March 01 2013

Lessons of Observation: What William H. Whyte Would Say

Red Square at University of Washington

We’ve all seen empty public spaces before. So what makes some urban spaces fail while others succeed? William H. Whyte, author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980), conducted pioneering studies on human behavior in urban plazas by using direct observation and time-lapsed photography. His intuitive analytical approaches to the research provided obvious results about people’s behavior in public spaces which were seemingly invisible to the unobservant.

To test Whyte’s theories for myself, I analyzed Red Square on the University of Washington campus (in Seattle, Washington) in a similar methodology. Red Square, designed by Northwest Modernist architect Paul Hayden Kirk between 1969 – 1971, is the primary public space on the campus.

Red Square at the University of Washington campus

What makes an urban space work?

1. Food

Food vendors bring activity. A cluster of food trucks in Red Square consistently has a line during the lunch hour.

2. Seating

Whyte concluded that the amount and type of seating is the strongest correlation to whether people will use a public space (not sunlight, the architecture, landscape design, shape, or size of the place). Seating must be movable and benches need to be two backsides deep. Red Square lacks the type of seating Whyte describes, so people tend to sit on the stairs in front of the library. The addition of movable tables and chairs near the food vendors would greatly improve the space.

3. Triangulation

A term coined by Whyte, triangulation is the external stimulus that gives strangers something to talk about. When tents or vendor stalls are set up in Red Square, it animates the space. People tend to gather around the eccentric individuals and side conversations begin to form.

Using Red Square as a case study proved that Whyte’s theories about the life of urban spaces hold true some 35 years later. It suggests that human behavior is constant and measurable. Whyte argues that the social life in public spaces is fundamental to our quality of life.

Do you think this argument still holds true today?

Credits: Photographs by Amanda Bosse. Data linked to sources.

Amanda Bosse

Amanda Bosse is a former writer for the GRID. At the time she was writing, she was in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Washington. Growing up in the Midwest, she became interested in the dialogue between the individual structures and the urban fabric (including those structures not typically designed by architects). With a background in both architecture and urban design, Amanda was primarily interested in applying architectural thinking to solve larger scale design problems.

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This entry was posted on Friday, March 1st, 2013 at 9:07 am and is filed under Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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