26. Spring in New York

I have visited New York on a number of occasions since my first trip there as a student in the 1980s.  From my first visit New York has remained my favourite North American city; so unique and individual in so many ways, yet, for a born and bred Londoner, also strangely comfortable and familiar.  In the periods of my life when I have lived away from London, I have always got a buzz on returning and experiencing the sheer energy of our capital.  Now that I live in London, my occasional trips to New York give me that similar experience, just to be there.

Yet despite my love affair with the place, New York has not been kind to me, or rather, New York’s weather has not been kind.  Through bad planning and unhappy circumstance, I have visited in the height of freezing cold winter, sweltering summer, or coinciding with unseasonal periods of prolonged rain and low cloud.  Of course, whatever the weather, the Big Apple never ceases to amaze, and every time I leave happy content with my latest fix of real urbanity.  So when recently I finally came face to face with New York in the warm pleasant sunshine, the experience enabled me to fully appreciate the work of New York urban design guru William Whyte.

Whyte was a trained sociologist whose interests initially focussed on the quality of rural open spaces but became interested in urban public space when he observed that many of New York’s contemporary public spaces were hardly used, and didn’t seem justify the extra floorspace given to developers as part of the city’s incentive zoning regulations as a quid-pro-quo to secure them.   In fact he discovered that often these new public spaces remained public in name only, and were designed (or left blank and not designed at all) in such a way that their unattractiveness to the public was guaranteed.

Determined to discover what makes for successful public spaces Whyte initiated a series of photographic studies of a range of New York’s urban spaces in order to see how they were actually used.  His findings were published in the seminal work The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980) and later in a more substantial book, City: Rediscovering the Centre (1988).  They continue to influence practitioners today, not least through the work of the Project for Public Space – a non-profit, research and campaigning body established in 1975 – which has continued and developed Whyte’s work ever since (see www.pps.org).

In particular, Whyte observed that users mainly came from buildings in the immediate area and that supply creates demand.  Of the spaces he analysed, the most used spaces were also the most social places, whilst, he discovered, women were more discriminating than men in their choice of space, and in their choice of seating within a space, with a low proportion of women generally indicating that something was wrong.  For their part, men prefer more prominent seating than women who look for greater privacy, with spaces that have well defined sub-places proving particularly popular.

Drawing from his analysis, Whyte prescribed the key qualities that many of the most sociable spaces possess:

  • Good location, on a route to somewhere
  • The street and space designed as one integral entity, with the space level (or almost level) with the footpath
  • Places to sit, particularly grass and seats that are movable and can be organised by the users of the spaces in social groups.
Resting in comfort, Madison Square Park

Finally seeing New York in the pleasant Spring sunshine allowed me to understand just how valuable New York’s city space are in this high density metropolis as a place to sit, relax and socialise.  Indeed, on my recent visit, the city’s key spaces (many long since re-designed along ‘Whyteian’ principles) were packed to bursting with a complete cross section of society of all ages, social groups and occupations (workers, shoppers, dog walkers and leisure seekers).

Bryant Park was a case-in-point.  Criticised be some as increasingly commercialised space with its cafes, prominent management, and Google sponsored internet network, the space is nevertheless one of the most popular public spaces in New York providing an oasis of greenery and a breathing space away from the urbanity that surrounds it.  Of particular interest is the multitude of movable seating that the city provides, allowing users to personalise the space in a way that suits their needs and social groupings.  This is a feature found throughout New York’s city parks, and provides an interesting contrast with those in the UK where movable seating is almost never provided, perhaps reflecting a fear that it would simply be stolen.

Bryant Park, sponsored by Google
Bryant Park, flexible seating

In fact, comparing Whyte’s spaces with many of the contemporary public spaces now being  designed in the UK, one can’t help agreeing with the findings of a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report that concluded that we have a tendency to over-design our public spaces.  The result is spaces that offer very little flexibility for users to personalise them, or for public space managers to use them in different ways; in other words spaces that offer none of the adaptability that urban design prescriptions (including one of the seven urban design objectives in the UK Government ‘By Design’) say is critical for successful urban design.

One can’t help feeling that sometimes we try a little too hard, and it may be better to spend a little less time agonising over our design concepts, and a little more aka William Whyte observing what does and does not work.  Our climate in the UK actually lends itself far more to outdoor living than that of New York, yet we still lack an understanding of what does and does not work.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


April 2010