The Science of New York City's Public Spaces


Ever wondered if there is a formula architects follow before they build a park in New York City? There is.

Back in 1969, a social scientist by the name of William H. Whyte helped the New York City Planning Commission draft a plan for the public spaces in the city. At the time, Whyte was well-known for his work in planning new city spaces. After the spaces were built, however, Whyte developed a hungry curiosity for how the spaces were actually faring with the public.

He applied for and received a grant to study street life and public spaces in major cities across the country. This project came to be known as the Street Life Project. Whyte gathered a group of researchers, some cameras and notebooks, and set out to observe strangers in public space.

Often, Whyte would set up the cameras from high vantage points to record pedestrian movements with time-lapse photography.

As Whyte’s research developed, several common trends and characteristics about successful public spaces emerged. The New York City Planning Commission—along with organizations in other cities—would use his research for urban planning initiatives in the years to come. Many zoning incentives were created around Whyte’s research; the more an architect followed Whyte’s suggestions, the taller his skyscraper could be.

Sitting Space

First, Whyte looked at the popularity of different plazas in New York City. Spaces that were the same size had wide ranges of visitors. For instance, Park Avenue's plaza only had 17 visitors while the park at 77 Water Street had as many as 160.

But what could account for this difference? Whyte believed it was the number (and types) of sitting spaces, and after observing the plazas for an extended period of time, Whyte came up with several rules for sitting space.

First, sitting space should be physically comfortable with backrests and contours that mimic the human body. Sitting space should also be socially comfortable so that visitors have a seemingly unlimited amount of choice: “sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone.” So, architects must think creatively; they must build ledges that can be seats, table tops, and foot rests all at once.

Seventeen inches is considered the optimum height for sitting space, but Whyte calculated that successful sitting space could be anywhere from one foot to three feet tall. Ledges should be at least 30 inches deep, although 36 inches deep is optimal. This specific width is enough for “two backsides” to comfortably sit on a ledge without physical or social discomfort.

Unlike ledges, Whyte highly discouraged architects from placing benches in a plaza. Benches, which are anchored to the ground, remove a visitor’s freedom of choice and ultimately deter them from visiting the plaza. Plus, when have benches ever been comfortable? Instead, Whyte suggested one-person movable chairs that allowed visitors to form groups or change their position based on the sun.

But what about the amount of sitting space? After much observation and calculation, Whyte determined that the most successful public spaces were made up of at least 10 percent sitting space. However, the New York Planning Commission was hesitant. They eventually compromised on the following requirement: architects would have to create one linear foot of sitting space for every 30 square feet of plaza.


Whyte also found that access to sunlight was an important indicator of a successful public space: "The more access to sun, the better, and, if there is a southern exposure, it should be made the most of.” Future zoning requirements in New York were centered on these principles.

Whyte suggested that public spaces buy “air rights” to surrounding buildings to keep them low and to protect their access to the sun. If this could not be achieved, Whyte encouraged builders to “borrow” sun from other places. With all of the glass windows and stainless steel that make up the city’s towering skyscrapers, urban planners could build parks that sat in the reflections of sunlight from these buildings.


If you’ve ever walked through New York City in the dead of winter, you are no stranger to wind tunnels. The skyscrapers within the city often channel wind into cold, uncomfortable gusts that move quickly down the connecting streets. If any open, public space is in the way of these wind tunnels, no one will visit it. Whyte suggested that public spaces create enclaves for themselves during the winter time.


If a space is going to collect sunlight, it’s also going to need shade. Whyte encouraged planners to plant trees in public spaces so that visitors could sit beneath them. New York’s open-space zoning took this into account: According to Whyte, “developers must provide a tree for every 25 feet of sidewalk. It must be at least 3.5 inches in diameter and planted flush with the ground. In plazas, trees must be provided in proportion to the space (for a plaza of 5000 feet, a minimum of six trees).”


At the beginning of his research, Whyte noted that several public spaces in New York City offered beautiful views of waterfalls, sluiceways, and fountains of all types. However, none of these places allowed visitors to feel or touch the water. “One of the best things about water is the look and feel of it,” Whyte said. “It’s not right to put water before people and then keep them away from it.”

Whyte suggested that public spaces provide more access to waterfalls and pools, where visitors could touch the water with their hands or cool off their feet on a hot summer day. Whyte also noted that the sound of water allows a place to be more intimate because it masks conversations taking place between different groups of people.


Whyte also noted that the most successful public spaces gave visitors the opportunity to buy food: “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food.” Whyte pointed specifically to Rockefeller Plaza during the Christmas holidays, which contained around 15 pretzel vendors within a 40-foot space. People flocked to the area. According to Whyte, “food attracts people which attracts more people.”

Whyte was able to watch this concept in action as he observed a plaza. Originally empty, the owners of the plaza gradually put tables, chairs, and umbrellas into the space. Vendors quickly set up shop outside of the plaza and drew in passersby. The owners of the plaza saw how successfully food drew a crowd, and they eventually decided to open a small outdoor café in the area.

Although Whyte and his team of researchers proposed that New York’s zoning law make the provision of food a requirement, the Planning Commission denied this requirement.

The Street

Whyte also proposed that the most successful public spaces allowed strangers to watch one another—think of the ice skating rink in Rockefeller Plaza or the steps leading up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These vantage points allow people to participate in a commonly enjoyed pastime: people-watching.

19 Must-Visit Stops on Mexico City's Metro

About 5 million people ride the Mexico City subway every day—but most commuters don’t realize how much there is to do and see without ever having to go above ground. From piano stairs to a space tunnel, exploring the attractions hidden within the metro just might be the most fun you can have for 5 pesos (about $0.25 USD). These Mexico City metro stations settle the old question once and for all; it’s both the journey and the destination.


Talisman station (line 4) has a mammoth logo for a reason: Mammoth fossils were unearthed during construction of the metro, and you can see the bones—which date back to the Pleistocene—on display there.


space tunnel at La Raza station
Sharon Hahn Darlin, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

How do you make a long transfer fly by? Transform it into a walk-through space tunnel illuminated by a glow-in-the-dark night sky, the highlight of the science museum located within La Raza station (lines 3 and 5).


Viveros (line 3), a station named for the nearby nursery, is in full flower: It was recently given a jungle makeover complete with imitation palms, jaguars, and snakes to raise awareness for the preservation of southern Mexico’s Lacandon Rainforest.


Complement your day trip to the pyramids at Teotihuacan with a stop at the Pino Suarez station (lines 1 and 2), where you can see a 650-year-old pyramid dedicated to Ehecatl, the Aztec god of wind. Tens of thousands of users go through the station daily, making the pyramid one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico. (Though it's referred to as Mexico’s smallest archaeological zone, the National Institute of Anthropology and History doesn't consider it a "proper" archaeological zone "due to its size and the fact of being located in a Metro Transport System facility.")


Hidalgo (lines 2 and 3) may be the most miraculous of all of Mexico City’s metro stations: In 1997, someone (possibly a street vendor) discovered a water stain in the shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe in one of its floor tiles. The apparition attracted so many pilgrims that metro authorities eventually had to remove the tile, which is now enshrined just outside one of the exits (follow the signs for Iglesia), near the intersection of Paseo de la Reforma and Zarco. And if you happen to visit this station on the morning of the 28th of any month, you’ll be swarmed with pious commuters carrying figurines of Saint Judas Thaddeus—patron saint of delinquents and lost causes—who is venerated at the nearby San Hipolito Church.


No time to visit the vast National Museum of Anthropology? You can still catch reproductions of Mesoamerican statues at the Bellas Artes (lines 2 and 8) and Tezozomoc (line 6) stops.


miniatures on the Mexico city subway
Randal Sheppard, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Miniature maniacs shouldn’t miss the scale models of Mexico City’s main plaza at the Zocalo stop (line 2). They depict, in tiny form, the metamorphosis of the capital from the Aztec Templo Mayor to the present-day Metropolitan Cathedral. (And bonus points to anyone who can spot the cat who lives in this station.)


The music-themed Division del Norte station’s (line 3) free karaoke corner draws a crowd gathered to watch fellow riders belt out boleros and ballads on their way to work. The unassuming abuelitas laden with bags from the market always have the most impressive pipes.


piano stairs at Polanco station
Victor.Aguirre-Lopez, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Don’t take the escalators at Polanco station (line 7), because the stairs are a giant musical piano keyboard. Finally, here’s your chance to live out Tom Hanks’s piano dance scene from the movie Big.


The Guerrero stop (lines B and 3) is a tribute to the legends of lucha libre, with costume displays and murals dedicated to 45 of Mexico’s finest masked fighters.


The largest bookshop in Latin America can be found in the long passage between the Zocalo and Pino Suarez stations. The underground emporium known as Un Paseo Por Los Libros sells titles from textbooks to manga and also hosts free workshops, lectures, and movie screenings.


murals in the Mexico City subway
Thelmadatter, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Any visitor to Mexico City should check out Diego Rivera’s murals—but on your way, don’t forget to look up at the murals that decorate many metro stations. Particularly impressive are Guillermo Ceniceros’s ambitious chronicles of art through the history of time on the walls at the Copilco (line 3) and Tacubaya stations (lines 1, 7, and 9). On the kitschier side, see how many famous faces you can pick out in Jorge Flores Manjarrez’s I Spy-style mural of pop stars at the Auditorio stop (line 7).


A museum of caricatures located inside the Zapata stop (line 12) is an homage to Mexican cartooning, including plenty of satirical interpretations of the mustachioed revolutionary who gives the station its name.


If Chabacano station (lines 2, 8, and 9) feels unsettlingly familiar, it might be because it was used as a shooting location for the subway chase scene in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Total Recall. Legend has it you can still spot splashes of fake blood on the ceiling.


Museo del Metro de la Ciudad de México
ProtoplasmaKid, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Has this metro adventure turned you into a super fan? Do a deep dive at Mixcoac station’s (line 12) sleek Metro Museum, where you can learn even more fun facts about the subway’s 50 years of history while you wait out rush hour.

Pop Chart Lab
150 Northeast Lighthouses in One Illustrated Poster
Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

Some of the world's most beautiful and historic lighthouses can be found in the American Northeast. Now, Pop Chart Lab is releasing an illustrated poster highlighting 150 of the historic beacons dotting the region's coastline.

The 24-inch-by-36-inch print, titled "Lighthouses of the Northeast," covers U.S. lighthouses from the northern tip of Maine to the Delaware Bay. Categorized by state, the chart features a diverse array of lighthouse designs, like the dual towers at Navesink Twin Lights in New Jersey and the distinctive red-and-white stripes of the West Quoddy Head Light in Maine.

Framed poster of lighthouses.
Pop Chart Lab

Each illustration includes the lighthouse name and the year it was first lit, with the oldest lighthouses dating back to the 1700s. There's also a map in the upper-left corner showing the location of each landmark on the northeast coast.

Chart of lighthouses.
Pop Chart Lab

The poster is now available to preorder for $37, with shipping set to start March 21. After memorizing every site on the chart, you can get to work exploring many of the other unique lighthouses the rest of the world has to offer.


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