces into vibrant pedestrian places.