A few months ago, my brother sent me a book from my long-forgotten Amazon.com Wishlist: The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. The joy of receiving it was matched only by the pleasure in reading it.
Most of you know the story: William H. Whyte wrote the book in 1980, an outgrowth of his work as the director of the Street Life Project (which he founded in 1971). This group diligently recorded how people use public space. Moveable vs Fixed furniture. Placement of trees. Places to eat. Relationship of shops to open space. Sight Lines. They recorded. The book reads like a manual for making good public space, written by anthropologists of American Urban Natives.
The book isn't a scientific treatise, or an unbiased state-sponsored report, even though all of the techniques used to gather data have a long track record in the science community. Yet concealed in the trappings of scientific data, Mr. Whyte makes palpable the perceived cynicism on the part of corporate and urban architects toward the use of public space. The data is brilliantly and swiftly put to use. In addition, there is a bias against anything that would prevent people from sitting on a low ledge (spikes, bars), yet the section called "The Undesirables" seems to describe passive, friendly, capitalist ways of keeping drunks away from your nice public space. What is powerful about these biases, aside from what you may think of their merits, is that they enter the conversation about designing public space at its source. The book is about the details that make public spaces in the city thrive.
This book can be purchased at Amazon.
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