City: Rediscovering the Center by William H. Whyte

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Posted 2022-08-01

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

William Hollingsworth "Holly" Whyte, Jr. observed people in cities. This book describes his study of pedestrian behavior and dynamics, principally on Manhattan sidewalks.

The book's dustjacket aptly characterizes some of Whyte's observations as "staggeringly obvious, but seemingly invisible to the unaware." Indeed, some of his conclusions reflect this, such as: "People tend to sit most where there are places to sit." (p. 110). However, the seemingly "obvious" nature of some of his observations hides something much more powerful: his empirical observations, when taken as a whole, overturn many assumptions that are doggedly asserted in theories about how cities should be built--theories that have destroyed urban spaces and city downtowns for nearly a century.

Whyte's observations and empirical techniques remind us how urbanism must respect and reflect observable human nature and the powerful way that the centers of cities continue to draw and sustain human activity.

The themes of this book involve density, life, streets, people, places, activities, and the impulse toward "the center." On page 9, he makes a simple statement that sums up the bulk of his work: "What attracts people most is other people. Many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true..." (p. 9).

Examples include:

What I take from this book is a deeper understanding of the concept of the agora, a word used in ancient Greece to describe the space used for markets and public meetings. It may not seem obvious at first, but the key to the agora is in its dual public and market nature. First, there is a framework that the public (government, the people) must create that defines a true, fair, free, and open market that involves a marketplace for goods as well as access to other people. Second, there are market forces that are allowed to be unleashed and run their course within this framework (the marketplace of goods, ideas, human behavior, and attention). This concept does not mean pure market competition or pure government control, but a cooperative mix that meets community goals for both the public framework and market forces.

The struggles of urban planners for centuries seems to have arisen from their heavy-handed visions of the future (Howard, Corbusier, and Wright) to demarcate, by a purely public framework, the individual without the free and open market operating. The mistake was to envision a city as a planned thing. Whyte reminds us that the energy the city runs on human interactions, which cannot be planned or programmed but which arise from human nature and competitive market forces. Indeed, much of the 20th-century urban renewal might not have destroyed central cities as much if this simple idea were followed: healthy urbanism can consist of a public framework cooperating with free markets and operating continuously to allow human nature to run its course. Most urban planning doomed downtowns to a wasteland when the desire was to over plan and denude the city of its free and open diversity and then wonder why it seemed so dead. Overbearing parking laws (Shoup, 2018) and zoning (Gray, 2022) and segregation, for example, have stunted the natural growth and power of cities. Instead, the balance of a cooperation between the public and market forces leads to a pattern of mixed uses that a healthy agora, center, neighborhood, or city can display abundantly.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms © johndecember.com