The Science of New York City's Public Spaces

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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.

Sun

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.

Wind

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.

Trees

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).”

Water

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.

Food

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.

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November 14, 2013 - 1:00pm
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