COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space


Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Excerpted from The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, by William H. Whyte

If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food. Food attracts people who attract more people. In New York, at every plaza or set of steps with a lively social life, you will almost invariably find a food vendor at the corner and a knot of people around him - eating, schmoozing, or just standing. Vendors are the caterers of a city's outdoor life. They flourish because they're servicing a demand not being met by the regular commercial establishment. Plazas are particularly parasitic in this respect. Hardly a one has been constructed that did not involve the demolition of luncheonettes and restaurants. The vendor thus fills a void, and this can become quite clear when he is shooed away. A lot of the life of the space goes with him.

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 many converge that pedestrian traffic slows to a crawl. In front of Rockefeller Plaza during the Christmas holidays, we've counted some 15 vendors in a 40-foot stretch (most of them selling hot pretzels).

Food attracts people who attract more people. We had an excellent opportunity to observe this shill effect through some semicontrolled experiments at a new plaza. At first there was no food. A moderate number of people used the place. At our suggestion, the management put in a food cart. It was an immediate success (a flower cart was not). More people came. A pushcart vendor set up shop on the sidewalk, then another. Business continued to pick up, for all three vendors. Next, the management got the restaurant in the building to open a small outdoor café. More people came and yet more - over and above the number who used the café.

The optical leverage in these things is tremendous. For basic props, nothing is more needed than a pushcart, and several stacks of folding chairs and tables. Set up a kiosk or a pushcart, spread the chairs out, put up the colored umbrellas, and the customers and the visual effect can be stunning. Instead of distributing the facilities over a large space, group the tables and chairs close together. As a consequence, people will be compressed into meeting one another easily; waiting in line or weaving their way through the tables. Very quickly, the space can became a great social interchange for pedestrians.

Related Articles & Resources
COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space