Over 40 years ago, Holly Whyte taught us to see. By simply observing the people that were being planned for, William H. “Holly” Whyte was able to turn the world of planning on its head. One would think that this would have been obvious to the world of urban planning and design, but it was not. Whyte advocated for a new way of designing public spaces – one that was user-centered and place-led. Using this approach, he argued that design should start with a thorough understanding of the way people use spaces, and the way they would like to use spaces. We could change things, Holly said, “if we will look.”
William H. Whyte led the charge to re-center cities around people since the mid 1950s while an editor at Fortune Magazine. There he wrote The Organization Man in 1956 which challenged the breakdown of communities by suburbanization. He then published Jane Jacobs’ Downtown is for People in Fortune and in his compilation The Exploding Metropolis (1957), which allowed her to expand her essay into The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 after receiving a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Whyte further challenged the idea of the process of sprawl with Cluster Development (1964) and The Last Landscape (1968). The Street Life Project of the early 1970s applied his observational lens on cities, lessons from which were published in his seminal book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980). Other recognizable greats later built upon this momentum including Donald Appleyard, Allan Jacobs, Claire Cooper Marcus, Jan Gehl, Galen Cranz, and Robert Sommers, who continued to write and work on this issue in the following decades.
Fred Kent, after working with Whyte on the Street Life Project, founded Project for Public Spaces in 1975 to apply this thinking and observational methods to the shaping of public spaces, eventually developing the concepts, tools, and processes that support what we started calling Placemaking in the mid 1990s.
Amanda Burden also became an acolyte of Holly Whyte after Fred introduced her and invited her to come work for PPS (as she explains in the video below). She then went on to become the Director of the Planning Department for New York City and now Bloomberg Associates with former PPSer, and Holly Whyte fan, Andy Wiley-Schwartz.
What has emerged from Whyte’s intuitive analysis is an extremely human, often amusing view of what is staggeringly obvious about people’s behavior in public spaces. Whyte’s common sense thinking and powerful, but simple, ideas laid the foundation for the Placemaking movement today that is increasingly influencing the way we create our cities. This campaign has been years in the making and is finally taking hold around the world.
Whyte’s ideas are as relevant today as they were over 30 years ago - and perhaps even more so. This video by Streetfilms is a synopsis of just a few of his ideas and observations and how they are now coming to fruition in our urban environment today. Enjoy!
The videos included in this article are from interviews conducted by Clarence Eckerson Jr. of Streetfilms who celebrates and continues the investigation of human interaction and street life that Holly Whyte began. Whyte's work is manifested through the work they do, as it is here, and we are excited to share this celebration with you.