Investigations Into Our Social Environment
By: Van Dwinnells
In order to better understand the complexities of why we enjoy some public spaces versus others has brought me to study William H. Whyte's work into this realm of thought. Whyte's study is one of an observational nature and provides some analytical responses for how public plaza spaces have been used in the latter half of the twentieth century. Observation is key to understanding the encounters between people in a society. It allows us to see the physical and emotional interactions of our social behaviors. In part, we all do our fair share of observation as Whyte points out; the most common activity of people in plaza spaces tends to be observing the other people around us. When we cannot observe the physical and social environment, the public space no longer has meaning. Let's look a little deeper into some of his findings.
The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces 1980 - William H. Whyte
Whyte emphasizes that both park and plaza spaces tend to be underutilized rather than overcrowded. This is evident if you spend much time in such places. Having to think about the last time you did practically verifies the fact that society does not fully utilize them. Underuse is a major issue as many plaza and park spaces remain empty for most of their times available. It begs a few questions; why is this so and what makes these places work? He created a list of elements which he believes that translate to useable and functional spaces within parks and plazas. They are as follows;
His results are very thorough. He found the most used plazas tend to have multiple groups consisting of two and three. That is not to say there aren't other stratifications of individuals, but this number is the most common. Traveling conversations occur most either when interaction is minimum and the individuals are only interacting in a passing or limited moment or movement is sporadic and not contained to a specific location i.e. traveling. There must be a place for this type of conversation to occur. The corner is one of the most active places. These areas are nodes for pedestrian intersections and are saturated with social interactions. Within these pedestrian pathways, people tend to move to the geographic center of the flow patterns. The reason for such is that they tend to increase the opportunity to interact with others. What is more interesting is that we tend to do this, most of the time, non-consciously and if we want to avoid doing this, we must exert a small level of effort and cognitive function to do so. This implies that if in the busiest of situations, humans tend to move in groups and maintain a flow. What is odd about this, is that the pedestrian flow is the most common place for the interactions and conversations to occur. They tend to develop and maintain directly in the center of the flow or just nearly off the side of them. Therefore, this leads to direct design implications opening possibilities to social spaces in the middle or directly adjacent to flow patterns. This could be as simply as creating sitting areas, the most used is that of an appropriately dimensioned ledge that is easy to access. It is important to note that people don't often stop to talk in the middle of plazas or wide open spaces. They like to stop at edges, pathways, and landmarks. This can help us to then design around the voids within plazas and parks by creating landmarks or attractions at these points. These tendencies just so happen to correlate nicely to how functional and prosperous streetscapes are defined.
In order to do your own observational investigation he suggests that one map where people sit and continue to be consistently present in a plaza. Notate what activities are occurring as well as what makes them diverse.
As this is only a blog, I can only go into depth so far. I highly suggest you look into his study for yourself. It is very informative and is available in different formats. If you like reading online you can find the link here. If you would rather purchase his book look here. If you want to look into it with less concentration, his companion video can be found on vimeo here.