Round the Square – Social Design of Cities

Humans have been living in cities for roughly ten millennia, but it can often seem that civilization hasn’t gotten much better at building them in a way that generates happiness. Whether citizens are packed uncomfortably together in the favelas of Brazil or alienated from each other in the sprawl of the New Jersey suburbs, bad urban planning can make a community nearly unlivable. Yet the way a well-designed city space generates vibrant culture, peaceful relxation, or unexpected encounters can make it the pride of the community. By taking a careful look at the qualities of successful urban spaces, American “urbanologist” William Whyte aimed to inform the efforts of future city planners.

Favelas of Brazil, courtesy of Eflon

In 1970, Whyte was hired by the New York Planning Commission as a consultant for the city’s new construction projects. Discouraged by the lack of information on the use of existing public spaces, Whyte assembled a team of sociology students from Hunter College, located in the heart of Manhattan, and dubbed his group The Street Life Project. The researchers spent countless hours on the streets of the city, quantifying the aspects of pedestrian behavior and interaction. In one instance, Whyte and his students observed the locations of lengthy conversations amidst the bustle outside Saks Fifth Avenue; to their surprise, the majority of meetings took place where traffic was busiest, at either the street corner or the entrance of the store.

Whyte’s observations, courtesy of Dysonology

Moving into the parks and plazas of New York, Whyte’s team noted the design characteristics that stimulated the most human interaction. Too much seating, for example, stifled the flow of people; “one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of plaza” was most effective. Distinct areas of sun and shade attracted people more than a consistently illuminated area. In perhaps his most interesting finding, Whyte determined that the traditional measures used to combat the presence of “undesirables” were ineffective. Adding more police and security cameras or spiking ledges to prevent loitering merely discouraged legitimate use of the space. As he reports in his book, “City: Rediscovering the Center,” increasing the space’s attractiveness through features such as public restrooms increases the standards of behavior.

Whyte eventually released a report of his findings, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” and a short film with the same title, which can be viewed in its entirety online. Today, the Project for Public Spaces champions the ideals of The Street Life Project, working to make cities across the globe more livable through the concept of “placemaking,” the collaborative design of spaces to meet the local goals of citizens. These efforts are encouraged by Whyte’s own words: “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”


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