Tuesday, February 16

City: Rediscovering the Center

University of Pennsylvania Press has done a great service by reprinting William H. Whyte's classic text City: Rediscovering the Center. I consider this book to be part of the core of the American urbanist canon, alongside Death and Life if Great American Cities, A Pattern Language, and The City in History.

William Whyte was the foremost empiricist of cities in the 20th century. He sought to turn the planning and design process on its head - to start with detailed observations of how the smallest scale of an urban place is used by people and work outward from there, designing places and writing codes accordingly. City: Rediscovering the Center begins with lessons drawn from sixteen years of meticulously recording plazas, streets, small parks, and marketplaces with time-lapse video and scientifically parsing out the patterns of behavior. Once the basic observations of human nature have been identified, he launches into an evaluation of the health of downtowns in their entirety.

What jumps out right away from Whyte’s study is the attention he pays to the most basic human needs. How does the provision of food impact the life of a place? Where do people use the bathroom? How can one find light on a cool day and shade on a sunny day? In other words, he doesn't travel very far up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which I find to be a refreshingly humble and practical disposition toward the power of physical space in our lives. He never reaches for transcendence by design; that’s reserved for what happens in these places.

This leads to Whyte’s most important insight of all, one that really underscores each chapter of the book, that is: people want to be around other people. We are inherently social beings. As simple as this insight seems, it actually ran head on against the prevailing notion in planning at the time that people want as much space for themselves as possible. Whyte noticed that not only did friends clump together when sitting in a plaza, but even strangers tended to take seats in reasonable proximity to each other rather than evenly disperse themselves throughout the space. Well-used places were safer, both in perception and reality. People who stopped for conversation on sidewalks would typically not step out of the way, preferring to be in the center of movement. Parks and sidewalks that were outsized for their activity tended to swallow up its life and repel visitors. People like to be crowded, but not too much.

Whyte’s design principles are simple and flow naturally from these foundations:

  • People want places to sit. Steps are the best way to provide this, and there are specific proportions that can either encourage or detract from their use. Movable chairs offer a flexible counterpart to steps, and they won’t get stolen if they are cheap enough and locked up at night.
  • People want things to look at. Storefront facades have to be designed to pull in onlookers with entrances that form a seamless transition between the street and building. It’s good for business and good for the city. Street trees, the larger the better, are terrific implants of nature into the heart of the city. Playful art is the best public art.
  • Exclusion leads to unintended consequences. Impromptu street theater and music, illegal vendors and eccentric characters all add to the life of the street rather than detract from it. Attempts to discourage “undesirables” (his name for the indigent population), such as using spikes to prevent sitting, end up making the place inhospitable to everyone. Defensive enclosure does more to keep criminals in and well-hidden than it does to keep them out.
  • Places are used differently at different times. Because of the movement of the sun, outdoor places will be used more during different times of the day depending also on the season. The city should protect its light from tall and wide buildings, but buildings can also be used to reflect light if placed well. The cycle of the traditional work day and home life will dictate the primary hours of use.
  • Places need ongoing management. Although most people will walk a reasonable distance before throwing away trash, there will always need to be regular cleaning. Special events should be arranged, particularly to fill in time slots that are underutilized.
  • Separation of vehicles and pedestrians usually favors vehicles. Skywalks and underground concourses force pedestrians either up or down a level and can suck the life out of a street. They can be useful in cold climates, but only as a complement to the street. Pedestrian malls are usually too wide or too long to be successful.
The latter half of the book is much more sporadic but that’s alright. He’s developed his model and now he applies it to a variety of problems contemporary to 1988. Each chapter raises a different debate over the future of cities in the United States, and he weighs in quite resolutely for a particular position.

Remarkably, he happens to get almost all of his predictions correct (at least in my opinion):
  • He notes the “corporate exodus” to the suburban office park in the 80’s but insists that the most creative firms will still not be able to live without the vitality and constant interactions of the city.
  • Five years before Joel Garreau wrote Edge Cities, Whyte describes the phenomenon with at least as much precision and insight. He calls them “Semi-cities” (I'm not sure why the strange term “edge city” was the one to stick). He predicts that they will need to be shaped into the form of a traditional town, with a strong center and opportunities for walking. This is exactly what Tyson’s Corner is moving toward now.
  • He compares the two transit movements of the 80’s: light rail and the people-mover. He sees much promise in light rail, but not people-movers. He considers the overhead structures to be cumbersome. When was the last people-mover installed?
  • He forsees the predictions that communication technology will bring about the “the new geography,” allowing everyone to living in isolation in the suburbs or rural areas. He concludes that face-to-face contact will be as necessary as ever. This decentralization forecast was popular in the 90’s but reality has gone the opposite direction.
  • He warns against downtowns competing with the suburbs on suburban terms, by building self-enclosed megastructures in the heart of the city. He tells cities to play to their strengths of street life and integration.
  • Well before The High Cost of Free Parking, Whyte points to parking as the single most destructive force in the life of cities. He advises municipalities to switch from requiring it in large amounts to limiting it and allowing the highest and best use for downtown parcels.


CarFree Stupidity said...

Just received this book from Amazon... thanks for the overview as it doesn't appear I'll need to read it.

Joanna said...

The full text of this is also available through Google Books :)

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