City

City: Rediscovering the Center

WILLIAM H. WHYTE
FOREWORD BY PACO UNDERHILL
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 408
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fh8fz
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    City
    Book Description:

    Named by Newsweek magazine to its list of "Fifty Books for Our Time." For sixteen years William Whyte walked the streets of New York and other major cities. With a group of young observers, camera and notebook in hand, he conducted pioneering studies of street life, pedestrian behavior, and city dynamics. City: Rediscovering the Center is the result of that research, a humane, often amusing view of what is staggeringly obvious about the urban environment but seemingly invisible to those responsible for planning it. Whyte uses time-lapse photography to chart the anatomy of metropolitan congestion. Why is traffic so badly distributed on city streets? Why do New Yorkers walk so fast-and jaywalk so incorrigibly? Why aren't there more collisions on the busiest walkways? Why do people who stop to talk gravitate to the center of the pedestrian traffic stream? Why do places designed primarily for security actually worsen it? Why are public restrooms disappearing? "The city is full of vexations," Whyte avers: "Steps too steep; doors too tough to open; ledges you cannot sit on. . . . It is difficult to design an urban space so maladroitly that people will not use it, but there are many such spaces." Yet Whyte finds encouragement in the widespread rediscovery of the city center. The future is not in the suburbs, he believes, but in that center. Like a Greek agora, the city must reassert its most ancient function as a place where people come together face-to-face.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0834-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. FOREWORD
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Paco Underhill

    William Hollingsworth (“Holly”) Whyte died in 1999. His life was celebrated by a generation of urban planners, architects, and advocates. He wrote three major works. The Organization Man, first published in 1956, deconstructed corporate tribal values and offers timeless insight into the postwar psyche. It remains today a brilliant portrait of American values of the ‘50s. The Last Landscape, published in 1968, provided some of the foundation of the modern environmental movement. It talked about green before “green” meant green. In the volume you have in your hands, City: Rediscovering the Center, first published in 1988 and considered the author’s...

  4. 1 INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-7)

    For the past sixteen years I have been walking the streets and public spaces of the city and watching how people use them. Some of what I found out may be of practical application. The city is full of vexations: steps too steep; doors too tough to open; ledges you cannot sit on because they are too high or too low, or have spikes on them so that undesirables will not sit on them. It is difficult to design an urban space so maladroitly that people will not use it, but there are many such spaces. On a larger scale,...

  5. 2 THE SOCIAL LIFE OF THE STREET
    (pp. 8-24)

    It was a dandy hypothesis. How far, I had wondered, would people move out of the pedestrian flow to have a conversation? My hypothesis was that they would gravitate to the unused foot or so of buffer space along the building walls. It was a matter of simple common sense.

    We focused time-lapse cameras on several street corners and recorded the activity for two weeks. On maps of the corners we plotted the location of each conversation and how long it lasted. To screen out people who were only waiting for the light to change, we noted only those conversations...

  6. 3 STREET PEOPLE
    (pp. 25-55)

    Many people work the street. There are the regulars: cops, postmen, sanitation men, traffic directors, doormen, bus dispatchers. There are supervisors: transit authority people checking on bus dispatchers, traffic officials on traffic directors. There is even a man to check that the grate cleaners are doing their job.

    Store owners can be street people. On a high-volume street with many small stores, some owners spend a lot of their time standing in the doorway. If a passerby stops to look in the window, they will start to sell him. There is very little they do not know about the street....

  7. 4 THE SKILLED PEDESTRIAN
    (pp. 56-67)

    The pedestrian is a social being: he is also a transportation unit, and a marvelously complex and efficient one. He is self-contained, self-propelled, and moves forward with a field of vision about 100 degrees wide, further widening this with back-and-forth scanning movements to almost 180 degrees. He monitors a host of equations: two crossing patterns at left front, 290 feet a minute, three on the right, angle on the cars 30 degrees and closing, a pair abreast dead ahead, a traffic light starting to flash DON’T WALK. In fractions of a second he responds with course shifts, accelerations, and retards,...

  8. 5 THE PHYSICAL STREET
    (pp. 68-78)

    If pedestrians are skilled, it is because they very well have to be. Almost every American city gives them the short end of the stick. Local transportation authorities usually have it written in their charter that transportation embraces pedestrians as well as vehicles and that they ought to plan for them. But they do not. They plan against them, defensively. Traffic signs addressed to pedestrians generally feature the words “prohibited,” “no,” “watch out for,” or “don’t.”

    Grade separation is another indicator. One of the most venerated of planning concepts has been the separation of vehicular from pedestrian traffic. And for...

  9. 6 THE SENSORY STREET
    (pp. 79-102)

    The street I have spent the most time on is New York’s Lexington Avenue—specifically, the four-block stretch from Fifty-seventh to Sixty-first Street. The sidewalks are narrow and crowded; their pavements are cracked, full of holes and subway gratings; they are obstructed by a host of badly designed light standards, parking signs, mailboxes, trash containers; and much of the surface is in permanent use for temporary storage of crates, newspapers, displays of merchants, signs, and whatnot. Further obstructing the flow is a host of street operators: handbill passers, demonstrators, hustlers for second-floor establishments, pitchmen for stores, pushcart food vendors, knickknack...

  10. 7 THE DESIGN OF SPACES
    (pp. 103-131)

    We began our research on spaces by looking at neighborhood parks and playgrounds. One of the first things that struck us was the lack of crowding in many of them. A few were jammed, but more were nearer empty than full, often in neighborhoods that ranked very high in density of people. Sheer space, it was obvious, was not of itself attracting children. But many streets were.

    It is often assumed that children play in the streets for lack of playgrounds. But many children play in the streets because they like to. One of the best play areas that we...

  11. 8 WATER, WIND, TREES, AND LIGHT
    (pp. 132-140)

    I was fairly sure that sunlight would prove to be critical to the success of a space. For that reason I was greatly pleased with our first time-lapse film of the sun passing across Seagram Plaza. In late morning the plaza was in shadow. Shortly before noon, a narrow wedge of sunlight began moving across the plaza, and as it did, so did the sitters. Where the sun was, they sat; where there was no sun, they did not sit. It was a splendid correlation and I cherished it. Like the urban design people, I thought a southern exposure would...

  12. 9 THE MANAGEMENT OF SPACES
    (pp. 141-155)

    If you want to seed a place with activity, the first thing to do is to put out food. In New York, at every plaza or set of steps with a lively social life, you will almost invariably find a food vendor or two at the corner and a knot of people around.

    Vendors have a good nose for spaces that work. They have to. They are constantly testing the market, and if business picks up in one spot, there will soon be a cluster of vendors there. This will draw more people and yet more vendors, and sometimes so...

  13. 10 THE UNDESIRABLES
    (pp. 156-164)

    The biggest single obstacle to the provision of better spaces is the undesirables problem. They are themselves not too much of a problem. It is the actions taken to combat them that is the problem. Out of an almost obsessive fear of their presence, civic leaders worry that if a place is made attractive to people it will be attractive to undesirable people. So it is made defensive. There is to be no loitering—what a Calvinist sermon is in those words—and there is to be no eating, no sleeping. So it is that benches are made too short...

  14. 11 CARRYING CAPACITY
    (pp. 165-173)

    So far we have been considering ways of making city spaces attract more people. Now let us turn to another question. What if we were to succeed too well? Conceivably, so many more people might be attracted as to crowd out the values they came to enjoy. It has happened at national parks; it could certainly happen in the city. This possibility concerned the planning commission. Could our studies shed some light? Was there a way to gauge the carrying capacity of spaces? How many is too many?

    To get at these questions we undertook close-up studies of five of...

  15. 12 STEPS AND ENTRANCES
    (pp. 174-192)

    In the chapter on the sensory street I spoke of selling entrances—that is, entrances so inviting that people go in them on impulse. Let me now take up a more basic aspect: entrances that are easy to enter.

    In most cities the biggest obstacles to pedestrian movement are the entrances to buildings. They are over-engineered, for one thing. Usually they consist of a set of revolving doors, flanked on either side by doors that swing open if you push them hard enough but that are very difficult to push open and that are not supposed to be used anyway....

  16. 13 CONCOURSES AND SKYWAYS
    (pp. 193-205)

    The war against the street gains force. Not only have planners and architects been lining it with blank walls and garages; they have been leveling blocks of old buildings for parking lots, de-mapping streets for megastructures. Now they are going the next step. They are taking the principal functions of the street and putting them almost anywhere but on street level. They are putting them in underground concourses and shopping malls, in skyways and upper-level galleries. Ultimately, they may get the pedestrian off the street altogether.

    The walkways and concourses we are going to discuss are the latest manifestation of...

  17. 14 MEGASTRUCTURES
    (pp. 206-221)

    The ultimate expressions of the flight from the street are the megastructures: huge, multipurpose complexes combining offices, stores, hotels, and garages, and enclosed in a great carapace of concrete and glass—such as Detroit’s Renaissance Center, Atlanta’s Omni International. Their distinguishing characteristic is self-containment. Intended for the salvation of downtown, they tend to be independent of it, and the design proclaims them so. The megastructures are wholly internalized environments, with their own life-support systems and with no obeisance to the streets—one of which, most likely, was de-mapped so the structure could be as big as it is. Their enclosing...

  18. 15 BLANK WALLS
    (pp. 222-228)

    The dominant feature of the townscape of U.S. cities is coming to be the blank wall. I first noticed this in the late seventies. When I was sorting out the slides I had taken on my travels, it struck me that I had been favoring pictures of buildings with blank walls. Megastructures were the showiest examples, but there were many others, and they were all surprisingly photogenic: crisp verticals, clean horizontals, no fussy detailing to busy up the expanses. Just pure white space, like the kind in architectural models.

    Since then I have been cataloging the many different kinds of...

  19. 16 THE RISE AND FALL OF INCENTIVE ZONING
    (pp. 229-255)

    It seemed such a splendid idea. Developers wanted to put up buildings as big as they could. Why not harness their avarice? Planners saw a way. First, they would downzone. They would lower the limit on the amount of bulk a developer could put up. Then they would upzone, with strings. The builders could build over the limit if they provided a public plaza, or an arcade, or a comparable amenity.

    Everyone would win. The developer would get his extra floors; the public would get an amenity it would not have otherwise; the city would get higher property assessments for...

  20. 17 SUN AND SHADOW
    (pp. 256-266)

    U.S. cities have been destroying their sun and light at an accelerating clip. But none have been doing it on such a massive scale, with more technical mastery, and with such a sophisticated set of urban design tools as New York City. And none, of course, have had such a big head start. For cities that still have some sun left, New York has many lessons.

    The great building boom that began in the 1960s laid the groundwork but it did it incrementally, a building here, a building there. New Yorkers are very adaptable; year by year few noticed the...

  21. 18 BOUNCE LIGHT
    (pp. 267-275)

    So far we have been dealing with measures to curb shadows. But there are many more positive aspects to be explored. The same big bad buildings that are cutting off light to one area can reflect it to another. The potentials for such bounce light should be explored; so, too, should spotlighting techniques for redirecting the sun into dark places that never had it before. The prerequisite is a thorough microclimatic study of the effects of new buildings on their surroundings. This review should be done by the planning commission or by an independent body on its behalf. It should...

  22. 19 SUN EASEMENTS
    (pp. 276-283)

    The zoning approaches we have been discussing, let it be conceded, are something of a bribe. Instead of requiring sunlight as a right, we have been wheedling it. We have been asking developers to block the sun only partially instead of completely and have been richly rewarding them for their avarice in doing so. The process has become so outrageous that a kind of zoning-speak has arisen to legitimatize it. Thus, when a developer seeks to add eight more stories and the planning commission grants him four, the increase in bulk is announced as a reduction in bulk. When a...

  23. 20 THE CORPORATE EXODUS
    (pp. 284-297)

    The out-migration started slowly. The first to move was General Foods, to White Plains in 1954. Ten years later IBM moved out, to Armonk. Then Olin, to Stamford. In 1970 the momentum picked up. A few corporations headed for the Sunbelt. Most headed for the suburbs, to Connecticut’s Fairfield County in particular. By 1976 over thirty major corporations had moved out of New York City, and more were leaving—including one of the biggest, Union Carbide. Office vacancy rates were climbing. With the city on the edge of bankruptcy, it looked as if a full-fledged rout was in the making....

  24. 21 THE SEMI-CITIES
    (pp. 298-309)

    I first saw Dallas thirty years ago on the ride in from the airport. There, rising abruptly up from the cotton fields, was a great cluster of towers: bold, assertive, declarative.

    Today Dallas has many more towers and they are taller and lit up. But that’s not what you see first. Driving in from the airport or coming down from the north, you see a series of towers grouped around the cloverleafs. There is the Las Colinas development, with a skyline so imposing that people take it for Dallas. But Dallas itself is farther back, upstaged and somehow diminished.

    Trends...

  25. 22 HOW TO DULLIFY DOWNTOWN
    (pp. 310-316)

    The lines are getting blurred. Suburban office centers are imitating the center city. The center city is imitating suburban office parks. This may be overstating the point but a real question is being posed. Where will the center go? There are two contrary trends. On one hand there are cities that are tightening up their downtown, reinforcing the role of the street, and in general reasserting the dominance of the center. But a growing number are going in the opposite direction. They are loosening up the structure; gearing it more to the car; taking the pedestrian off the street, and...

  26. 23 TIGHTENING UP
    (pp. 317-324)

    Most American cities started with a compact layout. Usually it was the maligned grid, with blocks in the range of two hundred by three hundred feet. As many cities are coming to believe, they were right the first time. The tight grid and short blocks may be rigid, but the pattern maximizes pedestrian activity, and it provides many of those best of spaces, street corners.

    Grids often run counter to the topography, and due to the accidents of early settlement patterns there are sometimes two grids: one going one way, one going another. In what may have been a case...

  27. 24 THE CASE FOR GENTRIFICATION
    (pp. 325-330)

    What our center cities have needed most is more people living in the center. If only, the hope has been voiced, younger people would come back to the old neighborhoods and fix them up, what a boon it would be. Here and there a few heartening precedents could be spotted. When I worked on the Fortune series on “The Exploding Metropolis” in 1957 we were able to run a portfolio of attractive blocks in various cities. These were mostly upper-income places, however, and from the market studies we did it was hard to see any substantial shift back to the...

  28. 25 RETURN TO THE AGORA
    (pp. 331-342)

    Will the center hold?

    What you see can make you doubt it. Ride the freeways and you see the consequence of a weakening center. You see a mishmash of separate centers, without focus or coherence. Taken by themselves, some of the components are well done, but it is still a mishmash that they add up to. And it is hard to see how it can do anything but worsen.

    The decentralization trend that is sending the back-office work of the center to the suburbs is strengthening. The computers have already made the move. Cities can argue that it would make...

  29. APPENDIX A DIGEST OF OPEN-SPACE ZONING PROVISIONS NEW YORK CITY
    (pp. 343-347)
  30. APPENDIX B MANDATING OF RETAILING AT STREET LEVEL
    (pp. 348-349)
  31. NOTES
    (pp. 350-366)
  32. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 367-377)
  33. INDEX
    (pp. 378-386)
  34. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 387-388)