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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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Dutch Tiny House Village Provides Houses for the Homeless
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The new residential development outside the Dutch city of Eindhoven is no ordinary community. Skaeve Huse is a special place designed for Eindhoven’s most vulnerable populations, according to Inhabitat. It’s aimed at providing permanent living quarters for previously homeless people with mental illness or drug addiction, or who otherwise struggle to live in traditional city residences.

The community was designed by the Amsterdam-based architects at Studio Elmo Vermijs for the Trudo Housing Corporation, a Dutch developer. (The company previously offered a rental discount for tenants who assist refugees.)

A bicycle is parked outside a slanted green tiny house.

“In recent years, several Skaeve Huse have been built in the Netherlands, always temporary, mostly in containers,” the architects write in their description of the project. “Trudo wanted a permanent and energy-neutral design so that this vulnerable group could benefit from the homes in the long term. Skaeve Huse Eindhoven is the first of its kind designed and built with these principles as starting point.”

The Trudo Housing Corporation partnered with the European Investment Bank in 2016 to create more environmentally sustainable social housing programs.

A bicycle is parked outside a slanted green tiny house.

Skaeve loosely means “slanted,” and some of the walls of the colorful houses do indeed slant, giving them a whimsical look. The high ceilings are designed to give the 355-square-foot houses a more spacious, airy feel despite the small size, while maintaining privacy with windows high off the ground. Each of the homes has a living room with a small open kitchen, a bathroom, and an entrance foyer.

The homes are spaced apart to help give people who have trouble living in the typical, cramped spaces of an urban environment extra room, which the designers hope will help limit disputes between neighbors. The land was formerly a forest, and the homes are placed between trees along a winding path.

Though designed for people who didn’t have homes, this tiny house community looks cute enough to replicate for traditional housing, too.

[h/t Inhabitat]

All images courtesy of Elmo Vermijs.

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9 Notable Buildings With Secret Floors
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Secret floors have long captured the imagination; conspiracy theorists love to imagine that government buildings keep their darkest secrets within sealed-off stories. In the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours,” the ninth floor of a department store is where the mannequins mysteriously come to life. Meanwhile, the hidden 7th-and-a-half floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building in New York was a portal for John Cusack into the actual brain of John Malkovich in the movie Being John Malkovich.

While these mysteries may have come from a writer’s imagination, there are notable buildings that have whole secret floors right under your nose—if you know where to look.

1. THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, NEW YORK

One of the world’s most iconic and recognizable skyscrapers, the Empire State building is also one of Manhattan’s premiere tourist destinations. The gleaming Art Deco elevators speed thousands of visitors to the observation deck on the 86th floor every day, and there’s also an observation pod on the 102nd floor. But just above, hidden out of sight, is the secret 103rd floor. Off-limits to the public, there is no glass protecting visitors from the elements, just a narrow walkway surrounding the top of the building. Original plans are thought to have allowed airships to dock to the top of the Empire State building, with passengers disembarking on the 103rd floor, and the 102nd being their official port of entry into the United States. The plan never came to fruition, however, and the hidden 103rd floor remains sealed off high above New York City.

2. THE FIFTH FLOOR OF THE YANGGAKDO HOTEL, PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA

For Calvin Sun, of the adventurous travel blog Monsoon Diaries, a hotel in the world’s most isolated nation held a particularly odd secret. The hotel Yanggakdo’s elevator has no 5th floor. Getting out of the elevator on the 6th and walking down, his group reached something peculiar: an entire concreted hidden floor, filled with locked doors and no people. The floor was covered with what looked to be government-issued propaganda posters, with messages like “Let’s prepare thoroughly in order to defeat the invaders” and “Our General is the best.” Other intrepid adventurers have reported bunkers, steel doors, official-looking men with computers, and others listening to headphones. Some have speculated that there is another floor hidden within the 5th, but its purpose remains unknown.

3. THE GREENBRIER RESORT, WEST VIRGINIA

The Greenbrier is a luxury hotel and resort located amid the mountains of West Virginia. The local waters have been attracting guests since 1778, and the glittering guest list of the hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, has included 26 presidents. But hidden under the glamorous rooms and sprawling grounds is a massive underground complex, codenamed Project Greek Island. During the Cold War, it was built to hold the entire United States Congress in safety—just in case Washington was attacked by a Soviet nuclear strike.

The 112,000-square-foot bunker was big enough to hold both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and came complete with six months’ worth of food, 25-ton blast doors, decontamination chambers, water purification equipment, and its own hospital. The government’s construction of Project Greek Island was covered up by the building of a new west wing added to the existing hotel. To avoid detection, the huge amounts of land unearthed in the creation of the project were used in a new golf course, while the army of workers posed as employees of a fake audiovisual company called the Forsythe Associates, who “maintained” the hotel's 1000 television sets.

Project Greek Island fortunately remained unused, and was never officially acknowledged until a story in the Washington Post in 1992 exposed the secret. Today tours of this remarkable relic of the Cold War are given at the hotel, which still operates as a luxury resort.

4. OUR LORD IN THE ATTIC, AMSTERDAM

Luke Spencer

There’s an old house in Amsterdam that looks much like the other Queen Anne-style homes along the canals that give this old part of the city its distinctive character. This particular house, however, holds a remarkable secret hidden away in the attic: a miniature, fully functioning church. Complete with marble altar, pews enough for 150 worshippers, and elaborate gilt decoration, the church was hidden due to the persecution of Dutch Catholics in the 17th century. Access to the clandestine church is gained by a false wall in the living room that leads to a narrow spiral staircase. Today the church is a museum, but still regularly holds services hidden away in the attic, as they have done for nearly 400 years.

5. THE NEW YORKER HOTEL, MANHATTAN

Luke Spencer

When the New Yorker Hotel opened on 8th Avenue and 34th Street in 1930, it was one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world. It came complete with its own in-house radio station, printing press, 50-chair barber salon, and a dining room that featured a retractable ice rink and skating show to entertain the guests. With 2500 rooms, it was promoted as a “vertical village.”

Underneath the lobby was a giant power plant, occupying a hidden floor around 80 feet below the sidewalk. The DC generating plant was so huge, it was powerful enough to provide electricity for a city of around 35,000 people. The plant was also so sophisticated that one of the hotel’s most famous long-term residents, the inventor Nikola Tesla, who lived there for the last decade of his life, is reported to have wandered down under the lobby to tinker with the plant and talk with the engineers. Remarkably, the plant is still down there, the switches for the old skating rink, coffee shop lights, and ballroom silent and unused. (Much of the plant was modernized in the 1960s, however, and switched over to the alternating current Tesla championed.)

6. WALT DISNEY WORLD, FLORIDA 

Observant visitors to the Magic Kingdom, upon disembarking from the monorail and heading toward Main Street, USA, may notice that they are walking on a slight incline. Indeed Cinderella’s Castle, which lies ahead, appears to be on a hill. In reality, the thousands of daily guests are unknowingly climbing over a vast hidden complex of secret floors, rooms, walkways, and tunnels. Disney World itself is built on top of an intricate hidden infrastructure that Cast Members consider the first floor. (The entire Magic Kingdom itself is technically the second and third floor.)

The story goes that Walt Disney was walking through the original Disneyland in California, and saw a Cast Member dressed as a cowboy walking from Frontierland through to Tomorrowland. Thinking that this would ruin the fantasy illusion for the visiting children, Disney World was designed on top of a hidden 9-acre system that would house walkways for Cast Members, trash collectors, kitchens, and break rooms. Today, tours are available for adults to see behind the curtain of the Magic Kingdom.

7. JOHN HANCOCK CENTER’S 44TH FLOOR, CHICAGO

The John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue is one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks. When it was completed in 1969, it was the tallest building in the world, second only to the Empire State Building in New York. But what many people don’t realize is that it is actually possible to live inside one of America’s most famous skyscrapers. The residential floors run from the 45th to the 92nd floor, but it is the 44th floor that holds all the secrets. Off-limits to all but the residents, the 44th floor is home to a vast 5200-square-foot supermarket. There is also a library, concierge service, a high-ceilinged sky lounge, and the highest swimming pool in the United States. During elections it even has its own polling station.

8. PLYMOUTH CHURCH OF THE PILGRIMS, BROOKLYN

Luke Spencer

Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights is a church steeped in history. One of the oldest Congregationalist Churches in New York, it was once presided over by the inspirational orator, minister, and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Described then as “the most famous man in America,” his fiery anti-slavery rhetoric was so renowned that Plymouth was the only church in New York visited by Abraham Lincoln. Beecher would hold mock slave auctions on the site, where parishioners would raise money to free slaves.

But the extraordinary events on the church floor covered a remarkable secret below it: a hidden floor, with the entrance through a door behind the organ. Dry, dusty chambers, brick archways, and tunnels are all that remain of one of the principal stops on the Underground Railroad. This hidden floor provided a sanctuary for so many escaping slaves that it became known in hushed voices as the Grand Central Depot. At great risk to themselves, the brave parishioners of Plymouth Church, led by Beecher, vowed to help as many slaves as possible. “I will both shelter them,” Beecher said, “conceal them or speed their flight.” The church is still vibrantly active today, and tours are available to visit what was once one of the most secret places in America.

Luke Spencer

9. THE OLD OPERATING THEATRE AND HERB GARRET, LONDON

Luke Spencer

Hidden in the roof of St. Thomas’ church in London is something as chilling as it is fascinating. Climbing the circular staircase of the old church to the garret (or attic) there lies one of the oldest known operating theaters still in existence. Once part of the ancient St. Thomas’ hospital, visitors today can crowd into the tiny theater and stand on steep wooden terraces overlooking the operating table. Here 19th-century medical students would watch the pre-eminent surgeons of the day practice their craft; one notable surgeon was said to be able to amputate and cauterize a limb in under a minute.

In the attic above the theater is the old herb apothecary and garden where herbs were stored and cured. Still well-stocked today, the Herb Garret resembles a Victorian cabinet of peculiar curiosities, featuring wormwood, poppies for opium, and a “bath of sheep heads for Woman suffering from unknown illness.” After St. Thomas relocated, the church garret was sealed up and forgotten for decades, until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Today operating as a museum, tours are available for those who want to experience the lancets, blades, and bone saws of over a hundred years ago. 

Luke Spencer

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