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William H. Whyte is awesome.

His 1988 classic, City: Rediscovering the Center, is a big book with big ideas–he discusses everything from the use and user-friendly design of plazas to the history of zoning in New York City to the emergence of company campuses (PRE-Garreau’s Edge Cities!) to pretty much everything we think of as contemporary urban design issues.

After so many keen observations, insights, and pronouncements about property city form, however, he concludes with a little bit of self-awareness.  Perhaps pointing out his own hubris is in fact a device which further contributes to it, but it is nevertheless an interesting statement on the role of the researcher in observing human behavior.  The perception of objectivity breaks itself down.

Here’s the final page, and a neat way to end a book:

“Let me append a methodological note.

“I have tried to be objective in this book, but I must confess a bias.  In comparing notes with fellow observers, I find that I share with them a secret vice:  hubris.

“Observation is entrapping.  It is like the scale models architects beguile you with; start lifting off the roofs and you gain the sense of power.  So it is with the observation of a place:  once you start making little maps of it, charting where people come and go, you begin to possess the place.  You do not possess it, of course.  The reality continues to exist quite independent of you or any thoughts you may project onto it.  But you feel you possess it, and you can develop such a proprietary regard for it as to become pettily jealous if anyone else arrogates it.

“A further temptation beckons us.  As time goes on, you become familiar with the rhythms of the various street encounters:  100 percent conversations, prolonged goodbye, reciprocal gestures, straight man and principal.  Now you can predict how they are likely to develop and, by predicting them, get the sense that you are somehow causing them as well.  They are your people out there.  Sheer delusion, of course, but there is nothing so satisfying as to see them all out there on the street doing what you expect they should be doing.

“Three men on the corner are in a prolonged goodbye.  One of them is slowly rocking back and forth on his heels.  No one else is.  At length, the man stops rocking back and forth.  I chuckle to myself.  I know that in a few moments another of the men will take up the rocking motion.  Time passes.  More time passes.  No one budges.  More time passes.  At length, one of the men shifts his weight; slowly, he begins walking back and forth.  I am very pleased with myself.”

William H. Whyte.  City:  Rediscovering the Center.    New York:  Anchor Books, Doubleday,  1988 (1991).

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Well, this is later than intended!

As usual in the perpetual-struggle-against-the-inevitability-of-time that is my life these days, I haven’t gotten ’round to posting things I should.  On top of everything else, I’ll be spending several weekends here for a workshop…

New York City, Lower Manhattan

… and thinking a lot about food:

Find the watermelon! (Joy Garden, Chicago)

The latter does not just refer to eating (though there’s been plenty of that).  I’ve decided to focus my final project on local food systems, specifically examining methods of distribution (moving food from farm to consumer, with however many steps in between) and ways in which policy (planning!!) can help encourage movement “within the foodshed.”  Ultimately the report will focus on implications for Chicago and its surrounding region, as the project will be written for CMAP (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning), but will draw on literature and examples from other places.

To that end, I have a LOT to learn about this area, and need to keep the resources I gather in good order.  In the coming weeks, I intend to post some of these resources online in a blog page, roughly sorted by geographic area and/or subject matter.  The intent is not to create a full digital library (and license issues likely prevent me from posting actual documents anyway), but to offer an accessible collection of links about whatever I dig up on the subject that might be of interest.  If possible, I will also post my finished report in Spring 2011.

I’ll try to keep the content reasonably updated, with the first steps being making the page and then pledging to update it (see above).  In the meantime, much reading to be done!!