William H. (Holly) Whyte


William H. Whyte (1917-1999) was an urbanist, author, and teacher who worked and lived in New York City. He is the author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces which summarized his groundbreaking work observing the social patterns of individuals interacting in public spaces of urban centers. He is also the author of the classic book, The Organization Man, which defined corporate conformity and the suburban middle class, and warned against its growth and acceptance in American life. Whyte worked and is often associated with Jane Jacobs; Paco Underhill, who has applied the same technique to measuring and improving retail environments; Dan Biederman of Bryant Park Corporation, who led the renovation of Bryant Park and the Business Improvement District movement in New York City; and Fred Kent, head of the Project for Public Spaces.

THE STREET LIFE PROJECTholly_whyte_medium.jpeg

The Street Life Project began in 1969 while Mr. Whyte was assisting the New York City Planning Commission. His work with the Commission led him question why some public spaces were consistently in use by people, while others remained relatively empty throughout the day. During this time, plazas began to accompany large commercial buildings throughout New York City due to a new zoning resolution in 1961. The resolution gave an incentive bonus to builders to create public space: for each square foot of plaza, builders could add ten square feet of commercial floor space, over what was permitted by zoning codes. In what began as a casual observance of plaza spaces, Whyte noticed large and inexplicable discrepancies in the use and street life of various plazas. Whyte also realized that long-term observational studies had not yet been employed in understanding public spaces within New York City. Putting aside his work with the Commission, Whyte began the Street Life Project. With a team of research assistants, camera and notebook in hand, Whyte conducted pioneering studies on pedestrian behavior and breakthrough research on city dynamics. Whyte ultimately spent sixteen years observing city streets, always using a variety of creative methods, such as charting peak hours by hand or using time-lapse photography to illustrate the movement of people throughout the day. Such careful, plodding, and methodological research has shown that there is a science to urban life and movement. What often works best for a public space is humanly intuitive, belying grandiose design, and revealing the simplicity of design for people. Because of such findings, the Street Life Project was able to recommend to New York City a comprehensive zoning amendment in 1975 that required plazas to be amenable to the public.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

In 1980, Whyte published a summary of The Street Life Project's findings and research in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. The book's friendly tone and succinct summaries of the project's many years of documentation serve as an accessible guide to the public on street life and public spaces. Despite being over two decades old, much of what is included still stands true to the making of a successful public space. It is broken down into the following sections: plazas; sitting space; sun, wind, trees, and water; food; the street; the "undesirables"; effective capacity; indoor spaces; concourses and megastructures; smaller cities and places; and triangulation.

Plazas

800px-wstm_zefferus_0230.jpgInspired, but puzzled, by the popularity of the plaza for the Seagram Building, Whyte began to study and compare the social life of plazas throughout New York City. While accessible to anyone, plazas typically function as a space for young office workers in nearby buildings to enjoy the outdoor air during their lunch break. Plazas are in use throughout the day, with a peak in activity during the lunchtime rush from noon until 2:00 P.M. Plazas usually go dead by 6:00 P.M. Whyte believed that, "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" [1]. Within a successful plaza, Whyte found a higher proportion of couples, larger groupings of people, and more people meeting people or wishing each other farewell. Whyte found that at five of the most-used plazas in New York City, the proportion of people in groups was around 45%; in five of the least used plazas, people in groups only counted for 32%. When a plaza serves the purpose as a landmark for meeting people or parting ways, as well as containing a higher proportion of couples or large groups, it indicates selectivity. Or, in other words, that people have made a purposeful decision to meet there over somewhere else.

Whyte also discovered that a well-used plaza will have a higher than average proportion of women. As a rule of thumb, the male-female ration in a popular plaza should reflect the composition of the work force. Women, Whyte noted, are "more discriminating than men as to where they will sit, more sensitive to annoyances, and women spend more time casting the various possibilities" (SLSUS, 18). If there is a noticeable dip in the number of women present, there is a good reason to believe something is wrong. Conversely, if there is a high concentration of women, the plaza is working well as a public space.

Sitting Space

800px-wstm_three_blind_mice_0017.jpgIn considering the variables in creating a well-used public space in an urban setting, Whyte came to the intuitive conclusion that people are more likely to congregate where there are places to sit. Surprisingly, the freedom to choose where to sit in a public space is more important to an individual than the comfort or aesthetics of a seat. The benefit, in Whyte's words, of social space is social comfort. People enjoy the freedom to sprawl, to create a barrier between themselves and others at lunch or a passerby on the street. They also depend on being able to choose between sitting in the sun or the shade, depending on the time of the year and the temperature of the weather. This type of social freedom is more valuable to people than sitting somewhere that may be more comfortable, or interesting to look at. A colorful, comfortable bench affixed to the ground may spruce up the appearance of the plaza from the perspective of an architect, but its static placement is unappealing to people who actually use the space. Whyte's observations led him to conclude that there are specific factors that play a considerable role in the functionality of a plaza as a public space for people.


  • Ledges and Steps: Ledges and steps are an example of what Whyte calls "integral sitting." This means that sitting space is already an existing element of a building's design, or inherent in the building's presence. The ledges surrounding fountains, gardens or sculptures, for instance, can easily become a spontaneous chair, table, or both. Whyte rallied against the plazas where ledges were rendered impossible for public use - spaces where ledges were made too high and bulky to sit upon, or where railings were installed along the top surface of the ledge. "Most ledges are inherently sittable," Whyte wrote, "but with a little ingenuity and additional expense they can be made unsittable" (SLSUS, 29). In other words, it does not take much work to create integral sitting space in a plaza. The Street Life Project also observed that people were not picky in the types of ledges available for sitting. As long as the ledge was flat, and the width was wide enough to fit the average backside, people would sit comfortably.
  • Benches: Whyte derided benches as artifacts whose purpose "is to punctuate architectural photographs" (SLSUS, 33). Often rooted to the ground, benches are too few in number, too small, or too closely grouped together for individuals to feel comfortable. They may also be removed from whatever action is happening on the plaza. Whyte strongly felt that architects and planners defaulted to using benches because of their aesthetic appeal: benches give a plaza the false appearance of being suitable for sitting, when in fact their static placement belies social comfort and mobility.
  • Movable Chairs: Whyte loved the movable chair. To him, movable chairs 800px-wstm_zefferus_0138.jpgrepresented an ideal combination of comfort and choice: not only do they possess both an armrest and a back that is great for sitting, but they also are easy to move around in order to adjust for the sitter's temperament -- be it in the sun, the shade, to form large groups, or to break off as an individual. Whyte also appreciated the subtle signals a movable chair communicated between strangers. He wrote, "If a newcomer chooses a chair next to a couple or a larger group, he may make some intricate moves. Again, he may not take the chair very far, but he conveys a message. Sorry about the closeness, but there's no room elsewhere, and I am going to respect your privacy, as you will mine." (SLSUS, 35)

Food

Whyte discovered a strong correlation between the lively social life of a plaza and the presence of food. In a semi-controlled experiment at a new plaza, Whyte observed a dramatic change in social life with the addition of a food cart. Without the food cart, few people used the plaza. After the food cart was introduced, the volume of people using the plaza increased. The flurry of activity led to the arrival of more food carts, and commercial business picked up around the area. Finally, the plaza's management had the building's restaurant open an outdoor cafe, transforming Whyte's small experiment into a permanent success.

Whyte strongly encouraged incorporating food into all plazas and parks as a zoning requirement. While the Planning Commission eventually decided to forgo this requirement, Whyte changed the way food kiosks and vendors were treated by the city. What was once considered obstructions to public spaces became part of the solution in transforming a park or plaza into a popular destination.

The Street

Whyte observed that a few key features were essential to creating symbiotic activity between the street and a plaza or park. According to Whyte, "A good plaza begins at the street corner" (SLSUS, 54), where the busy pace creates a natural flow of foot traffic. Available sitting space draws people from the corner into the plaza. The connectivity between the street and the plaza also creates a lively, theatrical energy between passersby and seated individuals.

Retail space is also important: stores with large window displays, advertising signs, open doorways, and foot traffic are preferable to the office lobbies and windowless ground floor walls that can make the street dull and lifeless.

Finally, Whyte observed that the area where the street and plaza meet is important to the the space's perceived accessibility and appeal. Ideally, the transition between street and plaza should be imperceptible, and inspire pedestrians to stop and enter on a whim. Often, a slight elevation between the street and the park can be welcoming. Examples of such spaces are Paley Park, Greenacre Park, and Seagram's plaza. However, It is important that the plaza or park be visible from the street, and that it fall within a pedestrian's sightline. Bryant Park was once too removed from the street and was dubbed "Needle Park" due to the high volume of drug dealers, prostitues, and homeless within its border. Its location below street level, few open entranceways, and lined perimeter fencing made the park seem inaccessible. During the 1970's, Whyte helped to transform this deserted space into one of New York's most popular public parks.

ALSO ON THE LIVABLE STREETS NETWORK


REFERENCES

Each source is referred to by the same number every time it is cited. Please keep citation style consistent.
[1] Whyte, William H. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Project for Public Spaces. New York, New York, 1980.
[2] Kaufman, Michael T. William H. Whyte, 'Organization Man' Author and Urbanologist, Is Dead at 81. The New York Times. January 13, 1999.
[3] Placemakers: William H. (Holly) Whyte . The Project for Public Spaces.

PICTURE REFERENCES

Pictures are cited in the order they appear above. Please keep citation style consistent.
[1] Courtesy of Project for Public Spaces: William H. Whyte.
[2] From Wikis Take Manhattan contest. Photo by group Zefferus via Wikimedia Commons.
[3] NYC sitting space from Wikis Take Manhattan conteset. Photo by group Three Blind Mice via Wikimedia Commons.
[4] NYC sitting space from Wikis Take Manhattan contest. Photo by group Zefferus via Wikimedia Commons.

FURTHER READING


KEYWORDS

William H. (Holly) Whyte, Public Spaces, Plazas, Parks, Street Life, Sitting Space, Street Furniture