William H.(Holly) Whyte (1917-1999) is considered the mentor for Project for Public Spaces because of his seminal work in the study of human behavior in urban settings. While working with the New York City Planning Commission in 1969, Whyte began to wonder how newly planned city spaces were actually working out – something that no one had previously researched. This curiosity led to the Street Life Project, a pioneering study of pedestrian behavior and city dynamics.
PPS founder and president Fred Kent worked as one of Whyte’s research assistants on the Street Life Project, conducting observations and film analyses of corporate plazas, urban streets, parks and other open spaces in New York City. When Kent founded PPS shortly thereafter, he based the organization largely on Whyte’s methods and findings. More than anything, Whyte believed in the perseverance and sanctity of public spaces. For him, small urban places are “priceless,” and the city street is “the river of life…where we come together.” Whyte’s ideas are as relevant today as they were over 30 years ago, and perhaps even more so.
“Whyte’s work remains a living and usable handbook for improving our cities, our countryside, and our lives.”
– Nathan Glazer, Wilson Quarterly
“Holly always believed that the greatest lesson the city has to offer us is the idea that we are all in it together, for better or for worse, and we have to make it work.”
– Paul Goldberger, Architecture
Whyte was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1917. He joined the staff of Fortune magazine in 1946, after graduating from Princeton University and serving in the Marine Corps. His book The Organization Man (1956), based on his articles about corporate culture and the suburban middle class, sold more than two million copies. Whyte then turned to the topics of sprawl and urban revitalization, and began a distinguished career as a sage of sane development and an advocate of cities.
In 1969 Whyte assisted the New York City Planning Commission in drafting a comprehensive plan for the city. Having been critically involved in the planning of new city spaces, he came to wonder how these spaces were actually working out. No one had researched this before. He applied for and received a grant to study the street life in New York and other cities in what became known as the Street Life Project. With a group of young research assistants, and camera and notebook in hand, he conducted pioneering studies on pedestrian behavior and breakthrough research on city dynamics.
All told, Whyte walked the city streets for more than 16 years. As unobtrusively as possible, he watched people and used time-lapse photography to chart the meanderings of pedestrians. What emerged through his intuitive analysis is an extremely human, often amusing view of what is staggeringly obvious about people’s behavior in public spaces, but seemingly invisible to the inobservant.
The core of Whyte’s work was predicated on the years he spent directly observing human beings, and he authored several texts about urban planning and design and human behavior in various urban spaces. Whyte served as an advisor to Laurence S. Rockefeller on environmental issues and as a key planning consultant for major U.S. cities, traveling and lecturing widely. He was a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He was a trustee of the American Conservation Association, and was active in the Municipal Art Society, the Hudson River Valley Commission and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Task Force on Natural Beauty.
The Social Life of Public Spaces
Whyte wrote that the social life in public spaces contributes fundamentally to the quality of life of individuals and society. He suggested that we have a moral responsibility to create physical places that facilitate civic engagement and community interaction.
Bottom-Up Place Design
Whyte advocated for a new way of designing public spaces – one that was bottom-up, not top-down. Using his approach, design should start with a thorough understanding of the way people use spaces, and the way they would like to use spaces. Whyte noted that people vote with their feet – they use spaces that are easy to use, that are comfortable. They don’t use the spaces that are not.
The Power of Observation
Whyte suggested that through observation and by talking to people, we can learn a great deal about what people want in public spaces and can put this knowledge to work in creating places that shape livable communities. We should therefore enter spaces without theoretical or aesthetical biases, and “look hard, with a clean, clear mind, and then look again – and believe what you see.”
“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”
“One felicity leads to another. Good places tend to be all of a piece – and the reason can almost always be traced to a human being.”
“It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”
“We are not hapless beings caught in the grip of forces we can do little about, and wholesale damnations of our society only lend a further mystique to organization. Organization has been made by man; it can be changed by man.”
“The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.”
“If there’s a lesson in streetwatching it is that people do like basics — and as environments go, a street that is open to the sky and filled with people and life is a splendid place to be.”
“The human backside is a dimension architects seem to have forgotten.”
“Up to seven people per foot of walkway a minute is a nice bustle”
“There is a rash of studies underway designed to uncover the bad consequences of overcrowding. This is all very well as far as it goes, but it only goes in one direction. What about undercrowding? The researchers would be a lot more objective if they paid as much attention to the possible effects on people of relative isolation and lack of propinquity. Maybe some of those rats they study get lonely too.”
“So-called ‘undesirables’ are not the problem. It is the measures taken to combat them that is the problem.”
“I end then in praise of small spaces. The multiplier effect is tremendous. It is not just the number of people using them, but the larger number who pass by and enjoy them vicariously, or even the larger number who feel better about the city center for knowledge of them. For a city, such places are priceless, whatever the cost. They are built of a set of basics and they are right in front of our noses. If we will look.”
The Essential William H. Whyte, Albert Lafarge (Editor), Fordham University Press, 2000.
City: Rediscovering the Center, New York: Doubleday, 1988.
The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Washington, D.C.: The Conservation Foundation, 1980.
“A Guide to Peoplewatching,” in Urban Open Spaces, Lisa Taylor (Ed.), New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1979.
Plan for the City of New York, 1969.
The Last Landscape, Garden City: Doubleday, 1968.
Cluster Development, New York: American Conservation Foundation, 1964.
The Exploding Metropolis, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958.
The Organization Man, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956.
“The Gifted Pedestrian,” Ekistics, 303, May/June 1984.
“Securing Open Space for Urban America: Conservation Easements,” Technical Bulletin No. 36, Urban Land Institute, Washington, D.C., September 1968.
obit. The Daily Telegraph (London), January 15, 1999, p.25.
“Secret Life of US Corporations: William H. Whyte”, The Guardian (London), January 15, 1999, p.20.
obit. The Independent (London), January 15, 1999, p.7.
“Lessons From ‘The Organization Man’ Still Have Some Relevance for Today”, Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1999, p.c5.
“Dialogue: “How Has ‘The Organization Man’ Aged? Nostalgia’s Illusions”, by Virgina Postrel and “How Has ‘The Organization Man Aged? A Need to Belong”, by Arlie Russell Hochschild, both in The New York Times, January 17, 1999, p.17.
obit. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 17, 1999, p.e5.
obit. Time, January 25, 1999, p.23.
“Writer Delved Into ‘Obvious’ Quirks of Life”, USA Today, January 14, 1999, p3a.
obit. U.S. News & World Report, January 25, 1999, p.16.
“William Whye Dies: Urban Studies Author, Best Known for ‘The Organization Man’”, The Washington Post, January 14, 1999, p.b06.
“William Whyte, Man of the Mid-Century”, The Washington Post, January 18, 1999, p.c02.