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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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On the way to class this morning, I was thinking about routes (I have a choice of 3 bridges to get to campus, whose convenience vary with destination) and street networks.  One of the things we’ve discussed in class is the Problem Of Congestion – primarily with car traffic, but certainly an issue in other modes as well.

In class last semester, the professor raised an interesting question:  is congestion really a bad thing?  One argument is that congestion is not always negatively correlated with quality of life – Paris is congested, but people seem to like it.  Another is that congestion can serve (to some degree) as a self-regulating mechanism in traffic patterns:  for those who don’t have to, travelling at peak time is a pain and a deterrent, keeping a certain number of cars off the road or people off the sidewalks or passengers off the buses and trains.

As I approached the classroom building, I saw more people travelling along the same route, including many of my classmates, coming from either of the two main routes from west campus to the building.  As we approached a central destination, everyone who had taken various routes from wherever they were, were now converging along the two pathways, simulating a bottleneck into the building.  It wasn’t that more people had suddenly appeared on campus, but that everyone wanted or needed to be in this particular spot.

It made me think that maybe this tolerance of congestion can be taken a step further:  it is not a problem, but an inherent property of our social system.  It manifests in where people want to live, where they want to go, even what they want to buy (why else would popular items sell out when substitutes are available?).  Therefore it cannot be “cured” or prevented or even almost-completely reduced, simply understood and (hopefully) managed.

Congestion, or tendency toward congestion, is a property of both space and time.  Many people tend to want to go to the same places, at more or less the same times, and there are only so many ways to get there.  Even on a perfectly-networked grid system, in which many combinations of route segments are possible, most people would tend to choose particular routes because they are most direct, have the least obstructions, or are easiest to travel along arterial paths.  And neither are all destinations equal – rarely does everyone want to be in the same place at the same time, many people want to be in only a few places.

One could argue that congestion is made worse by our current transportation system, by having one central destination or several destinations which aren’t well connected, or by our weekday, work day schedule in which most people need to travel at the same times.  I think it’s deeper than that, however:  whatever its manifestations in specific travel patterns, it comes down to the simple fact that, as William H. Whyte said, people tend to be near other people.  We tend to want to cluster together; to be in the middle of things; to get to the center as quickly and easily as possible; and to be part of larger social phenomena.  Supposed “solutions” to congestion like flex time, telecommuting, or increased transportation capacity can only go so far to alter a pretty fundamental fact about human behavior.

What I’m saying certainly isn’t new, but it’s a view that seems to be absent- or at least not prominent – in discussions of transportation systems.  Congestion is not a problem to be fixed, but an inherent property of our system called Society.  We should find ways to make it better for everyone, but we can’t simply treat it as a waste.  It is, I would argue, a part of what it means to be a social creature.

P.S. – I had to go for the old dictionary move, as I was curious what the -gest part of congestion is.  According to the OED, the earliest definition of congestion is:

The action of gathering or heaping together in a mass; a crowding together; accumulation (1563).

Only later – fittingly, in the mid-19th century, in the middle of the Industrial Revolution and mass urbanization – did it become:

A crowding together or accumulation which disorganizes regular and healthy activity: congested or overcrowded condition, as of population, traffic, etc (1868).

While the tone of both of these definitions is neutral to negative, rather than positive, both also highlight the social nature of congestion.  Only later did the word come to really imply a problem.

Omigosh.

William Hollingsworth (“Holly”) Whyte.

This will require further investigation, but I think I found one of my new favorite people.  A few words on the man, from a collection of his work, The Essential William H. Whyte (Fordham UP, 2000):

“William H. Whyte, known to friends and family as Holly, was a prophet of common sense.  He did not approach the city with a preconceived vision; he came to it as an observer, and he based his philosophy of open space, his prescription for the civilized way of making cities, on what he saw.  He was in every way an urban anthropologist, and he had the objectivity of a great scientist, prepared to gather the evidence and be guided by it.  He cared more than anything about how people used the spaces they were given, and he told us more than we had ever known about that.  Where architects and planners had been designing by intuition, Holly Whyte gave them facts.” (Foreword by Paul Goldberger)

“Whyte was an astute observer who reported how people actually behaved (rather than how we assume they behave).  A charitable critic with a real moral bent, Whyte was cheerful by nature, ever the optimist; even if his observations about postwar American life were laced with warnings, some of them quite ominous, Whyte was always thinking positively, and he was clearly a patriot.  His affable personality and the agreeableness of his prose permitted him to go further in his social criticism than was typical in the popular media of the day, and people listened.” (Introduction by Albert LaFarge)

I just picked up this book and will have to reflect more on his work at a later time – partly because I should actually be reflecting on it in my Physical Planning project.  But just browsing through “The Class of ’49” from The Organization Man, I realized that he describes an institutionalization of young male America as a result of military service in World War II – a desire for structure, hierarchical management, and stability in a large organization (e.g. AT&T) rather than the messy riskiness, and sometimes inefficiency, of small businesses.  This is interesting for so many reasons:

  • Profound influence of the experience of war, particularly of soldiers, on the structure of society
  • Changing social organizations and ideals and desires and goals
  • The (possible) fundamental shift in thought post WW2 in American culture
  • The desire for stability, commoditization, sameness, as a response to war
  • The rise of what we are currently dealing with, and its potential decline and/or change (that is, big corporations; widespread suburban developments; a culture of sameness; hierarchical vs. collaborative structures; dependence on certain resources; what it means to be a worker and contribute to society)
  • The physical/spatial implications of these values, and how we interact with where we live

Something to throw out there:  the Internet (with accompanying ideas of digital information, non-hierarchical or spatially-based networks, networks in general, new communication patterns, more fluid identities, information overload, etc etc etc) is on par with World War 2 in terms of its level of influence on our culture and society – how we value and organize our world and each other.

Whereas postwar American culture was built on the desire to rebuild a better society out of mass cultural hardship and trauma,

Contemporary culture is being built by our attempts to deal with a torrent of information we’ve created … but major ideological/value conflicts also need to fit in there somewhere … hmm.

Holy crap.

I need to think about this a lot more.

I’m so intellectually flipping out right now.