William Whyte – my substitute teacher


For my first blog series ever, I have decided to parallel my class on the Value of Urban Design at NYU-Poly. The class aims to showcase the synergistic social, economic, and environmental impacts of good urban design – which is increasingly being discussed – and the topics I cover are quite ready-made for a blog. Below is the first in this series – William Whyte, my substitute teacher – as I had to miss my first day of class! I hope you enjoy this post and the rest of the series…

The first time I saw William Whyte’s classic film, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, was over 10 years ago. Besides chuckling – unavoidably so – at the 70s fashions and expressions, I was fascinated by the seemingly simple – but valuable – insights gained by analyzing people’s behaviors in public spaces. Today, the lessons of this film remain equally relevant – and yes, still elicit a smile or two when, among other endearing expressions, Whyte explains how the “girl-watchers” never actually talk to girls and how every plaza needs a “pigeon lady.” In any case, the film’s timelessness is why I almost always have the “grandfather” of urban design and behavior “guest lecture” one of my classes – and why I felt at ease, honored, and a little less guilty that he “substituted” for me on the first day of my Value of Urban Design class.

Indeed, it’s quite appropriate that William Whyte was my substitute teacher last week given the aim of the course – to understand how the built environment impacts our behaviors and how that relationship impacts a broad set of values, including social, economic, image, environmental, cultural, and others. My goal is to impart upon my students that urban design – the built environment, its management, and programming – is more than just a line-item cost in a development pro-forma…it’s a way to generate value in the broadest sense of that term, or what today is commonly referred to as the triple bottom line.

And Whyte does a brilliant job at illustrating that value. As many students of urban planning and lovers of cities know, Whyte was a sociologist and journalist who turned his attention to urbanism, and was actually one of the first to evaluate the value of urban design. The film itself showcases Whyte’s evaluation of New York City’s public plazas. Whyte had been working closely with the city on their floor area ratio (FAR) bonus program that was offered to developers to incentivize the creation of public spaces. He was interested in evaluating the spaces created as a result of the program, especially in light of the many plazas created that were void of activity. He consequently applied for and received funding to identify the factors that helped make dynamic, well-used plazas and spaces.

Whyte set out to study New York City public spaces using time-lapse photography and behavioral observations – he was likely one of the first to conduct, what I call, advanced people watching (something which I’m fortunate enough to be able to do as part of my living!) and it paid dividends. Focusing on Seagrams Plaza, Paley Park, and Greenacre Park, he sought to identify patterns of use and behavior over time in order to understand what made plazas successful. Ultimately, he found that the most used plazas had the following elements:

1)   Places to sit (benches, ledges, planters, moveable chairs) 

2)   Interaction with the street (at or about at street level)

3)   Sun (light)

4)   Food (vendors) 

5)   Water (sound & “touchable”)

6)   Trees (shade)

7)   Triangulation (activities, events, performers, art – engaged public interest)

Consequently, the city changed its zoning resolution and required some of these elements and strongly suggested others, which spurred the creation and revitalization of many lively public spaces. For example, interestingly, the film highlights Bryant Park as a then crime-ridden, unsafe place to be – it is now one of most engaging public spaces in the City, encompassing all of the key elements Whyte identified and more. And this type of renaissance has gradually spread throughout the city, with places like Tomkins Square Park – my neighborhood park – once owning the moniker of Needle Point park now being one of the highlights of my return home from four weeks in Europe…I couldn’t help but smile as I strolled through its winding paths, doing a bit of “people watching” myself (not quite advanced this time as jet lag had set in!), delighted by the juxtaposition of the local chess players, couples, musicians, children, and of course dog walkers…all those European plazas I saw this summer had nothing on this park! 


So what’s your favorite public space? Does it have these qualities? What do you enjoy about this space?


Of course, while many of the factors that Whyte highlighted seem somewhat obvious – once pointed out – (us urban design and behavior researchers joke about this) many public spaces still lack these qualities and are consequently underused, empty, or even derelict. The film showcases both the powerful insights that can be drawn by direct observation – of the physical environment and behavior – but also the disconnect between research and practice, between what we know and what we do. Unfortunately, we still do not do enough of the former and the latter remains all too prevalent. It is for this reason that I love this film…and it is also why I teach the Value of Urban Design – an inherently interdisciplinary class that attracts a similarly diverse audience of civil engineers, architects, planners, communication and marketing majors, real estate students, and business majors – to impart on the newest generation of city stakeholders, who will make key decisions about the public realm, the sense that design is an everyday part of life that matters deeply to yes, the triple bottom line, but also to whether or not we love where we live.

 Coming from a small neighborhood in Miami called Westchester, I know this impact (on the negative side) all too well…as if it weren’t enough that it was devoid of all of the critical elements Whyte highlighted, the ill-advised community council decided that <—-this was OK…and now this dreadfully delightful primary-colored edifice is what greets my mother daily. We must not only strive toward more evidence-based design and decision-making but to an accord between policy goals and design objectives and a more informed set of stakeholders. I look forward to doing my small part as I get to know my students throughout the rest of the semester. Stay tuned!



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